There are times when nothing is more useful than a dumb copy of your drive. An exact copy of your data, safely stored, offers several benefits, including quick migration to a new hard drive or SSD.
If you are new to the concept of cloning, or creating duplicate images of your drives, then read on and see why this should be part of your backup strategy. We’ll first take a brief look at what cloning is, its advantages, and then move straight onto how to easily clone your drives in Windows 10.
There are several ways to accomplish this, so let’s jump right in.
Difference between Cloning and Imaging
Let’s get our parlance sorted first. Most people think that cloning is same as imaging a drive. And while essentially, both processes are same, there are minor difference between them, as you will find out below.
Cloning is, obviously, creating an exact copy of a drive.
Think of this as a brute-force approach to backups, instead of the more nuanced notion of selectively backing up certain files and folders. You end up with an exact bit-to-bit copy of your chosen drive, including partitions and the files and data necessary to boot up a system from it.
Imaging, on the other hand, is the process of copying an entire drive or partition to an image file stored elsewhere. Once you write a drive image to another drive, you have accomplished the same cloned state, just with an added step.
In other words, the only major difference between cloning and imaging is the destination.
Cloning as a Backup Strategy
These days, most backup strategies usually ignore boot drives. That is because the general OS files are restored with a quick reinstall, while user folders store the configuration and important files.
Unix-based operating systems nailed this aspect of separating user files from the OS a long time ago, storing all the system files and data in a dedicated home folder. This approach allows users to nuke the operating system from orbit, reinstall and find their user and configuration back there.
Windows followed suit, with Windows 2000 introducing something similar. The more recent versions of the Microsoft operating systems further improved things along the way by separating OS and user files. Yet annoyingly, this feature in Windows is a mishmash of things.
Truth be told, imaging is no longer well regarded as a way of backing up data these days — particularly if you can’t use an incremental system to update your images and clones along the way.
That said, there are still arguments for running clone operations on your PC.
The Benefits of Cloning
Now that we know that both hard disk and partitions can either be backed up (as an image), or duplicated (as a clone), you may be wondering what computing benefits does this provide. Can it improve your productivity? Or increase reliability of your data storage?
Making an exact replica of your current computer system on a different disk or drive offers several benefits that make the process worth the effort and time it takes to complete.
- Complete machine backup: Having a disk clone is the best way of creating a full backup of your computer. A cloned copy of Windows is excellent for that added peace of mind if something goes wrong.
- Hard drive upgrades: Cloning your hard drive makes hard drive or SSD upgrades easier and way faster, as you will not have to install the system or applications again on your new drive. You can simply use the backup to restore your Windows environment there.
- Full data recovery: You can also make your cloned disk bootable. This will allow you to easily restore your OS and apps when your machine ends up crashing by booting into your cloned image.
- Data transfer: Another welcome benefit of cloning is that it offers a quick and streamlined way of transferring data between machines. You just deploy your cloned environment on a new PC and get up and running in just a few clicks.
No wonder then, that despite the age of cloud, system cloning still remains a powerful prospect. Individually backing up files is always worth it, but nothing can beat a full system clone.
How to Clone drives in Windows 10?
So, let’s get down to business. How can you clone your drives in Windows 10? Microsoft has never included a tool in the operating system that can be used to make ditto copies of your drives — you need special software or hardware duplicators to achieve this.
That said, there is a utility in the OS that can be used to copy the contents of your hard drive to another, specified location. Windows System Image helps you create a system image to the location of your choice, but many consider the feature too basic and unappealing.
The world of software offers you a host of other options to choose from, including a standout open source solution. Many of these programs offer their own unique set of features, and paid ones are even designed for use in enterprise scenarios.
Programs like Paragon Drive Copy and Acronis Disk Director pack in everything you would expect in modern software, including wizards to guide you, and cloning to a smaller capacity disk by excluding files if you don’t have enough space. They even support cloning to virtual machines.
For the sake of completeness, we’ll cover system imaging. But we’re going to steer you away from it, and also showcase two other quality products to accomplish the task.
Using in-built Solution
Let’s kick things off by looking at the built-in Windows solution. The tool goes by the name of Windows System Image, and it is a no-frills, no-thrills approach to cloning. But even this simple and basic utility has an interesting bit of a history behind it.
Microsoft tried to push people away from system images when it introduced Windows 8, for good reason some may say. Backup and Restore, a popular Windows 7 feature was unceremoniously killed off in the modern version of the operating system. It had originally made its debut in Windows Vista, but was no longer available to users when they upgraded to Windows 8.
Goes without saying, a lot of commotion ensued.
After much moaning, Microsoft restored the system in Windows 8.1. And in Windows 10, it currently remains tucked away in the Control Panel. You can find it in the System and Security section, listed as Backup and Restore (Windows 7).
The tool certainly has seen better days, must be said.
In its favor, this is still a straightforward utility that does what it says on the tin. It runs in the background using shadow copy, and does its job. But its limitations are many — including a lethal one where you can run into issues when restoring images made under different versions of Windows. Surprising as this sounds, it is very much true.
