Drive cloning in Windows 10 with free tools

In workplace practice, disk cloning supports multiple valuable uses. Learn how to clone a drive in Windows 10 using two free tools.

microsoft drive cloning primary

Cloning a drive comes in handy for a variety of reasons, but primarily when you want to replace one drive on a PC with another that is either bigger or faster than the original drive, if not both.

Such a cloning operation becomes critical on Windows PCs when the drive to be replaced is the boot/system drive, meaning it contains the files used to boot up the machine when it's starting up or restarting, as well the operating system files used to run Windows itself. It’s critical because its proper outcome is a machine that boots and runs when that operation is complete, the old drive removed, and the new drive put in its place.

About disk cloning

By definition, disk cloning means creating a true and faithful copy of one computer storage device onto another. The name comes from a time when this meant a spinning hard disk of some kind. But today, with solid-state disks (SSDs) as common as hard disks (HDs), this can mean copying the contents of one storage device onto another storage device, where both source and target can be either an HD or an SSD. In fact, it's still often the case that the source is an HD and the target an SSD when a boot/system disk is the focus for cloning, because of the improved performance that such a changeover invariably delivers.

A cloning operation usually proceeds in one of two ways:

1. Files are copied from the source disk directly to the target disk.

2. The contents of the source disk get written into an image file, and that image file is then used to write those contents to the target disk.

Though the second approach takes a bit longer and requires special software, it has become the preferred approach to disk cloning for a variety of reasons. First among these is that as long as the disk image is available, problems with the target drive (or the systems involved in writing to that drive) won't prevent the cloning operation from completing (as soon as issues in writing to the target get resolved).

What is disk cloning good for?

In workplace practice, disk cloning supports multiple valuable uses, including the following:

  • Storage device upgrade: Moving the contents of an older disk to a newer one, usually for improved performance, increased capacity, or both.
  • Full system backup: Cloning one drive to an identical device creates an easy, drop-in replacement for the original if it becomes damaged, corrupted or otherwise unusable.
  • System wipe and restore: Sometimes, it makes sense simply to blow away the contents of a disk and replace it with a pristine, clean copy of the OS and applications. This is a common technique for completely removing virus or malware infections, for example. Here, the image created to make a clone is actually used to rebuild the original disk.
  • Provisioning new computers: This is how computer makers like Acer, Dell, HP and others send desktop, notebook and tablet PCs out the door. A high-speed cloning setup cranks out copies of a reference image for the target PC on individual drives that, when inserted into a PC, are ready to be turned on and run for their new owners.
  • Passing a computer to another user: By restoring an image created before a user logs into the system for the first time, a computer can be restored to its factory default (or first boot-up) state. This is a preferred method for preparing a machine for sale, or to pass it from one user to another.

How to clone a drive in Windows 10

Given the prevalence of using imaging for cloning as well as backup and recovery, the overall process is to create an image of the disk to be cloned, and then restore that image to a different drive. I recommend using one of two free tools for drive cloning on Windows 10, though there are countless options for this task (and most good backup programs, such as Acronis, ToDo and AOMEI Backupper, can also clone drives as well):

  • Macrium Reflect Free: The freeware (and only slightly reduced functionality) version of the well-known and respected Macrium Reflect offers a built-in disk cloning function among its arsenal of capabilities. These also include a bootable Windows PE (pre-installation environment) partition written to boot/system drives so the PC can boot into a restore operation even if Windows won't run.
  • Clonezilla Live: This free and open source software package supports bare metal backup and recovery, as well as partition management, plus disk imaging and cloning capabilities. The Live version is intended for single machine backup, restore, imaging and cloning. Another version, Clonezilla SE (Server Edition) is for larger-scale deployments and operations. Clonezilla saves and restores only used disk blocks, so it also works surprisingly quickly.

Working with Macrium Reflect

Firing off a disk cloning operation in Macrium Reflect is as simple as firing up the application, selecting the source drive, and then clicking a button labeled "Clone this disk…" (lower left in the image below).

macrium clone Ed Tittel

Simply click "Clone this disk..." to get things underway.

Next, of course, one must click a destination drive. For this example, I chose an external, USB-attached 2TB Samsung SpinPoint I keep around for testing purposes.

mac clone Ed Tittel

With source and target selected, click "Next" to clone one to the other.

You'll be asked if you want to schedule a repeat for this activity. If so, the Macrium help files will guide you through this process. For this example, we skip ahead by clicking "Next" again. Macrium offers up a summary screen of the contents of the cloned drive (a list of partitions from the source to be written to the target). Click "Finish" to carry on, then click "Continue" to replace the current contents of the source drive with the contents of the target. This process took about 45 minutes to complete for all four partitions shown, but I chose a USB 2.0 attached hard disk for the clone target (a faster connection would complete much more quickly). That's it!

Working with Clonezilla Live

Using Clonezilla live means leaving the Windows environment to run the program. It operates within its own runtime environment, which is based on Linux and operates inside a character mode interface.

clonezilla image Ed Tittel

Choose "device-device" for direct drive cloning.

Clonezilla will actually let you clone one drive directly to another without writing an image in between, or first write an image, then copy that image to the target drive. offers a good tutorial on how to use the software to clone a drive: It's entitled "How to Use Clonezilla" and is worth consulting. Other good references include Richard Lloyd's YouTube tutorial entitled "Clonezilla Disk Imaging and Cloning Utility Live USB Boot Disk Tutorial," and Clonezilla’s own step-by-step instructions entitled "Disk to disk clone."

The process takes about 15 steps to complete and is straightforward, especially if you can follow along with one of the preceding resources on another screen. It runs about 33 percent faster than Macrium Reflect on the same hardware, same source and target drives. Good stuff!

The UEFI wrinkle!?

Occasionally, on some computers that boot using the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), cloning boot/system drives can go awry. Such a situation will make itself immediately apparent when you try to boot from the destination disk and get a message that reads something like "Unable to boot" or "Unable to find operating system." If this happens to you, you may need to switch to a different commercial tool to perform the drive cloning task. That tool comes from Paragon Software and is called Migrate OS to SSD.

A single-use license costs $20, and the tool will prevent issues that can occur when the EFI boot sector (which shows up as Partition 2 in the Reflect screenshots of the source drive earlier in this story) is not properly formatted. Alternatively, technically savvy readers can turn to the Macrium boot repair utilities, or to third-party tools such as EasyBCD ($30) to attempt such repairs. Ultimately, the result should be a bootable, cloned boot/system disk.

This story, "Drive cloning in Windows 10 with free tools" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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