Hard drive cloning and disk-imaging software is infinitely useful for end users and IT managers alike. Whether you’re just making a hard drive recovery partition, blasting full images to dozens of systems across a network, or creating virtual machines for a testing environment, cloning software has got you covered. Not all cloning applications and utilities are created equal, though. There are numerous options available, at various price points—including free—with a diverse range of integrated features.
For a related story on how to clone a hard drive or SSD, click here.
In some ways, all cloning and imaging utilities are similar. Assuming they work properly, at their most basic level, cloning utilities make bit-by-bit, accurate clones—or images—of a drive or partition. And those images can be quickly and easily restored or moved to a new drive (or VM) in the event of a problem. There are plenty of cloning utilities to choose from, and Windows itself even has the ability to create disk images built right in. But if you start to dig in and compare the options and capabilities of the multitude of utilities out there, you’ll quickly find that their lists of features are as varied as their price points.
Fret not. We have rounded up a half-dozen hard drive cloning and disk-imaging utilities and will attempt to demystify the selection process for you here. If you’re looking for a basic, free solution that does little else but clone disks or create images, or a more comprehensive product that also offers some cloud storage for backups, we’ve got something on tap that fits the bill.
Loaded with features and relatively affordable
The moment you launch True Image 2014, it is immediately clear that the folks at Acronis get it. Although Acronis True Image offers arguably the most comprehensive set of features in the group, it also sports the most well-organized, easiest-to-navigate menu system of the bunch.
At first, users are given the choice to take a virtual tour of the various parts of the program, which explains how to back up data, when to recover data, and how to leverage Acronis’s cloud storage capabilities (5GB, free). Novices should definitely take advantage of Acronis’s help system, as it lays a solid foundation and does a good job explaining many of the program’s features.
As users tunnel deeper into Acronis True Image 2014’s menus, they’ll find a wealth of options for cloning disks, creating images, performing incremental backups, synchronizing folders, creating recovery media, and much more.
Despite a plethora of options, True Image 2014 is surprisingly easy to navigate.
Not only is Acronis True Image 2014 relatively easy to use and loaded with a wealth of features, it’s also the most affordable of the paid options featured here. At $50 for the standard desktop edition, Acronis True Image 2014 isn’t exactly a steal, especially when there are competent, free alternatives available, but it’s certainly an application we’d buy if we were in need of a comprehensive all-in-one disk-cloning and backup solution.
Acronis True Image 2014
Norton Ghost reincarnated, with new name and additional features
For years, when you discussed cloning or imaging a system, Norton Ghost came to mind. The utility was so popular, in fact, that somewhat like Google, the brand became a verb: “Ghosting” a system was synonymous with cloning a drive or taking a system image. Earlier this year, though, Symantec discontinued development of Norton Ghost and moved on to a new, all-encompassing cloning and backup solution dubbed Symantec System Recovery.
Symantec System Recovery is offered in a few versions, which target home, corporate, or enterprise users. It is the $85 Symantec System Recovery 2013 Desktop Edition of the software that will be of most interest to you, our good readers. Like Acronis True Image, Symantec System Recovery 2013 can do everything from incremental backups to full drive clones, and the utility supports virtually any type of storage media, from USB flash drives to network volumes. Symantec System Recovery 2013 can even send backup images and data to an offsite FTP.
Symantec System Recovery 2013 Desktop Edition has got it all, and then some.
Although Symantec System Recovery 2013 Desktop Edition is feature-rich and should be easy enough to navigate for knowledgeable PC users, its interface and UI aren’t quite as refined as Acronis True Image 2014, in our opinion. It is also the more expensive option of the two. Ultimately, though, Symantec System Recovery 2013 Desktop Edition is a quality product, worthy of consideration, especially if you’re already intimately familiar with Ghost.
Symantec System Recovery 2013 Desktop Edition
Powerful, easy to use, and has enterprise-class DNA
StorageCraft, a respected provider of enterprise-class backup solutions, scaled down some of its wares to produce ShadowProtect Desktop 5. One of the advantages to having enterprise-class roots is that ShadowProtect Desktop 5 is about as reliable as they come, but the app also looks somewhat dated in comparison to competing products from Acronis and Symantec. It also seems like the developers of ShadowProtect Desktop assume their users have a certain level of expertise with image-based backup solutions, because the program’s help system isn’t terribly detailed.
With that said, experienced PC users will probably dig a number of ShadowProtect Desktop 5’s features. The utility can take images of disks or partitions and save them virtually anywhere. After an initial image is created, the program can then take incremental backups at whatever schedule the user desires. ShadowProtect Desktop 5 will also let users open images to restore individual files or folders, and images created with the program can be launched as a VM inside VirtualBox, should users want to experiment on an image without necessarily restoring files.
It may not be as well known as its rivals, but ShadowProtect Desktop 5 is an excellent image-based backup suite.
It’s not the prettiest of the apps featured here, and ShadowProtect Desktop 5 is the most expensive by a few bucks, but it’s a powerful solution that will serve savvy users well.
