Best Free Drive Cloning Software

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Introduction

What I consider to be two of the most important factors when choosing drive imaging software is Ease of Use and Reliable Image Creation and Restoration. Quite simply the software has to be able to do its intended task without fail every time as if it can not then it defeats the whole objective of creating an image backup in the first place and believe it or not there is software out there that is great at performing the actual backup images and providing the ability to mount and explore them without problems, but lacking in any easy way to actually perform a recovery with said images. If the software is capable of reliably performing those tasks in a timely manor then all the better, if not then personally I have no problems with waiting a while longer and knowing for a fact that the backup or recovery process is going to be a success.

Drive / Disk imaging has now become a must have tool for the majority of users both novice and advanced alike mainly because of it's ease of use in most circumstances and the convenience it provides. For example a user can safely recover their computer from a system crash or a bad virus infection without having to worry about reformatting and reinstalling the operating system. With drive imaging there is almost no reason at all to have to reinstall Windows because it offers you the ability to restore an image to your hard drive in a fraction of the time it takes to reinstall your operating system along with all your programs and settings.

There are two different types of disk imaging programs, Online and Offline. Most imaging software nowadays are online programs, meaning that they can run and create images inside of Windows while the operating system is running. The offline type are the programs that run in alternative environments such as MSDOS, WinPE or Linux, to create and restore backup images while Windows is not running. Although most Windows users' love the normal GUI driven programs, there are advantages to using either type of this software.

Most applications offer different options for creating images. You have the option to back up only the used sectors on the disk, which will create an image of only those sectors on the hard disk that are in use by the file system. This option will make the backup much smaller than if you were to create a clone of the drive. A clone is exactly what it sounds like, an exact sector by sector mirror copy of the entire drive including the unused sectors. These images can be saved to an external hard drive, a USB flash drive, a separate partition on your internal hard drive, burned to a CD/DVD for safe keeping, or saved to a network share. Some applications can use image backups as a file backup and mount images to a drive in explorer so individual files can be restored. There are several other options that can be found within the different free programs available, but for most users the default options provided with any of the applications below should suffice.

Windows 7 now provides us a new enhanced Windows Backup and Restore application which now has the ability to create disk images, the program will create an image of any partition on the hard drive if it is formatted to use the NTFS file system but it always includes the system partition and does not let you opt out. The drive that you are saving the backup on must also be formatted to use the NTFS file system. However one interesting quirk is if your unable to boot into Windows normally and having to use the recovery CD / DVD and the start up repair process fails to find an existing Windows installation then you will not be able to restore your created backup image ! at times in this scenario even rebuilding the MBR / BCD etc from the command prompt can fail miserably all depending on how badly messed up your drive is you may or may not be able to recover it using the Windows Restore.

ToolTip: My advice pertaining to the above is if your not into experimenting with multi boot systems or doing things that could potentially mess up your system drive then the new Windows Image Backup is a good solid solution... Now if your like me and love to experiment with such things until its totally broken then you need to be looking to use one of the programs reviewed here along with adding either of these two essential tools to your arsenal. First is EasyBCD (free for non-commercial use), a GUI editor for the BCD store, the file that controls the overall booting process in Windows Vista and 7 (note this is not compatible with XP), but it can do so much more. For example, boot CD image files, the '.iso' files, stored on your HD, floppy images, '.img' raw format, it gives a GRUB/GRUB2 choice for multibooters, it can fix many boot errors/problems that plague so many while imaging/partitioning, and on and on - the website has extensive documentation to help get you going.

The second tool is Super GRUB2 Disk {SGD}, and though it sounds of interest to only Linux types, that isn't the case. If you do run into booting problems, and YOU WILL, booting into this CD/floppy/USB (yes all in one image file!), brings up a choice, the first is 'Detect any OS', which can often save you from even serious MBR/boot issues, and this does work for XP!!. The third menu item is to detect any bootable iso files in the folder 'boot-isos', where you can store your EasyBCD boot files, too. Booting isos is iffy, so it's good to have two methods to work with. But with EasyBCD you can have an image of the SGD, along with full access to a number of full LiveCD Linux distros, giving you the ability to boot a wide range of rescue and other boot environments without needing the CD.

