Why is my MacBook losing hard drive space so fast?
February 11, 2013 4:17 PM   Subscribe

Lately I have noticed that my MacBook (5 years old) seems to be losing hard drive space without me adding any additional files to it. What's going on?

I know that the amount of available space was down to dangerously low levels (~125 MB) so I cleared out a bunch of stuff and got it back up to 5.19 GB. Now it is down to 4.25 and in fact dropped from 4.75 to 4.25 a couple of minutes ago. What's going on? Could there be some sort of background program that's making it lose space? Obviously, I am a computer noob. Thank you.
posted by mlle valentine to Technology (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's virtual memory. Your computer uses some of its hard drive space for swapping less-used things from RAM.

Also, some applications have caches that will take up space as you use them.

You should also clear up more hard drive space than 5GB.
posted by MonsieurBon at 4:31 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I guess I just don't understand why the memory has gone down recently (over the last few weeks, and especially very steeply just now) when I don't think it did before. I have not recently downloaded anything to my computer, or started using any new applications.

I am working on clearing out more space.
posted by mlle valentine at 4:41 PM on February 11, 2013

Check your log files. My wifes laptop had some issue with the time machine backup failing and it was writing to the error log ever few seconds for...well weeks....which ended up leaving a HUGE log file. Rebooted to fix the error...cleared the log and had a ton of space back.

Also check out Disk Inventory X it will show you a graphical representation of your files based on size so you can see what is taking up the most space.
posted by Captain_Science at 4:50 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to have this issue with a Mac Mini. It seemed to be logs. Rebooting always fixed it. In the end I had to reset PRAM to keep it from happening over and over again.
posted by GuyZero at 5:07 PM on February 11, 2013

If rebooting fixes it, it's more likely to be swap files than log files.
posted by primethyme at 5:10 PM on February 11, 2013

Have you rebooted lately? MonsieurBon's hypothesis is testable by looking in the directory "/var/vm" which will normally be hidden. OS X vm files appear there. If you reboot, they will clear up (they can't be deleted manually). But the sudden jump from 4.75 to 4.25 is very suggestive of this being right, as they are multiples of 64MB and the fifth one it creates is 512MB. (They double in size after the second one up to 1GB. My old macbook that hasn't been rebooted since July has nearly 4GB of swap files there.)
posted by advil at 5:10 PM on February 11, 2013

Knowing the OS would be helpful. In Lion+ there's a sleep/startup image that can be large (as well as phone backups). Also, CUPS files can fill up.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:11 PM on February 11, 2013

long time listener first time caller...

this is probably a virtual memory issue, the Mac OS and the programs you use create large swap files that use hard drive space after the RAM is full.

If you haven't done any house cleaning lately with any number of free utilities (and you should), there are also large log files that can be cleared out.

For Hard drives to perform optimally, I leave at least 20% of the space free. Drives are cheap, it's an easy fix to double capacity in a Macbook.

you can buy a cheap external 7200rpm 2.5" Hard drive in a case, clone your current drive to it and swap the two in about 3 hours. If you want to punch it up a bit you can try an SSD. A 256GB OCZ Vertex 4 is about $200... you will be surprised what a difference it can make.
posted by bobdow at 5:34 PM on February 11, 2013

OS says version 10.5.8.

Did try rebooting to no avail. Will look into log and swap files. Thank you!
posted by mlle valentine at 5:37 PM on February 11, 2013

Long shot: Do you by any chance have MySQL Server installed? I experienced a mysterious shrinking disk space issue once that had me pulling my hair out, and it wound up being an obscure glitch where the server wasn't properly closing its log file pointers, which led to the file system thinking it was full of gigabytes of logs even after they had been archived and/or deleted. Restarting MySQL Server fixed the problem.
posted by usonian at 6:01 PM on February 11, 2013

Do you have a Dropbox account or something similar, that while it's syncing it's updating/adding files that were perhaps added from another device?
posted by xedrik at 7:06 PM on February 11, 2013

Try downloading Disk Inventory X or a similar program, and see if there are any large chunks of files you aren't expecting to be there. (This is also useful to see what you actually have on there, and whether anything can be deleted to free up some more space)

DaisyDisk is another program that gives similar information.
posted by dttocs at 8:07 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Disk Inventory X is great if you know what you're doing. But if you're the sort of user who lets your HD get down to 125MB, be very very careful with Disk Inventory X and ONLY delete things that you absolutely recognize, like "Aunt Percy's 90th Birthday Party.mov," etc.
posted by MonsieurBon at 9:43 PM on February 11, 2013

Do you have an external hard drive? If not, buy one and move all of your media onto it.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:10 PM on February 11, 2013

Don't the Unix-like OSs use permanent swap files and partitions? If that's the case with MacOS, the amount of disk space won't change depending on how much virtual memory is in use.
posted by gjc at 5:03 AM on February 12, 2013

I was able to clear out some space/do some housecleaning via OnyX and App Cleaner, and I checked out my Dropbox account.

Disk Inventory X tells me what I know which is that far too many of my files are music, but I have already deleted a good deal and am reluctant to axe more when it seems like the available memory is shrinking anyway. (Please don't keep telling me that it's bad that I let the space run down so low; it happened very suddenly and I already feel like an idiot.)

Rebooting did help to some degree the last time I tried though it did not seem to help before that.

Thank you to everyone for your suggestions.
posted by mlle valentine at 6:54 AM on February 12, 2013

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