What is disk copying?

Disk copying refers to the process of copying or cloning the contents of one disk drive to another disk drive. This allows you to make an exact duplicate of a disk, which can be useful for a variety of purposes such as data backup, data recovery, or migrating data to a new disk.

Why Would You Want to Copy a Disk?

There are several common scenarios where disk copying comes in handy:

  • To make a backup copy of important data
  • To clone a disk when upgrading to a larger capacity disk
  • To migrate data from an old disk to a new one
  • To duplicate a disk for distribution or replication purposes
  • To create a bootable copy of a system disk

Having a cloned copy of a disk can provide you with a safety net in case of disk failure, corruption, accidental deletion, or other scenarios where the original data is lost or compromised. It also allows you to easily replicate or repurpose data without having to copy files individually.

How Does Disk Copying Work?

The process for copying a disk depends on the operating system and tools being used, but generally involves a few key steps:

  1. Attach the source disk and destination disk to the computer.
  2. Run disk cloning software or commands.
  3. The contents of the source disk are read sector-by-sector and copied over to the destination disk.
  4. The partition layout and file system structure are replicated on the destination disk.
  5. Boot sectors and other metadata are cloned to enable bootability.
  6. The copy process runs until the entire contents of the source disk are duplicated onto the destination.

This results in the destination disk being identical to the source, like a photocopy of a document. Any changes made to files on the destination disk do not affect the original source disk.

Considerations When Copying Disks

There are a few important factors to keep in mind when copying disks:

  • Destination disk size – The destination disk must be equal to or larger than the used space on the source disk.
  • Partition alignment – For optimal performance, partitions may need to be aligned on proper disk boundaries.
  • File system differences – Be aware of any file system differences between source and destination.
  • Bad sectors – Disk cloning utilities may be able to skip past bad sectors on the source disk.
  • Bootability – The destination disk needs to be made bootable if cloning a bootable system disk.

Also keep in mind that disk cloning merely duplicates data – it does not guarantee disk health or rectify any underlying problems with a failing source disk.

Disk Copying Tools

There are a variety of tools available for copying disks on different operating systems:


  • Disk Management utility – Provides basic disk cloning capabilities.
  • Third-party tools:
    • Acronis True Image
    • Macrium Reflect
    • AOMEI Backupper
    • EaseUS Todo Backup


  • Carbon Copy Cloner – Popular third-party app for cloning Mac disks.
  • SuperDuper – Another third-party disk cloning utility.
  • Disk Utility – Built-in utility with disk cloning features.
  • Command line – Can be used to clone disks with dd or asr commands.


  • dd – Common CLI utility for copying data between files or devices.
  • cat – Can be used to concatenate and copy disk contents.
  • rsync – Used for cloning and syncing data between disks.
  • Linux GUI tools like Clonezilla.

Third-party disk cloning utilities generally provide more features and options compared to built-in OS tools. But built-in tools get the job done for basic disk copies.

Cloning a Disk with dd

The dd command is a common disk cloning tool on Unix-like systems like Linux and macOS. Here is an example of using dd to copy the contents of one disk to another:

  1. Identify the source disk device path (e.g. /dev/sda)
  2. Identify the destination disk device path (e.g. /dev/sdb)
  3. Unmount both disks
  4. Run the dd command:
    dd if=/dev/sda of=/dev/sdb conv=noerror,sync bs=64K
  5. This copies the source /dev/sda to destination /dev/sdb while skipping over any bad sectors

The dd command provides a simple way to achieve a disk clone on Linux, macOS, and other Unix-like systems. But more advanced third-party tools can provide richer features and options.

Disk Cloning Software

Using third-party disk cloning software provides benefits over using the built-in operating system tools. Features that disk cloning software may offer include:

  • Graphical and easy to use interface
  • Scheduling and automation capabilities
  • Backup capabilities like incremental and differential backups
  • Optimization for copying only used disk space
  • Resilience to bad sectors
  • Advanced cloning options
  • Disk health monitoring
  • Bootable recovery media
  • Virtual machine cloning

Popular third-party disk cloning software options include:

Software Platform Key Features
Acronis True Image Windows/Mac Full disk images, differential backups, mobile app
Macrium Reflect Windows Disk imaging, bare metal restore, file backup
Paragon Drive Copy Windows/Mac Partition management, bootable media, optimizations
Clonezilla Cross-platform Open source, bare metal restore, simple interface
AOMEI Backupper Windows Backup scheduling, cloning options, free version available

What is Disk Imaging?