ShadowProtect Desktop 5
The most obvious reason to use cloning software is to back up your personal data and maintain a cloned image of your system in case of a catastrophic problem, but cloning software can be used for much more than that.
When setting up a system for the first time, we like to take multiple images throughout the setup process, in the event we want to experiment with different drivers or software on the system or just want to restore it to a given point. For example, we’ll take an image right after installing the OS, another after installing drivers and running updates, and another when all of our applications are installed and configured. Over time, we’ll also capture new images as we add more applications or tweak settings to our liking. Ultimately, you’ll end up with a collection of images that allow for quick recovery without ever having to go through the hassle of reinstalling an OS and apps from scratch. If you get the itch to start with a fresh OS install, you can simply restore the clean image and be off and running in minutes.
Cloned disk images can also be used to create Virtual Machines that mimic your main rig, should you want to experiment with software or other settings in a sandboxed environment. Instead of restoring an image to a physical drive, simply configure your virtual machine and restore your cloned image to the virtual drive using its standard recovery tools. It’s not quite like having separate machines, but using a VM for trial-ware or other software is a great way to keep your rig free from junk and other unwanted stuff that tends to creep in over time, like toolbars and other widgets.
It ain’t pretty, but it gets the job done
If Acronis True Image 2014 and Symantec System Recovery 2013 Desktop Edition are akin to expensive, luxury sedans packed with every amenity known to man, CloneZilla Live is a stripped-down, lightweight drag-racer that doesn’t even have gauges, let alone seat belts or headlights.
CloneZilla is offered in two versions, CloneZilla SE (Server Edition), which can be used to clone many machines from across a network, or CloneZilla Live, which is designed for end users looking for a no-nonsense partition- and disk-cloning solution. CloneZilla Live is built around a Debian Live Linux distro and is offered as a free download, licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) Version 2. It can be run from a bootable disc or USB thumb drive and does nothing but clone disks or partitions. There are no hooks for cloud storage and there’s no fancy user interface.
CloneZilla’s UI and seemingly complex syntax may scare off less savvy users.
Less savvy users, with little or no experience outside of Windows’ GUI, may be taken aback when CloneZilla first launches. The UI can be somewhat daunting, especially for users not comfortable with the syntax used. That said, CloneZilla is as reliable as they come and you can’t knock free.
It’s fine for the basics but not much else
Macrium Reflect Free Edition is a cut-down version of Macrium Software’s more complete paid editions, which are offered in Standard ($45), Professional ($59), and Enterprise ($200) versions, each with an increasingly robust feature set. The good news with this arrangement is that Macrium Reflect Free is a relatively refined, easy-to-use cloning and imaging solution. The bad news is that it’s missing a handful of useful features, like incremental and file/folder backups, and it’s also incompatible with dynamic disks.
It’s fast and free, but lacks many features available in the paid editions.
If you plan to stick with basic disk imaging or cloning, however, Macrium Reflect Free is fairly nice. We found the program to be fast and reliable and it also offers the ability to access images created with the program in Windows Explorer.
We suspect users that give Macrium Reflect Free a shot—and like it—will probably want to spring for the Standard edition, as it adds a number of features that would make the program feel much more complete.
Macrium Reflect Free Edition
Too little, too late
We’ll freely admit that there are some hardcore users out there who prefer streamlined, specialized applications that do only one thing, but do it well. DriveImage XML falls into that category. This tiny, less-than-1MB download is a straightforward disk-imaging solution that does little else. The program installs in seconds and functions exactly as you’d expect—select a source, select a destination, and the program will create a backup image. It does not, however, offer the ability to take incremental backups and it doesn’t help create rescue media, either.
DriveImage XML works as advertised, but not a whole lot else.
If you check out DriveImage XML and like it, great. More power to you. It’s reliable and has been around for a number of years (which is made abundantly clear from its interface’s ’90s-era look), and makes for a decent no-nonsense free backup and imaging solution. Windows’ own built-in solution does essentially the same thing though, and it’s more user-friendly to boot.
Microsoft introduced a relatively capable backup tool in Windows 7 that has since been carried over into Windows 8 and 8.1. The aptly named Windows 7 File Recovery tool (it retains the same name in Windows 8/8.1, oddly enough) gives users the ability to back up personal files from their libraries or to create full system images and rescue discs. If you’re looking for a simple, basic backup utility, the Windows 7 File Recovery tool is a decent option that works much better than the previous Microsoft-made backup solutions that were included with older versions of Windows.
The Windows 7 File Recovery tool is not a replacement for a more robust backup and disk-cloning utility, however. For one, the Windows 7 File Recovery tool doesn’t always play well with new hardware, should you need to restore a backup image onto another machine or a machine that’s been repaired with newer parts. It also doesn’t offer nearly as many options as more feature-rich solutions like Acronis True Image or Symantec System Restore. If you’re in a pinch and just want to back up some personal files or create an image of a machine you know won’t be altered anytime soon though, the Windows 7 File Recovery tool can certainly get the job done.