Is cloning a drive the same as copying?

Definition of Cloning a Drive

Cloning a drive is the process of creating an identical, standalone copy of an entire hard drive or storage device (Wikipedia, 2022). It essentially duplicates everything on the source drive or storage device, including the operating system, installed programs, settings, files, and folders, to a target drive to make an exact replica. Disk cloning creates a mirror image of the source drive that can function independently.

Definition of Copying a Drive

Copying a drive refers to making copies of specific files or folders on a drive, rather than creating an exact duplicate of the entire drive. When you copy files or folders from one drive to another, you are selectively choosing which data to duplicate. The original files remain intact in their original location, while the copies are placed in the new destination drive. This allows you to transfer over only the specific data you need, rather than duplicating the entire drive contents and structure. Copying does not replicate the boot sectors, partition layout, file system structure, or empty space. It simply transfers the user files and folders specified.

According to Wikipedia, “Copying is distinct from disk cloning, which copies all disk content including empty and unallocated space.”1

The Similarities

Both cloning and copying allow creating an identical duplicate of data from one drive to another. As explained on Reddit, “Cloning and copying a hard drive both make an exact same version of your original hard drive” (Source). After cloning or copying, you have the same data accessible from two different drives.

This duplication allows accessing the same files, programs, and operating system from multiple places. As one forum user described, “I now have the option to boot from either the clone or the original drive” after cloning (Source). Both cloning and copying provide flexibility in how and where you access your data.

The Differences

The main difference between cloning a drive and copying a drive is that cloning duplicates everything on the drive, including the operating system and any installed programs, while copying lets you select specific files and folders to duplicate.

When you clone a drive, you make an exact sector-by-sector copy of the entire drive, essentially creating an identical twin of the original drive. This includes duplicating the master boot record, partition table, boot sectors, file system structure, and all installed operating systems and programs. Cloning replicates the full contents and structure of a drive.1

In contrast, copying only lets you duplicate specific files and folders from one drive to another. You get to pick and choose which data gets copied over. Copying does not reproduce the entire disk layout or installed programs. It simply transfers selected files from one location to another.2

So in summary, cloning replicates everything and maintains the full structure of the drive, while copying gives you flexibility to select particular files/folders to duplicate.

Use Cases for Cloning

Cloning has three main use cases:

Upgrading to a Larger Drive – Cloning allows you to easily migrate your data, operating system, and applications from a smaller drive to a larger one. This is useful when you want to upgrade to a drive with more storage capacity without having to reinstall everything from scratch (Disk cloning vs Image Backup: When you Need What?, 2022).

Creating a Backup Drive – Making an exact clone of your existing drive provides a quick and convenient way to back up your entire system. If your original drive fails, you can restore from the clone drive and get back up and running quickly (What is the difference between system clone vs disk clone?, 2023).

Duplicating a System Setup – Disk cloning enables effortless replication of a configured system. If you need to set up multiple identical devices, cloning saves time compared to configuring each from scratch (Disk cloning, 2023).

Use Cases for Copying

There are several common use cases for copying drives as opposed to cloning them:

1. Backing up specific files – Copying allows users to select individual files or folders they want to copy rather than duplicating the entire drive. This is useful for backing up important documents, photos, or other data without needing to copy less critical content.

2. Transferring files between devices – Copying files makes it easy to move data from one device to another, like transferring photos from a camera to a computer or documents from a PC to an external hard drive. Only the necessary files get copied.

3. Freeing up space on one drive – When one drive starts getting full, users can copy files over to another drive to free up space rather than cloning the entire contents and taking up equal space on two drives.

Pros of Cloning

One of the main benefits of cloning a drive is that it creates an exact duplicate of the original drive, including the operating system, applications, settings, and data (Disks and Drives: To backup or clone? The Pros, Cons and Differences. This means you can quickly get a copied drive up and running, since everything is already configured. Cloning saves you the time and effort of having to reinstall the operating system, applications, and settings.

Another advantage of cloning is that it is often much faster than copying all the data file-by-file, especially for larger drives or full system backups. Cloning replicates the entire drive sector-by-sector, which can be significantly faster than traditional file copying methods (Disk Cloning vs Image Backup: When you Need What?. The speed makes cloning ideal when you need to duplicate a drive quickly.

Cons of Cloning

There are two main downsides to cloning a drive:

Firstly, cloning requires more storage space than copying files because the partitions are immediately created on the target disk ( A clone is an exact replica of the source drive, so it needs enough space to hold all the data. This can be an issue if the target drive is smaller than the source.

Secondly, cloning requires compatible hardware. The target drive needs to be able to hold the partitions from the source drive without any conflicts or formatting issues. For instance, cloning from a larger HDD to a smaller SSD often won’t work properly ( The hardware needs to match to create a true clone.

Pros of Copying

One of the main benefits of copying a drive versus cloning is that it allows for more selective file backup. When copying files or folders from one drive to another, you can choose exactly which files and folders to copy over. This allows you to only backup the most important files you need, rather than copying the entire contents of a drive. Copying is useful if you only need certain files for backup or transfer to a new computer.

Another advantage of copying versus cloning is that it works across different hardware. For example, you can copy files from an old laptop hard drive to an external SSD drive. Because you are just copying files and not cloning the entire drive, the hardware does not need to be identical. This makes copying a flexible backup solution. Source

Cons of Copying

One of the main cons of copying a drive is that it can be much slower for doing a full system backup compared to cloning. When cloning, an exact sector-by-sector copy is made, which allows the entire drive contents to be duplicated very quickly. Copying, on the other hand, involves reading all the individual files and folders and writing them to the destination drive one by one. This process takes significantly longer especially for larger drives.

Additionally, copying a drive does not duplicate the operating system or installed applications. It only transfers user files and data. If you want to migrate your full system configuration to a new drive, cloning is required. With copying, you would need to reinstall the OS, programs, and settings manually after transferring the data.