HOWTO: Clone Your Hard Drive

Category: Backup , Hard-Drives

To clone a hard drive means to make an exact copy of it. This is more than simply backing up data files; even hidden, protected operating system files are copied in a clone operation, and the exact position of every file on the original drive is preserved. Hard drive cloning (also called imaging) is useful for backup, disaster recovery, and other applications. Read on to learn more...

How To Clone a Hard Drive

A hard drive clone or image is often stored as a single, huge file called a "disk image" file. Think of it as a snapshot of your hard drive. A disk image can be stored on a hard drive, or offline media such as DVDs. It can be stored on a network drive, a web server, or in cloud storage. Wherever the disk image is stored, having access to the whole disk image or just individual files in it is an excellent safety net against hard drive crashes.

The "rescue disk" that comes with some computers is a clone of the computer's hard drive as it was at the time it was shipped by the manufacturer. Restoring the contents of the rescue disk returns the hard drive to its factory-new state. Of course, all your personal settings; user-installed software; and personal data files are not restored. But at least you have a working system that's not fouled up with malware or registry errors.
Hard Drive Cloning

This is one good reason to make your own backup image copy every now and then. If something goes wrong with your hard drive, a clone copy (disk image) can restore its exact contents at a certain point in time to the same or another hard drive.

Hard disk cloning software (disk imaging software) includes its own minimal operating system. You reboot your computer from the cloning software CD (or other external media). This is necessary because the cloning software cannot copy operating system files on the hard drive while they are in use, and because you want the hard drive's contents completely "at rest" when you take a snapshot of it.

Likewise, when restoring data from a clone of a hard drive you will boot from the cloning software CD. Then, with the minimal operating system and cloning software running in RAM, you can transfer data from the disk image to the hard drive without running into in-use files that cannot be overwritten.

You can use disk cloning to transfer all of your hard drive's contents to a completely different computer (not just a new drive in the same computer). But to prevent unauthorized copying of the operating system, Windows may refuse to start, if it detects that the hardware signature of the computer has changed. This can also happen if you swap out other hardware components, such as RAM memory or the motherboard. To overcome this difficulty you can re-activate Windows with the help of Microsoft. This tutorial explains the process.

Do I Still Need Backup Software?

Disk cloning or imaging is a form of backup, but it's kind of a brute force approach. Because it takes everything from your drive and rolls it up into one big ball, it doesn't allow for incremental backups. Individual files cannot be added to, deleted from or replaced inside the image. And depending on your imaging software, it might not allow you to extract a single file from the image. An image file is meant to be restored in full.

My suggestion is to do both imaging and regular backups. One strategy might be to create an image file once a month, and stash it on an external drive. Delete the older images, so that you always have three months, six months, or a year's worth of images that can be restored if needed. You might be happy keeping just one month, and deleting the previous image each time you make a new one.

Along with that, use backup software to make regular incremental backups, which consume less storage space, and allow you to quickly restore a backup copy of a single file of folder. See my Free Backup Software Options if you need help choosing one.

Disk Imaging Software

Windows disk cloning software offerings include Macrium Reflect (free); Microsoft Image Backup (part of Windows 7); and Paragon Drive Copy ($39.95); and ShadowProtect ($89.95). Although it's the most expensive of those offerings, ShadowProtect has an interesting feature called VirtualBoot, which allows you to right-click a backup image and boot it as a virtual machine.

If you're running Mac OS X, check out these disk imaging software options: Apple Software Restore and Disk Utility (both included with OS X); CopyCatX ($49.95); and Synchronize! Pro X ($99.95).

For Linux users, the free and open-source Clonezilla is a good option.

Have you ever cloned your hard drive? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "HOWTO: Clone Your Hard Drive"

(See all 47 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Richard Remmele
11 Aug 2013

I had an experience with Acronis and I don't know if it would happen also with others.

I had a power supply failure, the proprietory power supply was very expensive. I had another computer, so I tried to load the Acronis Image on that computer which would not either load or work (it was a long time ago).

Somehow I finally did get it to load (again, I don't remember how I did it) but then I got a reminder from Microsoft that I didn't have a valid Vista license.

So I never used Acronis again. Any comments?

Posted by:

Gene De Lorenzo
11 Aug 2013

I've been using Acronis True Image software for over 5 years with amazingly consistent results. I've made viable images of partial or complete partitions with Windows running, and have used those images to restore files or partitions. Imaging with Windows running slows the imaging process down somewhat, but the results are fine and the process is less cumbersome than to run off the Acronis boot disk. I would also add that I've only had two or three images fail in all this time using this method. Full imaging is the fastest and most effective backup method available for the PC.