You also get minimal options with Windows System Image.
For example, the tool only images the entire system drive, and you can’t restore individual files. It only allows one image, and doesn’t support incremental backups. Backups are only made up to the root of a selected backup drive. And they take a long time to run, an awful long time.
To its credit, creating a disk image with Microsoft System Image is pretty easy. You need a separate internal drive, a spare external drive, a network location, or a big stack of DVDs to get started.
Have these handy? Good, you’re almost there.
Open the tool, and let it scan for what it considers viable backup targets — an external hard drive or a network share is the best for this. If it finds things in place, it will provide you with an estimate of the space requirement. You can start the backup and it will image your drive in the background.
If the Microsoft tool is limited and slow, then you have an open source option that is expansive and exhaustive. A long-standing industry tool that has been in development since 2007, and one that goes by the name of Clonezilla.
And although this tool is jam packed with features and options, we’re a little hesitant to recommend it. Because, even though Clonezilla is a lot more flexible than Windows Imaging, and allows you absolute control over what is imaged and how it is stored, it is far less convenient.
You have to boot into a live disc, for starters. And since Clonezilla has its root in Linux, it is a more complex to use with its text-based interfaces and indecipherable drive names. Things are not helped by the fact that this program is not the prettiest thing to look at — there is no GUI.
The flipside is that it is super flexible, and free to use anywhere and on anything.
Clonezilla offers enterprise-class disk imaging and restore features, with support for more than 20 filesystems over 6 operating system types. You also get options like sector-to-sector copy for operating systems that it doesn’t support. Also included is a client-server mode, as well as full encryption of its images.
Sounds intimidating? It is!
Ultimately, while this is not exactly a tool for beginners, you can find your way around it if you are experienced with cloning and imaging. Once run through its menu systems, you will learn what is important and what you can safely ignore.
To get started, you will need to grab the ISO image from the Clonezilla website. Use this to create a live disc OS by writing to either a CD, DVD or a USB flash drive, and then booting your system off that.
To avoid potential UEFI boot issues on newer systems, you might want to grab the Ubuntu based build called Alternative Stable. It weighs in at around 220 MB.
A big advantage of Clonezilla is that the images you create are always compatible. This makes restoration terribly effortless, and you can get easily get a fresh ISO to boot from. The cloned images can also be stored anywhere, even in the cloud.
Using Macrium Reflect
If the default Windows tool and the Clonezilla solution are not your cup of tea, then you probably want something that is middle of the road. A program that offers you a powerful enough feature set, but with a user interface that makes a lot more sense to the average user.
These are solid free imaging tools, also doubling up as excellent commercial solutions. If you are after a free option, then Macrium Reflect Free is probably your best bet here. It has the ability to back up your full boot drive — including boot data, Windows, along with recovery partitions — in a simple fashion.
To top it off, the tool also supports differential backups, which means that once the main imaging is finished, further backups will take much less time. This is very important if you are cloning your drives for backup purposes.
And unlike Clonezilla that has to be run off a bootable device, Macrium Reflect Free lets you create a recovery disk. This comes in very handy if your system fails to boot. In other words, you get differential backups, shadow copy and a rescue environment, all in one fine software.
Usage is about as easy as it gets.
An initial 5 MB installer download is followed by the main download of about 100 MB, and you are then up and running. The UI is instantly familiar, and it’s hard to go wrong once you have a basic idea of what you want to do with Macrium Reflect Free.
The only variable that you need to take care of is the fact that Windows 10, 8.1, 8, 7, Vista, and XP all need different versions to work. This can make things a little complicated when you are restoring older versions. But other than that, there is much to like here in this program.
Migrating to SSD
Regular cloning is one thing, but there are a couple of considerations to take into account when mirroring your drive to a solid-state drive. Drive migration is basically just cloning, or in other words, drive-to-drive imaging.
And while copying your documents and other files is easy enough, moving around your system files can be off-putting. This is where a drive cloning software comes into play.
Many vendors bundle cloning software alongside their SSDs, while others have cooked up dedicated programs to help you clone and migrate your system. The Samsung Magician tool being an example here that simplifies the process.
There are a few points worth mentioning here.
For starters, the new drive has to be as large as the original drive, at least in terms of space. Use the Windows Disk Management console to manage your partitions if you have to, or delete files if you need to make room. Power down your system, and attach the new drive to which you want to migrate, and follow the instructions on your cloning software.
It’s never a bad idea to remove any unnecessary drives to avoid wiping them by mistake.
Duplicating you drives is an endeavor that always pays off in the end. While the set up may initially be intimidating, the process may take time to complete, nothing beats the peace of mind you get when you have copied Windows, all your apps, and all your important files to a safe location.
And that’s without even talking about using cloning to migrate to a new hard drive or SSD that you just popped in your system.
Shawn is a WindowsChimp Staff writer, who is a fan of making lists and does the same on this site. He has a Contemporary Writing degree and been in technology niche since last 3 years.