How do I transfer my system to a replacement drive?

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My hard drive states that failure is imminent and I should replace it immediately. My questions are as follows: When I replace my hard drive, will I need to install a new operating system? Is there a way to clone my current hard drive completely including my operating system? If I am able to clone my entire hard drive, will I need hardware or some device to set up between the old hard drive and the new while I do the transfer? What is the best way to save my existing files if I can’t salvage my entire hard drive? Are there software programs that can help me do this?

There are indeed programs that can help.

They’re called “backup programs”.

While there are many, many ways to do what you’re looking to do, I’m going to review what I think is the most appropriate way.

In fact, it’s the exact way that I frequently do exactly what you’re asking about.

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First: BACK UP!

First things first: start backing up. Now. Do not wait.

You are very, very lucky: most hard drive failures come without any warning; one day, the drive just fails.

The fact that you’re asking this question tells me you haven’t been backing up.

If you had been backing up, you would have:

  • The knowledge that your existing files are there, in your backups, ready for recovery should you ever need them for any reason.
  • The ability to recover, even if your hard drive failed completely without warning.
  • A means to transfer your entire system to your new hard disk.

If you read Ask Leo! frequently, you may be tired of my constant harping on the miracle that is a well-maintained backup, but I can’t stress enough how important it is, and how many types of problems from which it can help you recover.

Hard Disk InteriorI know this for a fact myself, since very coincidentally, two days before writing the original version of this article, the primary hard drive on my primary work machine developed a bad sector that could not be repaired. Since then, I’ve used this technique to replace hard disks in multiple machines, both Mac and PC, as well as virtual machines.

Step 1: Make an image backup

In reality, there’s a little more to it, of course.

  • Get and install backup software, if you haven’t already.
  • Get an external hard disk to contain your backups, if you haven’t already.
  • Create the “rescue disk” or “emergency disk” for your backup software, if you haven’t already.

All “if you haven’t already” means is that if you’ve been backing up regularly, most of these peices will already be in place. You’ll have backup software, you’ll have that external hard drive, and you’ll have created that emergency disk in case you ever need it.

Today, you need it.

Using your backup software, create a full-image backup of your machine. If you have been backing up, you can simply rely on the most recent backup image, if you like. I want additional reassurance I won’t lose any changes made since then, so I make a complete full-image backup immediately prior to changing the drive.

Step 2: Install the replacement drive

I’ll assume you’ve already purchased a replacement drive. It should have at least as much capacity as the drive you’re replacing, though it’s not at all uncommon for it to be larger – sometimes much larger. That’s OK.

Turn off your machine, unplug it, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for replacing the failing hard drive.

Step 3: Restore the backup image

After you put your machine back together again, reboot, using the emergency/rescue disk you created with your backup software.

Now, use that software to restore your backup image to the new hard drive.

That’s pretty much it. When that’s done, you can remove the emergency disk and reboot, and you should be up and running as if nothing had happened… except you’ll be running from your replacement hard drive.

Step 4: Tweak partitions

This step is technically optional, but as I said above, it’s common for replacement drives to be larger than the original. Most backup programs will restore the layout of the hard disk exactly as it was on the original drive. What that means is that there’s a chance all the extra space on the new drive will go unused.

There are several approaches.

  • Do nothing. Your machine is working.
  • Use Windows Disk Manager to create a new partition out of the unused space, which will appear as a new drive letter.
  • Use Windows Disk Manager to extend an existing partition (ideally your C: partition), making that partition larger. (This may or may not always be practical, depending on how the partitions are laid out.)
  • Use another disk management tool to re-arrange your partitions so you can extend the C: partition into the unused space.

Check the related articles below for links to partition-related information.

Now you’re really done.

Conceptually simple

The bottom line is exactly what you were looking for. Having a full backup image allows you to transfer everything from an existing, failing hard disk to a replacement disk. And that’s exactly what I recommend you do: start backing up to an external backup hard drive.