Posted by:

12 Aug 2013

I've used EaseUS todo also to clone my drives. I haven't switched them out to see if they actually work or not but the process was fairly quick, 8 hours.

Posted by:

12 Aug 2013

Nice article Cloning saves a lot of time if your hard drive crashes. I have been using CASPER for years and it has worked well... as long as you close all programs and shut off (disable) the anti virus and firewall before cloning (particularly any Norton software)Casper is inexpensive and user friendly. One could mirror image to an internal or external drive (as long as it the same size or larger , (or big enough to keep all your programs and operating system.) and boot directly from the external (or internal) hard drive that you placed the mirror image on. You could also use the mirror image drive to reformat and place the mirror imaged data and OS back onto the original hard drive. It's a lot better, quicker and simpler that doing disk back ups of just your files or some programs. . and since you can boot from the drive there is no need for cd's. Casper 7.0 also has boot capabilities as well a smart start ability And Casper 8.0 is suitable for windows 8

Posted by:

12 Aug 2013

I have been imaging my laptops for several years. My son (IT specialist) gave me a Gentoo image software disc which I put in & fill in the new date & let it run. It creates a bootable 100% image of the laptop although I've never had to use the image. My son uses them all the time being a hardware specialist.

Older XPsp3 laptop took 5hrs cos it was pretty full. Newer win7 'fast as all get out' laptop with 100Gb of data on it takes about 2.5hrs to image. That is stored on an external hard drive & I have since purchased a high speed connection external hard drive for the next image so it should take even less time.

I also do a standard back up that stays on the internal HD for purposes of doing a roll back plus I make another win7 standard image to an external hard drive. I always do house keeping before imaging, ie do more thorough check for malware etc, check for fragmentation, get rid of redundant files, clean the registry etc. I do have a small problem in that the internally stored backup gets duplicated during the image which adds unnecessary volume. But the x-hds are 2Tb so plenty of room.

Posted by:

12 Aug 2013

Freeware for Windows:

Posted by:

12 Aug 2013

I've use the built-in system image in Windows 7 ever since I got my Win7 Asus laptop. I use it to backup my system image once a week. There are settings to keep only recent image copies if necessary. I create system images on both my laptop and desktop machine (both Asus).

I actually tried restoration from the system image with great results. Of course, you need to make the system repair disk for Win7 as well. It boots the system and looks for the system image, which I store on an external 2TB USB drive.

The system image took just 25 minutes from start to finish. The only file it missed was a Windows update that was installed after the last image was recorded. (BTW, that's reason enough to make your SI more than once or twice a year.

I do perform nightly data back-ups to the external as well. And since I'm a freelance writer, I backup online to SpiderOak every 30 minutes.

Sounds like a lot, but I haven't lost a single file in over 15 years. I can't afford to.


Posted by:

Rich OBrien
12 Aug 2013

The best drive partition cloning software is Casper - like Ghost only friendlier. I've used Casper every day for years. Unlike the other cloning software, Casper conveniently runs in the background to create a bootable clone of your Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 or Windows 8 operating system WHILE you are running Windows and using your computer to do other things. It is best to use two identical hard drives but not essential. I have four hard drives made by the same company. Three will boot. The newest one won't boot even though it is 500 GB like my primary drive and contains the cloned image of my boot partition. It is a mystery. I also have a bunch of old parallel drives that slide in and out of my computer like drawers. They wouldn't boot and I thought that was reasonable because my boot drives were all new serial hard drives while my removable drives were all old parallel drives. Then I discovered in MiniTool Partition Wizard that the partition wasn't set to Primary and Active. Once I used Partition Wizard to correct this setting, all boot partitions on my old parallel drives can now boot into Windows. One other thing. For security, put your data on a second partition away from the bootable Windows partition. Casper can intelligently backup a 100 GB partition containing data in a couple of minutes by recognizing and copying only the files that are new or that have changed. Backup a 100 GB drive with other software and it is likely to take hours.

Posted by:

14 Aug 2013

I've used Acronis True Image for over a decade, and since Windows Vista, have never had a problem loading a bootable image to another system. Operating system files are copied exactly while Windows is running. The problem is drivers, not operating system files. Windows XP and older were terrible about finding and using correct drivers to boot. Every Microsoft operating system since XP handles the drivers issues very well.

