If your heart sinks every time you open up your laptop—at the thought of sluggish performance, broken shortcuts, and a mess of files and folders—this is the guide for you. We’ll talk you through some of the ways you can tidy up your Windows or macOS laptop, and reduce those feelings of frustration.
Programs take up storage space on your laptop, mean more work for the operating system, and generally contribute to the computer’s clutter—so you definitely don’t want to be installing any more than you absolutely have to.
Try taking an audit of the applications you’ve got installed and remove any you no longer need. If there are programs you’re not sure about, uninstall them and see if you miss them. Remember a lot of apps can now be run through a browser—office suites, email clients, music players—which can help reduce the strain on your laptop’s resources.
To uninstall an app on macOS, you can either drag it down to the Trash from the Applications folder in Finder, or click and hold its icon in Launchpad, and then click the small cross that appears. Though please note: Many of Apple’s own built-in apps can’t be removed.
If you’re on a Windows device, you need to open up the Settings screen (via the cog icon on the Start menu), then choose Apps and Apps & features. Select the program you want to get rid of, then pick Uninstall to remove it from your system.
As with programs, having too many files hanging around makes life more difficult for your laptop’s OS and for you (when you need to hunt for a particular file). If you pay for storage on a service like OneDrive, iCloud, Google Drive or Dropbox, you can leave your files up in the cloud and remove the local copies—automatically downloading them only when you need them.
This is best for files you don’t access very often. It’s also a good idea to have another backup somewhere else—like an external hard drive or another computer—just in case something happens to the copies in the cloud.
For OneDrive on Windows, right-click the OneDrive icon in the Windows notification tray and choose Settings. Under the Settings tab you’ll see a Save space and download files as you use them option—turn it on to have your files stored on the web until you need them. You can manage this for individual files and folders in the OneDrive folder by right-clicking on them and choosing Clear space (online only) or Always keep on this device (online and offline).
In iCloud on macOS, open the Apple menu then choose About This Mac: Switch to the Storage tab, then choose Manage, and Store in iCloud to choose to keep the bulk of your photos, videos and messages on the web. You can also choose System Preferences and iCloud, then Options next to iCloud Drive to find the Optimize Mac Storage box—this means local copies of older files besides photos and messages are deleted when your Mac starts to run out of room.
Dropbox offers a similar sort of feature called Smart Sync, though it’s only available if you’re on a Professional or Business plan—it lets you pick out individual files and folders and set them as online only or local and online. However, on any Dropbox plan you can remove local folders once they’ve been synced to the cloud by choosing Sync and Selective Sync from the Preferences dialog.
Google Drive has this selective sync feature too—once a folder has been synced to the web, you can remove the local copy and keep the files online (though obviously then future changes aren’t synced). From the Preferences dialog, click Google Drive then Sync these folders only to make your picks.
If you’d prefer Google Drive only sync files when you absolutely need them you can sync using the Google Drive File Stream app instead. This will automatically upload any files you drop into the Drive folder, and download on demand when you need them.
Even after you’ve backed up and uploaded your important files to the cloud, you’re likely left with a load of junk that’s not doing much except taking up room. Maybe you’ve got a pile of stuff on your desktop gathering virtual dust: We’d recommend moving it all to a junk folder directly off your desktop for a quick clean-up, then going through the files and shortcuts in it and removing what you don’t need.
It’s likely quite a lot. Remember you can pin shortcuts for files and folders and programs to the Start menu or the Dock for easy access—you don’t need to have all this clutter taking up room on your desktop too. The Desktop Stacks feature introduced in macOS Mojave can help tidy things up too: Click a blank part of the desktop, then choose View from the menu and Use Stacks.
Both Windows and macOS give you a bit of a hand when it comes to getting rid of redundant junk files. On macOS, click the Apple menu then About This Mac, Storage, and Manage: If you choose Reduce Clutter from the next dialog you’ll see some suggestions for files you can get rid of.
Windows has a tool called Storage Sense: Open the Settings pane (via the cog icon on the Start menu), then choose System, Storage, and Configure Storage Sense to get it up and running. You can select what gets deleted, and how often, and even delete backups of previous versions of Windows if they’re taking up too much room on the local drive.
A variety of third-party tools will try and do the same job for you, though they vary in terms of their effectiveness and are often bundled with suspect extras. We still like the free Wise Disk Cleaner for Windows, which is thorough and safe to use, while CleanMyMac is a good bet for macOS—it’ll cost you $35 but it does the job in terms of keeping your Mac feeling like it did on day one (and you can test it for free).
Even with all these tools to help though, sometimes you just have to trawl through the files and folders that have built up on your local storage and delete the ones that aren’t needed anymore or way out of date. It’s a chore but put a podcast or a Spotify playlist on and it won’t take as long as you think.
There’s a lot to be said for taking the time to organize your digital stuff properly too: While we can’t offer you a magic shortcut for getting all your music, movies, and documents in the right place, we can tell you that the time you’ll save by having everything neatly arranged will be more than the time it takes you to do it.
We can give you a final quick tip for photos, if you’re using Google Photos or thinking about using it. If your laptop is wheezing under a mass of badly organized pictures and videos, upload them all to Google Photos (you can just drag and drop them into your browser): Google’s AI magic will sort them by date, tag all the people and pets in them, and even recognize and reject duplicates for you.
Don’t neglect your browser either, which is probably where you spend a lot of your computing time: If this particular piece of software becomes sluggish and slow, then it can absolutely have an impact on how pleasurable it is to use your laptop.
The same principles we’ve already talked about apply here too. For a start you want to remove all the extensions and add-ons you’re not actually using, and which are taking up precious system resources when your browser should just be concentrating on rendering webpages.
You can also try clearing out temporary files, cached files, and cookies from your browser: In Chrome you can open up the Settings option from the program menu, then click Advanced and Clear browsing data to get rid of junk data you don’t actually need (Cached images and files is a good option to select).
Firefox offers similar options if you go to Preferences from the browser menu and then choose Privacy & Security: Click Clear Data to get rid of cached data that isn’t essential to the browser’s operation, and if you want, cookies as well.
The process is a bit more involved in Safari, because first you need to enable the Develop menu: Open the Safari menu, then choose Preferences, and tick Show Develop menu in menu bar under Advanced. Open that menu, and you’ll find an Empty Caches button on it. Cookies and other website data can be managed via Manage Website Data under Privacy in the Preferences pane.
Finally, the brand new version of Microsoft Edge keeps cache and cookie options under the Settings entry on the app menu: Click Privacy and services, then Clear cookies, history, passwords, and more to find the options you need to do a bit of a browser spring clean. Some sites might load slightly slower on the next visit or ask you to sign in again, but it’s worth it to keep on top of the bloat building up in your browser.