If you're about to upgrade your PC or laptop's hard drive or operating system, you should play it safe and clone your hard drive first. Here's how.

There are a number of scenarios in which you might clone your hard drive. It's ideal if you need to make a straight backup of everything on your PC, and essential if you're about to perform a radical upgrade and want to be sure that you won't lose any data. For example, this solid-state drive (SSD) upgrade may well involve cloning your existing drive. Drive cloning can also make a Windows upgrade less nerve-wracking.

Drive-cloning software

If you don't want to change the operating system, the easiest way to upgrade a laptop hard drive is to use a drive-cloning tool.

Software that can make an exact, bit-for-bit copy of drive partitions has been around for years. Utilities such as Norton Ghost, Acronis True Image and the free DriveImage XML are useful tools for such purposes.

Here, we've used Acronis True Image Home 2010 (£30 inc VAT; free trial available) to clone our existing hard drive on to an SSD. We also rate the professional version of True Image for cloning system drives.

You can use a drive-cloning tool in two ways. You can create a bootable CD, then boot from that CD and run the software to copy the drive. Alternatively, you can install the program, then clone the drive by running the software within Windows.

We used the latter method, since our netbook has no optical drive.

Before we began cloning, we popped our SSD into a Thermaltake dock and plugged this into a power source. We connected a USB cable from the dock to the laptop, then booted up the machine. Once the drive was recognised, we launched True Image.

We knew from the drive layout (click Start, Run and type diskmgmt.msc) that the Recovery Partition must be 12GB and the System Reserved partition 102MB. The main partition was listed as 220.78GB, which is too large to fit our SSD. Luckily, our netbook is new, and has only about 22GB of data and applications installed on the hard drive.

We launched True Image Home and clicked ‘Clone Disk'. We chose to manually clone the drive, since we wanted to manage how the three partitions were cloned.

We then selected the source drive, which was our Toshiba hard drive, with a listed capacity of 232.9GB. Since we had only two drives connected, the SSD became our target drive.

Be sure to choose the correct target and destination drives. If you select these incorrectly, you run the risk of overwriting your system installation and losing your operating system and all your data.

We then clicked ‘Move Method' and, since we wanted to keep the partition sizes the same, chose the ‘As is' option. This makes exact duplicates of the small partitions, but Acronis True Image knows that the main partition will be smaller and resizes it appropriately.

After clicking Next, Acronis performed a drive integrity check, rebooted the system and proceeded to perform the cloning process in DOS mode.

If you wish, you can watch the transfer process as it happens. We elected to come back after it had finished.

See also: Upgrade a PC to make it fast, stable and secure