 
Discussion

Most of these programs now include both WinPE and Linux recovery environments the difference being in WinPE you usually have a GUI that looks the same and has all the same features and options you would see whilst running the program from within Windows itself. The Linix environment is somewhat limited whilst it looks the same generally you only have the backup and restore options available and in most cases in the event of HDD failure that is all you need.


Macrium Reflect Free Edition

After installation you will be presented with a registration pop up box that contains a serial key specific to your machine upon clicking "ok" an internet connection is required to authorize the serial before you can start using the program, also the WinPE recovery disk will not function correctly if the software is not registered... Now those are two major negative factors for me that can present problems if you come to do an emergency recovery and the software is not pre-installed.

Macrium also installs an Image Mounting Service set to Automatic run upon Windows start-up (like most others do) this can be safely set to "Manual" as the program itself will start this service if your intending to mount and explore an existing image you have created, there is no reason this should run on start up.

Image Creation

Creating a backup is pretty straightforward, Select the partition and click the icon with the folder and drive above it, you will then be presented with a pop up window where you can select backup location, now this can be another hard drive (or even the same hard drive but different partition other than the one you intend to back up for obvious reasons) across a Network or straight onto a CD/DVD burner. If you click on the advanced button you will then have the option to set compression level, Intelligent sector copy (This uses the Windows VSS) or an exact copy (clone) and also split file size.
Lastly there are check boxes to run the backup now and also create an XML file for scheduled or on-demand backups... On a 15GB partition with 8GB used for Windows 7 the backup process took 12mins to complete.

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AOMEI Backupper

Is ideal for both the novice and advanced user alike, with a very clean user friendly GUI. The primary backup options are Disk Backup, Partition Backup, System Backup and File and Folder Backup. We are also presented with some good options for all the backup modes, like the ability to create comments about the backup, select levels of compression, whether or not to encrypt, the ability to split large backups, whether or not to optimize sectors during backup and the option for Shadow Copying aka VSS,  support for UEFI boot and GPT disks, along with Incremental and Differential backup modes. 

The type of compression or encryption which uses AES is not optional but in my opinion that is not an important factor, unless your extremely short on drive space or work for some Government Agency.

Many of the essential functions that are missing in the free versions of other programs are included in AOMEI Backupper free edition without any "nag" screens to upgrade to pro either. Within a few clicks of the mouse you can have your system backup in progress, it is intuitive and detected my 100MB System Reserved partition no problem and offered to include it into the system backup, now that makes a refreshing change unlike some of the others that take it for granted you know what your doing.

Image Creation and Recovery

Both the backup and recovery process are very fast taking only about 9mins for my 8GB system partition ! the options are there also for where you want to recover the image to, NAS (network storage) is also supported, however there are no options pertaining to reinstating the MBR that could cause some major problems in a multi boot environment but this can be overcome by selecting not to do a system restore and just restore the actual partition that contains Windows itself, obviously I am thinking in terms of the more advanced user here. In my opinion AOMEI does not need those options as it handles them perfectly well by itself without user interaction in normal situations.

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Paragon Backup and Recovery (Advanced) Free

In this latest release 2014 they have gone for the "Metro" Windows 8 look for the GUI and you are presented with a series of little boxes that link straight to a wizard for the task you would like to perform along with thankfully a link to load up a more traditional GUI showing your hard drives.

It seems that they have now removed what little partitioning support there was in the previous free versions in favor of including what looks to be a full partitioning suite, though all these buttons are greyed out in the free version with a button stating "Unlock disabled features" and there is a lot of disabled features!, However the important items are still there such as Back Up, Restore, Differential Backup, and Check Archive Integrity. Interestingly there is options to back up to a Virtual Disk, Restore from a VD and also Incremental Backup to a VD, I can see that this would have it's uses in some corporate environments but for the average user if you use Virtual Disks at all then most of those programs have their own "System Snapshot" tools already.

