Cloning a Windows Hard Drive

Here’s a cool trick …

After having had to install Windows, Office and his work software several times due to hardware problems, Andrew Whitehouse wonders if it would be simpler just to clone his laptop’s hard drive

After replacing my work laptop, I had to reinstall Windows 7 not
once but several times. (The PC was replaced under warranty and seems
OK now.) Given the time taken to install Windows, Microsoft Office and
a load of specialised stuff I use for work, I wonder if I should be
cloning the whole hard drive on a regular basis. To give it a chance,
I would use the same make (WD) and their software. Is this completely

Andrew Whitehouse

There are two ways to back up Windows and other operating systems. The traditional way is to copy all the files to a separate hard drive, and the slightly newer method is to make a bit-by-bit copy or “clone” of the whole hard drive. Copying could cause problems because Windows would lock and refuse to copy any of the files it was using, and when Norton Ghost appeared shortly after Windows 95, this provided a simple and very quick way for users to clone and restore their drives. Later, Acronis software became popular for the same purpose. It’s somewhat easier to clone Windows if you do it under the control of a different operating system, typically Linux, or a separate server.

Today, many large companies have their own Windows “disk images”, which they copy to new PCs. This enables them to get Windows and all their corporate software installed in the time it takes to copy the image to the hard drive. The same idea is used by many cybercafes and some libraries and schools: instead of trying to clean up an operating system that may have been compromised or abused, they simply start each day with a fresh image. Microsoft provides free Windows Steady State software for this purpose, but there are commercial alternatives such as Faronics’ Deep Freeze and Fortres’ Clean Slate.

The “disk image” or snapshot approach is ideal if you want to return a system to a known state. As well as being useful for schools and libraries, it’s good for journalists who test a lot of software or work with malware, and I’m sure at least a few home users do the same thing with the computers their kids use. For most users, periodic or continuous file-based back-ups are probably still the best approach. However, the trend is towards back-up software that does both.

If you’re paying for software, Acronis True Image Home 2011 is probably still the system of choice. The latest version can do disk imaging. file backups, and full, incremental and differential backups. There is also a free version for your Western Digital hard drive: Acronis True Image WD Edition Software.

There are also some good free disk clone programs including Paragon Backup and Recovery Free and PING (Partimage Is Not Ghost). (Perhaps I should confess to using Clonezilla from a GParted Live Linux CD, but if you don’t already know about this program, you probably shouldn’t be using it.)

Since you are fortunate enough to be using Windows 7, however, you can use the built-in Windows Backup and Restore program. This is not the most sophisticated software, but it seems to be reliable and it is very easy to use. If you take the brain-free option of letting it do whatever it likes, it will make both a file-level copy and a clone of your hard drive. The minor limitations are that it will always back up the system partition whether you like it or not, and that it only works with NTFS drives.

If you have a few PCs, you could also consider buying a Windows Home Server. This is sold as a network storage (NAS) device and a media server, but it will also automatically back up several Windows PCs and Macs. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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