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.


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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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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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

AOMEI

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

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Lots of features, supports GPT, System Restore, Incremental and Differential backup, AES Encryption
No user editable options for reinstating the MBR or not.
2.8
69.3MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.

v2.8 Released 11th May 2015 View change log here

Macrium Reflect Free

4
 
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
30.3MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Feature limited freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.

v6.0.545 released 31st March 2015 View release notes here

Windows XP/Vista /7 /8

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.
v2014 10.1.21.638 released 17 February, 2014 View the changelog here
Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7/8

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
2.3.2-22
133.2 MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
v2.3.2-22 released 17th Feb 2015 View release notes here
All Windows and Linux, Intel based Mac OS

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.
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

The drive is a 2002 vintage ATA from a discarded machine, the cable is using IDE. I've tried it all ways, imaging to drive, moving image from drive to computer and doing the reverse. I even formatted to fat32 and imaged (this automatically makes 4gb chunks). All to no avail. That fat32 format included hours long disk surface check.

I'm just using it to store data files which it does well. Obviously it must be the bridge cables, windows 7 classifies it as such. I could understand the scheme not working period but have no explanation on just what is going on with the imaging part. I've given up and will not try to pursue this any further at this time. The good news is my passport external has no problem except it's size limitation (350gb), but these things get cheaper by the month. The other good news is the problem shows in other imaging schemes, so Macrium is good. I suppose I should try to image a non-system partition to see if it's something to do with the content of the data stream, but not right now.
Thank for reading the post.

A friend of mine has a set of Vantec cables, CB-ISATAU2. I borrowed these and was able to backup and verify Macrium Free on my desktop and laptop (both windows 7). I've no idea why my cables do as I described, but the Vantec do cost more. Reading reviews on Vantec, somebody had posted a problem with large files using bargain cables. Maybe it's a shielding thing, who knows.

" I've given up and will not try to pursue this any further at this time." Couldn't leave it alone, eh? I can get really obsessive about these things, in particular problems that shouldn't be problems, something that should be straightforward and not take too much time or effort, and 3 days later I'm still banging my head against the wall to no avail. I'm glad you've narrowed it down to the cables, which really means it's something in the bridge circuit, I don't know enough to even hazard a guess.

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