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 or disk imaging has now become a must-have tool for the majority of users both novice and advanced alike mainly because of its ease of use in most circumstances and the convenience it provides.

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Rated Products

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 Linux 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  

A fast and easy way to perform backups on a regular basis or on the fly.


Our Rating: 
5
License: Free (Limited features)

If you're looking for a fast and easy way to perform backups on a regular basis or even on the fly then AOMEI Backupper offers exactly that. If you like to get in and configure every setting possible pertaining to creating a drive image then you are better off choosing and alternative imaging program. May I say this is actually my imaging program of choice after using all the others off and on for years. Not that there is anything wrong with the others, it's just that with AOMEI I am not bombarded with multiple questions. I can just click a few times and be confident that it is going to do what I expect it to do without the possibility of me accidentally selecting the wrong crucial option during recovery (yes I have done that a few times in the past and even invited some new cuss words post broken system restore).

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Macrium Reflect Free  

Offer nearly complete control over how you wish to re-instate your backup images.


Our Rating: 
4
License: Free (Limited features)

Overall the program does its intended job efficiently, however running into licensing validation issues can leave you with some serious problems in an emergency... The software on the face of it is user friendly enough but as I also stated in my test unless you fully understand what you are doing you may think you have a working system image but later come to find out you do not! Macirum in my opinion is for the more advanced user rather than the novice as it does offer you more or less complete control over how you wish to re-instate your backup images whilst still being user friendly.

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Paragon Backup & Recovery Free Edition  

A user-friendly backup solution with wizards and fully featured recovery media.


Our Rating: 
3
License: Free (Private/Educational use)

Overall Paragon does its intended job differently to the others and left me kind of wondering what the outcome was going to be during the recovery process, having said that yes it completed without a hitch in a timely fashion. There is so many features in this program that you can see yet are unable to use in the free version, to me that just makes it all feel bloated. Is this for the novice or the advanced user? It is easy enough to use and the wizards provide plenty of instruction if needed, so yes it does appear to be novice user friendly. I do feel though that the more advanced user would get a little frustrated with having to use said wizards all the time.

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DriveImage XML  

An easy to use and reliable program for imaging and backing up partitions and logical drives.


Our Rating: 
3
License: Free (Private/Educational use)

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 that 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.

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Other Options

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.

  • PING (PartImage Is Not Ghost) is the choice that stands out above the rest for me. 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.

 

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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.

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Comments

I am just beginning to understand the idea of an ISO image backup of an operating system - so pardon my questions:

1 - I have an XP System. Can I use a thumb drive, as opposed to a CD, for a boot drive? (I assume something like this is needed.

2 - Supposing the worst, that my C-drive dies, can I use this image to install the op system on a new C-drive?

3 - Somewhere I have the original Op System CD. Do I need to use the product number (or whatever it is called) from that CD in order to run the re-installed ISO image?

My thanks for your patience.

1-Yes, Cire [I shouldn't have to say that, I'm an American!] booting from thumbdrives is becoming far more popular than just a year or two ago, many systems now come with no optical drive. However, the BIOS will determine if your system can boot that way, it will depend on how old your system is, but by far most have had this capability for many years, a BIOS update may need be done. I have friends with an XP machine that is about 9 or 10 years old and it can boot from a thumb drive. There are ways around this limitation, such as boot-loaders like PLOP, that boot from floppy or HD, then pass on the boot to the USB, etc. Get back with me if you have this problem. 2-Yes, that is one of the main purposes of imaging. This is usually a straightforward operation, much more with the older systems, though due to typical MS SOP, there are a few stumbling blocks involving booting that can make life difficult, which get progressively worse going from XP to Vista, to 7 to 8. {As it happens, I got a couple of new/reffurbed SSDs, so, swap into one system, a win7, making sure to generalize the BCD store[don't ask, this is really need-to-know stuff[as in, you'll likely want to kill yourself if you learn of these things]], but still had a strange problem that seemed like a BCD issue, AND my RAID 1 mirror got killed, still trying to fix that. Second system, win8, very ugly, still has a BCD-GPT-MBR-UEFI-BIOS-aliens ate my dog while he ate my homework-issue, I think, after 3 clonings and an image-restore, but the linux I installed alongside it is working quite well ;). 3-If reinstalled to the same system, there should be no problem, if you move it to a new system, then you will need to re--activate. I've had little experience with XP, so I have no feel for how picky it can be in this area, and from what I have read, Microsoft, to its credit, is really easygoing about these things, often allowing moving of systems that they are under no obligation to allow, you just have to call them and discuss. The product number should be on a sticker stuck to your PC case somewhere, unless it's DYI. then it should be on the original box or packaging. Good luck, I hope this helps, and please get back with me if you have any problems.

I am attempting to use Macrium to create a full working disk image - this is a domestic situation where my harddrive has failed but is working well enough to create an image.
Is there someone prepared to provide me with a step-by-step guide that will be reliable for me?

Thanks, Barry

I haven't seen a post in the forums, so I wanted to give you a wee bit of advice. If the drive is failing, you may want to try some more forensic-style data recovery techniques to up your odds on maximal data recovery. This is in no way my forte, but I'll give it my best shot: you may want to get a copy of PartedMagic, see link above, I really like this LiveCD rescue system, and highly recommend everyone to keep it handy. With it, you can use 'ddrescue', quoting from the manpages: "GNU ddrescue - Data recovery tool. Copies data from one file or block device to another, trying hard to rescue data in case of read errors." It also includes GParted which also clone easily and very reliably. If you need to use Macrium, it is very easy to use, even allowing you to clone the system you are using, very handy and it's worked for me a number of times without a hitch. It's really straight forward, give it a shot and if you run into any problems, get back to me. Good luck.

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