Backup Image Creation

Another feature is the "Backup Capsule" this creates a reserved partition solely for the storage of backups managed by Paragon, now in the previous version this feature worked well but I found that if you removed an old backup you could not remove its entry in the backup capsule and eventually this could get messy if your working with lots of backups coupled with the fact it was difficult to figure out exactly what backup was the most recent one especially if you were working with differential one's rather then full. I was not able to test this aspect again in the new version due to the fact the program refused to install on my own virtual system. So any informative comments concerning the backup capsule in this new version would be welcomed, until such time I have the resources to test it again for myself.

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Drive Image XML

First impressions the GUI reminds me of some of the old MSDOS interfaces having said that don't be fooled this can be a very powerful program though it is very slow 34 mins to backup my test system of 8GB used space.

Image Creation

You have two options for creating a backup image Drive to Drive as they call it (raw sector by sector clone in other words) or the standard backup that then gives you the option to either use "Volume Locking" or the "Volume Shadow Service" since it is the system drive I'm backing up from within Windows the default selection Volume Locking is not a good idea in this case, as it does what it say's "locks the volume" aka drive.

The process creates two files an XML that contains the drive info and a DAT file containing the actual binary data. After that you do have the ability to load the XML file and browse the backed up data much the same as the other programs offer, however in theory this XML file can be manipulated using other software, some of the Linux based imaging programs for example and in extreme cases that could very well have its uses.

Image Recovery

Now actually doing a system restore is the tricky part as it can not be performed within Windows (other drives and partitions can just not the system one) and the program does not offer to boot into a recovery environment for you to perform this task, what you need to do is create a BartPE boot CD and install the plugins for Drive Image XML and then boot from that, the only help for doing this can be found on the BartPE website, obviously this is quite a hurdle for the novice user and anyone else looking for an all in one recovery / backup solution for that matter.

There is support to run backups as scheduled tasks but you have to set this up yourself also using Windows task scheduler and command line parameters, they do provide you with an example though and a list of the valid command line parameters that can be used... then again if your not familiar with all this then it may as well be written in Chinese.

Summary

Despite those two.... "inconveniences" the program is very solid and in personal experience not so long ago it was the only program that was able to create an image of a failing 500GB HDD that had many bad sectors coupled with read/write arms that were "sticking", Windows refused to copy any data from it, the end result was 90% of the data contained in the image was usable after Drive Image XML completed its task... I won't tell you how long that took I will leave that to your imagination, but like I say it was the only program out of many that could work with that drive... So if you have a situation like that this is the software you need.


There are a few different options for users that are looking for a good free drive imaging solution and some of the most reliable options are offline programs. The choice that stands out above the rest for me is PING (PartImage Is Not Ghost).

Most offline solutions can be kind of intimidating and hard to figure out at first but PING is almost too easy as it leads you through the steps needed to create an image one by one and offers a short explanation of some of the options available.

The program can create incremental backup images and will save you significant time in doing so. It can also backup and restore the BIOS and it can create a bootable restoration disk to make restoring your backups that much easier. The software was developed to offer a free alternative to the very popular Norton Ghost and over the years it has gained a better set of features than Ghost making it a great choice for anybody.


Clonezilla is the other free offline software that stands out to me. Although it can be complicated upon first use it is a very good program and probably the most popular offline free drive imaging application.

It contains a beginners mode with all of the advanced options selected for you and all you have to choose is the partition or disk to backup and the location to save it which can be a USB drive, CD/DVD, or network share. The expert mode can be really confusing if you are not sure of what you are doing and generally the beginners mode should suffice for most users. The program can perform a disk to disk copy or just the regular disk or partition image backup but it is slow in doing this taking almost thirty minutes to create an image of an 8 GB partition.

