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How Much Laptop Storage Do You Really Need?

More storage means more money. But you also definitely don't want to buy a laptop with too little storage.

drive space

When buying a laptop, one of the most important decisions you have to make is figuring out how much internal storage you need. Depending on the amount, it can drive up the price of the laptop considerably. For instance, Apple’s latest MacBook Air can be configured with either 256GB or 512GB of internal storage, and if you get the higher-capacity model that’s going to cost you an extra $200 — that’s a lot. Microsoft’s Surface Laptops, meanwhile, come in 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB varieties.

So, how much storage do you really need? There is no perfect answer, of course. But there are some handy rules of thumb and wrinkles to know about.

One of the most important things to know is that there's a difference between the amount of usable storage space on a laptop and the amount advertised — it's actually much less. There are two reasons for this:

First, your laptop's operating system takes up a good chuck of space right out of the box; the latest version of macOS, (Monterey) takes up a little more than 12GB, for example, while the latest version of Windows 10 takes up about 15GB.

And second, most laptop manufacturers deal in specs that are base-10 numbers instead of the less intuitive base-2 numbers computers actually use, meaning hard drive capacities are always slightly lower than they are rated to be. (According to Lifewire, for each gigabyte that you think your hard drive has, it has about 70.3 megabytes less of disk space. Using a disk size calculator, and subtracting an extra 20GB for operating system to be on the safe side, you’ll find that “128GB” is more like 99GB, “256GB” is more like 218GB, and “512GB” is more like 456GB.)

With that in mind, we generally recommend upgrading to 256GB to give yourself a little breathing room, though 512 is probably overkill for normal use cases.

The good news is that most manufactures are increasing the amount of base storage they give laptops without increasing the starting price. Apple’s M1 MacBook Air and 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro both start with a base SSD storage of 256GB — twice as much as some previous-generations — and still cost the same.

How to check your current laptop's storage

For a better idea of your actual, personal usage, a good place to start is to check how much storage of your current laptop you are using.

• On a Mac: click on the Apple logo in the top left corner > select "About this Mac" > select "Storage."

On a PC: click the Start button > select "File Explorer" > select "This PC."

While you might be able to get by on 128GB, it’s probably better to be safe than sorry if you can afford it. It’s generally hard to add space into a laptop, and while you can pick up an external drive to use as backup or even day-to-day storage, it’s going to add bulk to your machine and friction to your workflow.

The reality is that 256GB of internal storage is probably going to be plenty enough for most people who don’t already have (or anticipate having) a ton of locally stored photos, video, video games, or music that can’t either be easily offloaded into the cloud, or to a backup drive. If you don’t immediately feel cramped looking at the number “256,” it’s probably spacious enough for your needs.

How to get more storage for your current laptop

Of course, you don't have to buy a new laptop to get more storage. There are a few ways to beat the system:

Free up space: The quickest and cheapest thing you can do is free up space on your current laptop by deleting files and uninstalling programs and apps that you aren't using. And then when you're done go into your Recycle Bin (on Windows) or Trash (on macOS) and empty it so that your deleted things are truly deleted. (You can read our guide to learn more.)

Buy an external hard drive: If you don't want to delete anything, you can add more storage space by buying an external hard drive and connecting it to your computer via USB. You can get an excellent external hard drive by a trusted brand — like Western Digital, Seagate or Lacie — and add anywhere from 2TB (usually costs around $60) to 12TB of storage (usually costs around $300).

Use a cloud-based storage service: Instead of buying an external hard drive, you're other option is to subscribe to a cloud-based storage service like OneDrive (for Windows users), iCloud (for Apple users) or Google Drive (for people who use Google's services). The advantage of a cloud-based solution is that use can quickly backup your computer (or free up space) and access your files over any device. Most cloud-based solutions cost a small monthly free.

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