Having said all that, Acronis pushes too hard for yearly upgrades - which often are worthless. Images made from one version won't work on another, so defeats the purpose of a 2 year old image. I wouldn't recommend anyone to Acronis for those reasons only, but the products work.

Posted by:

16 Aug 2013

I ever use the Microsoft WAIK to clone Windows Vista OS.

This software can help you to install, customize and deploy Windows Vista in many computers through network. Technically, you can use Microsoft WAIK to create an answer file for unattended Windows installation, create Windows PE bootable CD and capture Windows image using imageX. You also can use imageX to deploy Windows image into others computers in you network environment.

For computer technician that need to manage many computers in the lab, this software is for you. Even, Norton Ghost is easier to be used than WAIK, but for me I prefer to use WAIK because it's FREE. Why we want to spend money to pay for IMAGE BACKUP SOFTWARE if we can get the another for FREE OF CHARGE.

Visit my blog at

Posted by:

John Barfoot
22 Aug 2013

I clone my hard drives periodically, using a dedicated "copy station" bit of hardware. The downside is that you need another hard drive and you need to take the original disk out of the machine to make the copy. The hardware only works with SATA disks including Laptop SATA drives.

Posted by:

30 Sep 2013

I have used Acronis for many, many years. If you have a WD drive go to the WD website - it is free. If you use Seagate go to the Seagate - it is free. All you need is one WD, or one Seagate drive to use either of their (different) versions of Acronis. I always have two back-ups (at least once a month back-up) for each of my 4 desk tops. Hard drives are so cheap!! I have never had to worry about a crashed drive since.

Posted by:

10 Oct 2013

great freeware program for windows that I've used for years: DriveImageXML

Posted by:

walter hellmig
04 Dec 2013

I am cloning daily with the free software easeUS running XP Pro. Never any problems, no need for a different operating system.

Posted by:

Bill D
30 Dec 2013

Bob; Are there any Internet Providers that give UNLIMITED INTERNET Service ???

The best deal i have seen is 250GB for $25 a month for the first 6 months. I need around 500gb per month so I can watch Netflix and Hulu Movies as much as i want plus use the Internet for Browsing , and Emails and P to P groups.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Verizon FIOS service is advertised as "unlimited" and for most purposes it is. They'll complain if you use more than 10 TERAbytes per month. (That's 10,000 GB)

Posted by:

05 Jan 2014

Umm - CloneZilla (and I would hazard a guess most cloning software) doesn't care what operating system you use. In your article you said "for Linux users" - but I'm positive that a Linux user could use one of the other offerings and I know for certain that a Windows user can use CloneZilla.

Posted by:

Dennis E
28 Jan 2014

I've used Acronis True Image for years with very few problems.

No matter which imaging software you use, you need more than one image, just in case the latest one doesn't work. Erasing the old images is just foolish. You never know when you might need some or all of those old files. Keeping one image from a year ago and the last three months (imaging monthly) should suffice.

One trick that nobody mentioned is keeping the disk image within a reasonable size. How many 100GB images can you save, and do you really need to save movies and videos? Partition the C: drive to 100GB or smaller, but keep large files like videos and movies on a separate partition. I've never met an individual user (not professional) that needs more than 30GB on the C: drive. But twice the size of your normal amount of storage space gives you plenty of room on the C: drive, or about 90 - 110 GB size of the C: partition is plenty for most people.

I use the first day of each month to do maintenance and make an image of the C: drive. First, I move any large files to the D: drive. I then run C-Cleaner to get rid of all the junk files then optimize the disk with Auslogics Defrag; usually takes ten minutes. With only 30GB on the C: drive, it only takes 15 minutes to create the image with Acronis True Image.

Posted by:

29 Jun 2014

I have been using Macrium to clone my laptop's 1tb hd (windows 8.1). I do this once a week and in the interim, I use Crashplan to do incremental data backups.

Both HDs are identical size, mfr and model. I am trying to address a situation where the laptop hd fails and I just slide out the dead one and insert the clone.

I've never actually tried to do this yet. Somebody please tell that this will work.

Posted by:

Dave munger
25 Dec 2014

It may or may not have been mentioned but Seagate drives once came with Seagate Disc Wizzard on a CD. I've used it to clone my HDD a few times. When my drive became unusable later on I just replaced it with the cloned drive and all was fine although of course I had to update some files from a flash drive from after the date I cloned the new drive. Not so much work though.

Posted by:

07 May 2018

Macrium Clone failed-read failed-13-permission denied-32. After getting this message twice, I used AOMEI Free clone software and it worked.

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