However, Clonezilla does come in different packages, you can get it with the G-Parted boot CD or with UBCD (Ultimate Boot CD) which contains several other programs on one CD making the possibilities even greater.


Some hard drive manufacturers offer free software utilities to owners of their products to aid them in such tasks as diagnostics, disk management, and installing new hard drives. Of those tools made available a couple of manufacturers are offering free disk imaging software for users of their drives to use as long as they own the drive.

Owners of Seagate hard drives are eligible to download and use the Seagate Disk Wizard tools. Disk Wizard is essentially a slimmed down version of Acronis True Image that is available for free.

Owners of Western Digital hard drives also have a great option for disk imaging. Western Digital offers the Acronis True Image WD Edition which is much the same as what Seagate offers to its users.

 
Related Products and Links
 
Quick Selection Guide

Macrium Reflect Free
5
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Very easy to use and fast. can restore individual files, works with linux files systems, ability to clone hard drives including the working system partition, schedule backups easily, very stable and reliable, great compression of backup images, can convert to vhd virtual format, includes WindowsPE recovery.
No incremental or differential backups, recovery options can be confusing for the novice user.
5.2.6433
2.2 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Feature limited freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows XP/Vista /7 /8

v5.2.6427 released 22 October, 2013
View release notes here

AOMEI
4
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Lots of features, supports GPT, System Restore, Incremental and Differential backup, AES Encryption
The file management lacks the ability to select multiple parent folders at the same time.
http://www.aomeitech.com/
2.0
57.5MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows 7, 8, Vista, XP and Windows Server 2003, 2008, 2012
Backup & Recovery 2014 Free
3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Differential backups, can restore individual files, cyclic backup, good compression options, can clone hard drives. Recovery media is full-featured, can do most of what the installed application can. Works with Windows 8 including Storage Spaces.
Some compatibility problems with Linux recovery media, program requires registration for download, many features disabled in the free version making it feel bloated.
10.1.21.638
223MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Feature limited freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7/8

v2014 10.1.21.638 released 17 February, 2014
View the changelog here

Drive Image XML
3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Drive to Drive image copy, restore individual files from images, ability to restore images to different drives. Provisions for incorporation into WinPE environments via plug-ins. Simple, basic, reliable.
No incremental or differential backup, backup process is very slow compared to others, not many options for creating backups, almost no default compression, has no recovery media included and users have to create their own XP-only based disk, users also have to schedule tasks manually with Windows Task Manager.
2.5
1.78 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Feature limited freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows XP/2003/Vista/7
Clonezilla
3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Supports a huge array of file systems, very reliable and stable, available on several different boot CD packages with many extra tools, and as a standalone liveCD, a very popular program
Offline only, can be difficult to use or complicated on first use, no incremental or differential backups, can not explore or restore files from images, not very fast
http://clonezilla.org/
2.2.0-29
133.2 MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
All Windows and Linux, Intel based Mac OS

v2.2.0-16 released 29/10/2013

PING (PartImage Is Not Ghost)
2.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Can create incremental backups, possibility to blank local admin password, can backup and restore the BIOS, can create bootable restoration CD, some basic partition editing available. Many rescue utilities included
Is an offline program, not many options for creating images, rescue utilities not nearly as extensive as PartedMagic.
http://ping.windowsdream.com/
3.02
33.8MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
All Windows and Linux

 
Editor

This software review is maintained by volunteer editor AndyR. Registered members can contact the editor with any comments or questions they might have by clicking here.

 
Tags

drive imaging, disk imaging, cloning, clone hard drives, copy hard drive, differential imaging, incremental imaging, hard drive imaging, image backups, drive backup.

