System Image or Clone Backup

Last Updated: May 15, 2023

I already discussed programs meant to sync or backup specific folders and files. There are other programs, however, that will back up an entire computer, including the operating system, installed programs, and all your files. Basically, everything on the computer’s hard disk (or partition) is included. This type of backup is usually referred to as a clone or a system or disk image. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, though they differ in some significant ways.

hard drive thumb - System Image or Clone Backup

A Clone is an exact sector by sector copy from one disk to another. Everything is copied, including empty disk space, and the contents of the destination drive are totally destroyed in the process (so don’t clone to a drive where you are saving other files). I use the term disk, but actually a clone can be taken of an entire disk or just a partition. Most likely your disk only has one partition, but if you do have more than one, you could clone each separately. The biggest value of a clone is that you can just replace the original disk with the cloned disk and the system will work; in other words, there is no need to use the cloning program to restore your backup.

An Image (System or Disk) is also a full copy (sometimes sector by sector, sometimes not) of a disk or partition to a file on a destination storage device. One advantage of an image over a clone is that you don’t need to overwrite the entire destination drive. In fact, using compression, you can usually store multiple copies, especially if your program can do incremental or differential backups. With an image, you can also generally restore individual files rather than the entire system.

As I said, many people mix the two terms and some programs can do both. It’s fine to make a clone, especially if you have an extra drive to use, but I think making a system image is generally more useful. I would especially recommend doing so after first completing a new computer setup or before making any major system changes, though a regularly schedule system image backup is even better. Do keep in mind, however, that the backup can be a very slow process that could require a lot of storage space, especially if there is no differential backup option.

Now that you have a better understanding of the concept, let’s talk about actual programs. Most can be run in Windows, but a few are run from a CD or bootable USB device, which is significantly less convenient. Regardless, you may need such a bootable CD or flash drive to do a complete system restore, especially in the event that your computer can’t boot properly. The program you choose will likely have a utility or instructions for making this restore media and doing so with a CD is fairly easy—just download an ISO file and burn it to a CD. Creating and using a bootable USB flash drive is usually more complicated. You’ll need the same ISO file that would be used with a CD, but you can’t just copy that to a flash drive. Instead, you need special software to make the drive bootable. I recommend Universal USB Installer for one ISO image and YUMI – Multiboot USB Creator for multiple ISO images. Another option is UNetbootin.

If using a bootable USB drive, creating it is only half the battle. You also must get your computer to boot from it. Unfortunately, each computer is a bit different in this regard, so it is hard to give detailed instructions here, but for a general tutorial, see How to Boot from a USB Device or How to Boot from a CD. If that doesn’t help, search the Web for tips on your specific computer, perhaps using a query like “how to boot from usb lenovo thinkpad.”

As I mentioned early on, the ultimate point of all backup is the ability to restore. Generally, creating a system image is fairly easy. The complicated part is restoring it using that CD or flash drive. So, my strong recommendation is to test your ability to restore. You don’t need to actually perform a restore, but you should at least verify you are able to boot from the CD or flash drive and access your recovery software.

By its nature, a true clone program doesn’t offer many features. In contrast, in a system image program you should consider features such as the option to back up only the used sectors on the disk, the ability to compress, encrypt and/or password protect image archives, the ability to schedule regular backups, the ability to perform a backup while you are still using your system, and incremental or differential backups. Some programs also allow you to mount a saved image to a drive in Windows Explorer so that individual files can be viewed and restored. A program offering such a feature could, in theory, be used instead of the regular file backup programs already discussed, though note that creating the images can be time consuming and, depending on the program, may not permit you to work during the backup.

Below, I list the major programs to consider. Currently, I am using AOMEI Data Backupper, though there are other options as well.

Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office

Formerly Acronis True Image, Cyber Protect Home Office is a popular program that supports Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS devices. It’s only available as a paid program, though note that some hard drive manufacturers include a free slimmed down copy of the software. Features available on all plans include: full image backup, active disk cloning, file and folder backup, disk and partition backup, All-in-one recovery drive (recover your system even data even if the OS fails to boot), recover to similar or dissimilar hardware, incremental and differential backups, automatic mobile backups, scheduling, and integrated anti-malware and privacy features. Advanced plans also include cloud storage, Microsoft 365 backup (including and OneDrive), remote data management, and cloud sync and share. Pricing is per computer per year but all plans include unlimited mobile devices.

Pricing: $49.99 (Essentials), $89.99 (Advanced), or $124.99 (Premium) per year for one computer. Smaller price increases for more than one computer.

