There are a couple of reasons why you might want to make a copy of a hard drive. The first and most obvious is a backup so you can quickly get up and running if your main drive fails.
Second, you might be upgrading to a larger disk or from a traditional hard drive to a fast SSD.
In both cases, you’ll probably want to clone the original disk onto the new one. There are various ways to do this, and we’ll explain the options, including those that are free and those that cost money.
Can Windows 10 clone a hard drive?
No. Microsoft hasn’t ever included a tool for making an exact copy of a hard drive in Windows. Although you can copy files from one drive to another, this isn’t enough - especially if it also contains a Windows installation.
In order to make a ‘clone’ of the original disk, which includes Windows plus the hidden stuff you can’t see (such as the partition table and any hidden partitions), you need special software or hardware.
Hard drive duplicators
One of the easiest ways of cloning a hard drive is to buy a duplicator. This is a piece of hardware that lets you plug in two SATA drives and copy the contents from one to the other.
This will accept standard 3.5in or 2.5in drives that use a normal SATA connector. You can even buy a SATA-to-IDE adapter (SAT2IDEADP) in case you have an old IDE disk.
Most duplicators will only work if the new drive is the same (or larger) capacity than the old one. That’s a problem if you’re upgrading to an SSD and you can’t afford to buy one with more storage space than your old hard drive.
How to clone a hard drive using software
The cheapest way to copy the contents of a hard drive to another is to use software.
There are a couple of free options, but you’ll quickly discover that many ‘free’ cloners are limited in some way and won’t do what you need unless you pay for the full version.
If you want the most flexibility and an interface that’s easy to use, you’ll probably want to spend some money.
It’s worth knowing that you can buy some SSDs as ‘upgrade kits’ which come with more than just the bare drive. Some include a USB-to-SATA cable and software so you can clone your laptop’s disk to the SSD without having to take the old disk out and find a PC that will let you attach both drives.
But if you do need to find yourself needing an app, we've rounded up a selection of the best drive cloning software.
One of the best free options is Macrium Reflect Free, but if you're happy to pay for software with more features, try Paragon Drive Copy 15 Professional. It costs £26.99 (US$39.95) and does everything you would expect, including cloning to a smaller-capacity disk by excluding files if there's not enough space. It even supports cloning to virtual machines so you can work with older apps which aren’t supported in Windows 10.
Another option is Acronis Disk Director 12. Acronis is well known for its True Image software, but here we’re not focusing on creating a full-disk backup but cloning. And that’s what Disk Director 12 does, among other things.
It costs £34.95/$49.99 from Acronis’ website, or £19.95/$29.99 if you’re upgrading from a previous version. Get Acronis Disk Director here.
The clone process
Once the new drive is attached to your PC (or laptop) you can launch the cloning software. Every program we’ve seen relies on a wizard to walk you through selecting the source and target drives, then whether you want to clone the entire disk or just certain partitions.
It’s important to clone the whole drive if you want the new one to remain bootable as the old one was. Assuming the program supports it, you’ll also have a choice of which files or folders to leave out of the copy process if there’s too much data to clone on to the target drive.
Then, you usually get to choose whether the integrity of the data is verified after the clone or not - it’s advisable to check this option if you’re offered it even if it adds extra time. Then you’ll know that the clone was completely properly before you try and use the new drive.