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Comments

by George.J on 16. August 2014 - 11:12  (117990)

AOMEI Backupper excels at recent tests at Raymond.cc

Comparing 20 Drive Imaging Software Backup/Restore Speed and Image Size

by andrew1879 on 19. August 2014 - 6:05  (118055)

Except that it's slow at doing incremental backups.

by movrshakr on 16. August 2014 - 12:53  (117991)

^^^ Link fails.

by George.J on 16. August 2014 - 14:57  (117994)

Corrected it now.

by AndyR on 19. August 2014 - 10:52  (118063)

With AOMEI doing an incremental backup seemed to take in the region of two mins longer than a full backup for me at least, however as I am sure you guys are aware this is all subject to many different factors, over all system speed, how much data has actually changed in the incremental backup and so on.

by Faziri on 4. August 2014 - 22:54  (117758)

Please add Aomei to the list, possibly as the top-ranking one. It outdoes Macrium in every way, offering incremental and differential backups, image mounting, encryption, partition or file selective backups, scheduling and no nagging. :)

by AndyR on 5. August 2014 - 0:55  (117760)

Hi Faziri, There is already a review for Aomei you can find it here http://www.techsupportalert.com/best-free-hard-drive-backup-program.htm

by Remah on 5. August 2014 - 1:30  (117761)

AndyR
Aomei appears to be in the wrong category here. It's in the file-based backup article when it is a drive imaging/cloning application which would fit in this category. Even the review says so:
This program does not allow the user to choose files and folders. It's the only program in this category that isn't a file based backup program. Instead Backupper offers fast methods to backup or clone hard drives and partitions with a couple of easy clicks of the mouse.

by AndyR on 5. August 2014 - 2:20  (117762)

Hi Remah, I was thinking that also, however said review is quite dated as Aomei does allow you to select files and folders now for backup, though it is primary an imaging program. I am in the process of rewriting some of the reviews and will more than likely move aforementioned program to the appropriate category, Thank you for pointing this out.

by George.J on 5. August 2014 - 2:27  (117763)

Yes with version 2, AOMEI does allow you to select files/folders for backup.

by Jojo Yee on 5. August 2014 - 6:25  (117768)

I think it would then be good for this product to appear in both categories with appropriate descriptions.

by MidnightCowboy on 5. August 2014 - 6:48  (117769)

I'm with Jojo. Some duplication between categories is inevitable, and indded desirable, to ensure visitors can find what they are searching for. MC - Site Manager.

by AndyR on 5. August 2014 - 13:01  (117776)

Ok, rather than duplicate the content I shall make a reference to it in the other section outlining the basics, they actually have another imaging product out now that is in essence a very simplified recovery solution for the novice user that I shall be reviewing once all the beta bugs are ironed out.

by movrshakr on 2. July 2014 - 0:03  (117069)

The write ups do not much discuss the situation of each program with respect to UEFI, GPT, and secure boot--common on recent machines. I read on other forums that these are real issues with some imaging programs.

by formaldahyde on 26. June 2014 - 21:28  (116943)

There is freeware cloning software called "HDClone" from a german company called miray-software.
Does anyone have experience with this freeware HDClone V4.3?

by terrawarra on 9. June 2014 - 12:01  (116696)

I've been using the free version of XXClone for about 6 years now,... I'm amazed at how it makes a bootable working copy of my main drive onto a second hard drive. It saved my bacon a few times on the old XP computer and now that I've graduated to W7, I plan to use it again. The only difference between the "paid for" and the free version is that the freebie does not do incremental.
Not a big deal for me... as long as I have a mint condition of my OS, that,s all that matters.

by Chris.Myers on 10. June 2014 - 14:37  (116710)

Thank You for your recommendation of XXClone. I will add it to the list of software to take a look at.

by George.J on 20. May 2014 - 2:45  (116288)

I've been pleased with AOMEI Backupper and with version 2.0 it has certainly outdone both Macrium and EaseUS.

A quick look at the feature comparison of AOMEI Backupper Free and Macrium Reflect Free and EaseUS Todo Backup will let you know why its extremely good.