AOMEI Backupper

AOMEI Backupper is a powerful Windows program that allows you to create complete disk backups, partition backups, system backups, disk and partitions clones, and file syncing. The app’s options allow you to check the integrity of a backup image, create bootable media (CD/DVD/USB Flash drives), and even mount it to explore the contents via Windows Explorer without having to restore it first. Backupper lets you choose different compression levels, encrypt and password protect the backup file, split large backups and make use of Intelligent Sector Backup to only backup the used section of file systems. The program also uses Microsoft’s VSS technology to backup data without interrupting any running applications. Finally, Backupper supports incremental backup and lets you selectively restore individual files and folders from a backup image file without recovering the entire backup. The free version has most of the features you will likely want. Paid versions add differential and cloud backups, MS Outlook backup, the ability to automatically delete old backups, encryption, file filters, and advanced syncing features.

Pricing: Standard Edition is free; Professional Edition is $39.95 per PC; Workstation is $49.95 per PC.


Clonezilla is an open-source partition and disk imaging/cloning program for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It comes in two flavors, two server editions for multiple computers and Clonezilla Live for one computer. Despite its name, Clonezilla can act like either a true cloning program or a system image program, depending on the option you select, though it doesn’t support incremental or differential backups in either mode. Overall, Clonezilla is very powerful, but it is most likely going to appeal more to the technically savvy because it is not very user friendly. In particular, you must run Clonezilla from a specially created CD/DVD or USB flash drive.

EaseUS Todo Backup

Todo Backup is a robust program with many features, including the ability to do differential, incremental, and scheduled backups. You can restore individual files, a complete user library, or the entire system, so you could, in theory, use it as your complete backup (not sync) software solution.

Pricing: Free limited version available; Home is $39.95; Enterprise is $49.00.

Macrium Reflect

Macrium Reflect is Windows-only software that can make a clone or system image backup. For many years it offered a free version which was highly recommended around the Web. That free product is no longer supported or available. Even when it was available, it didn’t offer many of the features available in the paid versions, like scheduled backups, incremental and differential backups, password protection and encryption, or the ability to restore to dissimilar hardware. The free version also didn’t include the file and folder backup feature or Macrium Image Guardian (protection of the backups themselves from being altered by anyone). Macrium Reflect can mount any backup image that you have created so you can explore and restore any individual files if the need arises. Creating an image backup is easily accomplished by double-clicking a file on your desktop, by running the program or by creating a schedule. You can run Macrium Reflect while still using your PC.

Pricing: A 1-PC license is $69.95; A 4-PC license is $139.95.

Paragon Backup & Recovery

Paragon Backup & Recovery is a system image backup program for Windows and Mac with some nice features, including the ability to schedule backups; a backup “capsule” (special disk partition) to store a full backup image that will continue to function even if the main system fails; version control; disk space management (automatically delete old backups based on specified criteria); and the ability to create a bootable USB Flash drive, CD/DVD or other media to recover your PC in case of an unbootable system. Paragon also offers the fairly uncommon ability to restore to smaller partitions and it lets you protect your backup archives with a password, which is usually a premium product feature.

Pricing: Community Edition is free for non-commercial use; Hard Disk Manager ($99) offers extra features and supports commercial use.


SuperDuper! is a disk copying program for Macs. It can clone to another drive, partition, or image file. SuperDuper! only copies APFS (Apple File System) and HFS+ (Mac OS Extended) volumes. Note that USB drives do not allow booting Power PC Macs under any version of macOS so if you would like to boot from a backup stored on an external drive, and have a Power PC Mac, you will need to purchase a Mac compatible FireWire drive. Intel Mac users can boot from USB 2, USB 3, Thunderbolt or FireWire drives.

Pricing: $29.91 (there is a free trial available).

Windows Backup and Restore

Microsoft Windows has two tools that let you backup and restore files: its Backup and Restore (Windows 7) and File History. Use File History to keep the files in your Libraries—your personal documents, files, and media—continuously backed up, and use Backup and Restore to back up your entire Windows system.

To backup or restore files with the Backup and Restore tool, use the search box on the taskbar to type “Control Panel,” then select it from the list of results. In the search box in Control Panel, type “Backup and Restore” and you will see the “Backup and Restore (Windows 7)” option. Choose it and follow the setup prompts. These tools lack the robust features of other software listed here but if they do what you need and you already have them installed, either might be worth considering. Do note, however, that Microsoft has indicated that the Backup and Restore tool is deprecated and may go away some day and that you should be using third party tools for backups.

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