Disk imaging is closely related to disk cloning. A disk image is a single file that encapsulates the complete contents and structure of a disk. Some key differences vs cloning:

  • Imaging copies to a file, cloning copies disk to disk
  • Images compress better and can be transferred more easily
  • Cloning provides a directly bootable duplicate
  • Images may require restoration before use

Imaging is beneficial for backups as it avoids data duplication. But cloning provides a direct duplicate for operations like migrating to new hardware.

Should You Clone or Image a Disk?

Whether to clone or image a disk depends on the specific use case:

  • For backup purposes, disk imaging is generally preferred as it is more storage efficient.
  • For disk migration or duplication, cloning is better as it provides a directly bootable copy.
  • For maximum flexibility, use software that provides both cloning and imaging options.
  • If regularly updating a backup, incremental images may be preferable over repeated full clones.
  • When speed is critical, cloning can sometimes be faster than creating full disk images.

Consider how you intend to use the disk copy when deciding between cloning and imaging. Software that provides both capabilities allows selecting the right approach for each scenario.

What is the Difference Between Cloning and Syncing?

Disk cloning and disk syncing both make the contents of two disks identical to each other. The key difference is how this is achieved:

  • Cloning copies all disk data sector-by-sector to replicate everything to another disk.
  • Syncing copies only incremental changes between a source and target disk.

Syncing avoids copying unchanged data, making it more storage and time efficient. But cloning ensures a full standalone duplicate without relying on the original.

Syncing is useful for keeping a backup copy up to date incrementally. Cloning is better for one-time duplication for migration or when the source disk could fail.

Disk Cloning vs File Copy

Disk cloning copies the entire disk sector-by-sector. File copying duplicates files and folders individually from one disk to another. Key differences:

  • Cloning duplicates the disk layout and partitions
  • Cloning copies empty space and slack space
  • Cloning includes boot sectors and metadata
  • File copy requires a disk with an existing file system
  • File copy allows selectively copying only needed files
  • File copy may not maintain permissions and attributes

Disk cloning is appropriate when a full disk duplicate is required. File copying provides more flexibility and storage efficiency for selective data duplication.

Potential Issues to Avoid When Cloning

While disk cloning is relatively straightforward, there are some issues to watch out for:

  • Insufficient disk space – The destination disk must have equal or greater capacity than the used space on the source.
  • Improper shutdown – Abruptly powering off the computer during cloning may corrupt data.
  • Unsynchronized data – If the source disk changes during cloning, the copy may not be synchronized.
  • Driver conflicts – Dissimilar hardware on the destination disk may cause driver issues.
  • Bad sector copying – Attempting to copy bad sectors may stall the cloning process.
  • Bootability problems – The destination disk clones may not always set up bootability properly.

Being aware of these potential pitfalls allows you to take steps to avoid them and have a successful disk cloning process.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is disk cloning safe for the source disk?

Disk cloning is a read-only process for the source disk. It does not make any changes or write anything to the source disk. This makes cloning a safe procedure that will not harm the original data.

Can you clone a larger disk to a smaller disk?

No, disk cloning requires that the destination disk be equal or larger in capacity than the used space on the source disk. However, disk imaging allows capturing a larger disk in a compressed image file that will fit on a smaller disk.

Is it better to clone a disk or reinstall from scratch?

Cloning preserves all OS, applications, and data without having to reinstall everything. However, reinstalling from scratch results in a cleaner system. Combining cloning with periodic fresh OS installs provides a good balance.

What is sector by sector copying?

Sector by sector copying, also known as low-level cloning, duplicates a disk by reading its contents sequentially sector-by-sector and writing to the destination disk. This ensures an exact bitwise copy of the entire disk.

Does disk cloning delete data from the source disk?

No, disk cloning is a read-only process for the source disk. No data is deleted or altered on the original disk during cloning. The source disk remains intact and unchanged.


Disk cloning is a useful process for replicating the contents of a disk drive. It provides redundancy against disk failure, enables migration to new disks, and supports deploying master disk images to multiple endpoints. Both built-in operating system tools and third-party software provide capabilities for efficiently cloning disks.

Understanding key concepts like disk imaging versus cloning, sector-by-sector copying, and technical considerations for the cloning process allows you to effectively harness disk cloning for your needs. Used properly, disk cloning serves as an important tool for preserving critical data, rolling out standardized disk configurations, and keeping data backups safely duplicated.