It allows full file, folder, system, disk and partition backups with automatic, full, incremental and differential backups along with high compression technology. It also supports both WinPE and Linux bootable disc.

by bili_39 on 20. May 2014 - 12:27  (116296)

If anybody wants to have pro edition, Softpedia is giving away licenses until next Monday:
http://www.softpedia.com/reviews/windows/AOMEI-Backupper-Professional-Re...

by crombierob on 22. May 2014 - 5:12  (116348)

Thanks for the 'heads up'
Also that Softpedia page, gives a thorough description, which I will save.
Regarding the choice of getting the Pro vs the Standard (is the Standard the free one ?), Softpedia says this -
The Bad
Compared to the Standard edition, Pro does not bring essential features to the table. Most users would not actually consider to pay [price edited out] just for command-line support, backup disk space management and image merging, knowing that Standard is free (we expected more advanced features from Pro). Besides, this price does not cover free lifetime upgrades (that's an extra [price edited out]).

I don't think I need any of those extra features, so would life be simpler (for my plethora of old PCs), if I just got the free one (considering licensing, etc) ?

Rob

by George.J on 22. May 2014 - 5:26  (116352)

Yup I think the Free version covers most what everyone needs

by Scoop on 20. May 2014 - 5:09  (116290)

George, Thanks for the info and link. I'd read about AMOEI several months ago but didn't download it at that time. I'll try this one out soon. That is impressive about the free version including incremental and differential backups as well as specific-item backups (folders, files).

The automated scheduler is a feature that's usually found on paid versions of backup tools but it's provided with this free version.

by crombierob on 20. May 2014 - 4:11  (116289)

Aomei says 'Free Download'
Normally to me that means 'All Scots should immediately leave the building'
I have written to all world leaders trying to ban that term on the web. No luck so far.
Is it free ?
If so, why don't they say that ?

A wee bit confused,
Rob
PS Could you describe the hoops to go through to get the WinPE CD ?

PPS The Macrium web page had floating images of the software box, obscuring the comparison table. If one turns of style (called 'view as plain text' in some browsers) you can then read the table.

by George.J on 20. May 2014 - 11:49  (116295)

AOMEI Backupper Standard is freeware, there's another Professional version that's shareware.

In the freeware downloads page of AOMEI, there are 2 versions, the bigger version includes Linux Bootable Disc Image.

Here you've the info about creating Windows PE Bootable disc.

by Scoop on 20. May 2014 - 5:23  (116292)

Rob, it's displaying this on the AMOEI page on my PC. It says:

Free AOMEI Backupper Standard 2.0

It's at this 'net site: http://www.backup-utility.com/

by sicknero on 26. March 2014 - 12:06  (115304)

New version of Paragon Backup and Recovery Free is out.

(http://www.paragon-software.com/home/br-free/)

by pseudoid on 12. March 2014 - 22:24  (114976)

I was contemplating to install Clonezilla but I am glad to have come to Gizmo's FREEware site that recommends the Macrium Reflect. I will install and use Macrium instead and just hope that I can use a 128GB USB stick for the back up. Thank you Gizmo!

by Scoop on 12. March 2014 - 23:14  (114977)

I've been using Macrium (free ver) for a while with successful repeatable results for cloning and full-HDD imaging. I use it on my 2 PC's at home and my Mom's Desktop PC. I think you'll like it. The user interface, my opinion, is very user-friendly.

I burned the Clonezilla ISO download for a backup clone/image freeware tool. I've only cloned with it once but it worked ok.

by movrshakr on 15. December 2013 - 18:42  (112960)

Much discussion above, including some from me, about the problems getting a bootable CD with Macrium reflect.

I simply do not have the time or inclination to research and test this, that, and the other workaround to get it solved. I moved on to updating the commercial backup program I had been using.

The purveyors of this product need to get a handle on this, quick, and fix it.

by crombierob on 13. March 2014 - 11:43  (114990)

====> OOPS this is a reply to pseudoid <=====

You should be using a bootable CD
Sometimes one must instal the program, to create the CD, BUT from then on you should use the CD.
The only other use that should be made of the installed program, is to browse an earlier image, (say to extract a file).

The free Seagate DiscWizard, is made by/from Acronis.

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