Disk Imaging vs Disk Cloning: Differences

Last month I took a look at how Windows Backup compared to more advanced third-party backup solutions. With consumers, the least expensive and most simple solution often wins. For that reason, many people are content to use whatever Microsoft includes in Windows.

In the article, I briefly touched on the differences between imaging and cloning. Over the years, I have noticed people using imaging and cloning almost interchangeably. While similar, there are important differences when talking about disk imaging vs disk cloning.

This week, I would like to sort through the confusion. Both imaging and cloning have a place in today’s workflow. However, you should understand the benefits and downsides of both technologies before you decide to use either. I have used both going back 20 years. At some companies, imaging has replaced cloning. We will define and then discuss some use cases for both imaging and cloning. Let’s get started.

Disk Imaging vs Disk Cloning

Let’s begin with an example: You recently installed a fresh copy of Windows 10 on your PC. You then spent a few hours reinstalling all your applications such as Office 365, Google Chrome and Adobe Photoshop. After running Windows Update, you have got your PC back to exactly how you like it. Moreover, you do not want to lose all your hard work to a hard drive failure. One friend tells you to clone your primary hard drive. However, another tells you to take an image. You are confused because both sound like they should work.

Both cloning and imaging create an exact record of your drive. That includes all the files on the drives along with the master boot record and everything else your PC needs to boot in Windows. So how do they differ? Let’s get the scoop on disk imaging vs disk cloning.

Disk Imaging: Imaging creates a large compressed file of your drive. You can then restore this file to bring your drive back to life. Because the image file itself is large, people often save them to external drives or file shares.

Disk Cloning: Cloning creates an exact, uncompressed replica of your drive. If your hard drive fails, you could remove it and replace it with the cloned drive. Moreover, that brings me back to the above example. Cloning can get you up and run quickly, but it does not offer as much flexibility as imaging. In the above example, I would recommend taking an image instead of cloning.

Scenario 1: Upgrading to an SSD

So you have run Disk Cleanup, removed any duplicate files and used WinDirStat to track down and remove a large iPhone backup you no longer need. However, Windows continues to remind you that you are running out of disk space. So you decided to upgrade your primary mechanical hard drive to a speedy new Samsung 960 Pro SSD. You have at least two options:

1. Pull your old drive, install Samsung SSD and reinstall Windows and all your programs on your new drive. This is the most time-consuming option. Moreover, it might be worth going this route if your current Windows installation is giving you problems. If your current PC is stable and all you need is a larger drive, better options exist.

2. Install the Samsung SSD alongside your old drive. Image old drive and deploy it directly to your new SSD and then yank your old drive. This option usually gets you up and running with a new drive within a couple of hours. Sometimes the maker of your new drive includes all the tools you need. If you purchase a Samsung drive, you can use their Data Migration toolset that creates an image of your existing PC and deploys it to your new SSD. It even handles moving from a smaller to a larger drive without any issues.

Scenario 2: Replacing a Bad Drive

Cloning makes much sense if you are moving your operating system and data to a new drive that will immediately be used to replace the old drive. I have run into issues while trying to imagine a failing hard drive. I recently cloned a drive on my friend’s laptop because it was giving him disk errors. We used a USB enclosure to connect the drive to his laptop. We used Macrium Reflect Free to clone his old drive to the new one. I then removed the drive on his laptop and replaced it with the newly cloned drive from the USB enclosure.

My friend could not afford to be down very long so cloning his drive made the most sense. Moreover, that is one of the primary benefits of cloning: it minimises the downtown. A few months ago I talked to a day trader in New York who explained that even a few minutes of downtime could potentially cost him tens of thousands of dollars. He worked off a powerful laptop. So we decided to create a clone of his drive at the end of each day. If he ran into any issues while the markets were still open, he could replace his primary drive with the cloned one.

Scenario 3: Backup Options

This is where imaging shines. Cloning is great for a speedy recovery, but imaging gives you a lot more backup options. Most software allows the user to take incremental and differential backups.

Taking an incremental backup gives you the option to save multiple images without taking up a lot more space. This can be helpful if you download a virus and need to roll back to an image from two days earlier. Cloning only gives you one copy per drive. You can overwrite a clone with another, but each clone “version” needs its drive.

Another benefit that comes from imaging is that images can be saved remotely. Using compression helps reduce storage demands and allows you to move images around your LAN or to the cloud. This is incredibly helpful if you are travelling or work remotely. Some of the more advanced services allow you to spin up an image from the cloud in a pinch. I think you will find your IT department does not clone much drive anymore. Imaging has taken its place in most scenarios because it is far more flexible and takes up less storage.


If you need to minimise downtime, then cloning could be a good option. It works best in simple setups such as single drive configurations often found on laptops or general-purpose desktops.

Hope this clears out some of the issues around disk imaging vs disk cloning. If your computer is on a corporate network, speak with IT to find out what options they provide. They may offer one service for systems on their LAN and another option for those who work remotely or travel often.

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