I’ll mention also that I have several books on backing up, including books with step-by-step instructions on performing the backup and restore outlined in this article, using several popular backup programs (including free versions). Check out the “Saved!” series of books at The Ask Leo! Store.

My recommendation: use an image backup tool like Macrium Reflect, and begin backing up regularly. It’s hard to overstate the number of different ways a regular backup can save you… but this is clearly one of them.

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57 comments on “How do I transfer my system to a replacement drive?”

  1. If your old hard drive is still running just grab yourself a copy of Miray Software’s HDClone – the free version will work perfectly for what you are trying to do.

    I have used it numerous times and it has worked flawlessly – your operating system and all other programs and files will be transferred and work just like they did on your old drive. I came across HDClone after BIG NAME software did NOT clone a disk successfully.

  2. I’ve used Rebit for several months now, and particularly like the option it has of restoring individual files. If my primary HDD ever does fail, I expect Rebit to install the drive image just as flawlessly as it’s already done with the individual files.

    I do have one question, though, for those of you who have gone through this procedure (replacing a failed HDD). I’ve read that Windows will think its being illegally installed on a separate machine if the HDD is changed, and wonder if that’s true. If so, how does one deal with that issue?

    It takes more than a disk change to put Windows into that state. I recently replaced my HD with no ill effect. Even if it does happen you should simply need to re-activate Windows – worst case, you’ll have to call.

    Leo
    22-Apr-2010

  3. Why bother with backup programs now that the damage is imminent ?
    Just use HDClone – it does exactly what you want cloning your disk to another one. Once you have transfered your OS and your data you can take extra security measures, as in backing up.

  4. My computer running Windows 2000 failed, but I had created an image using Ghost 10 so I thought I was covered. I bought a new laptop and installed Windows XP. I installed Ghost 10 and connected my external hard drive with the image to my new laptop. During installation it set a new recovery point. When I tried to recover my old files I couldn’t find them, only the most recent recovery point was found. The recovery point did not include any files from my old machine. I think the image of my old machine is still on my external hard disc but I can’t access them.

  5. I just replaced (my perfectly good 320 GB) notebooks
    drive with a 500 GB drive.
    I have 6 OS’s and 2 storage partitions on my machine.
    I made images of my OS partitions using Clonezilla just prior to the transfer.

    I then used a copy of Partition Magic 8 I have installed on my XP partition to partition the new drive exactly like the old one, the OS partitions were duplicated exactly (same size, FS and partition type) while the 2 storage partitions were created using all the remaining and larger space.
    That took about 15 minutes.

    I migrated the contents including the image files of the storage partitions
    manually with the assistance of my USB HDD docking device.
    I then popped the drive into my machine and used the Clonezilla Live CD to restore the images to the new drive, 30 minutes later I had a new larger
    drive with all my data and OS’s migrated to it.
    I did have to restore my GRUB (linux) bootloader to the MBR and make a few trivial adjustments
    to my Win 7 install, all anticipated.

    I maintain Clonezilla images of all my OS installs
    and back them up to an external drive.
    I regularly, manually back up my data partitions as well.

    I have the time, being retired, so I prefer manual
    backups to automated backups. I feel more secure doing it myself.

  6. I am running 64 bit Windows 7 Professional (Upgrade) and I use the built in Microsoft program to make Full Disk Image Backups which I save weekly on a second internal hard drive and monthly to DVDs. I self built my computer in 2005. The origional operating system was OEM 64 bit Windows XP which I upgraded to 64 bit Vista Utimate and upgraded this to my current Windows 7.

    I intend to build a new computer later in the year when USB 3 and other stuff in the pipeline becomes more available on good motherboards. My worry is that some BIG issue may cause my current computer to completely fail and then when I try to use a image backup from my old computer on a new computer with new motherboard and new OEM (or retail version) of 64 bit Windows 7 Professional the backup might not work.

    In short will a disk image backup from an old computer work on a new mechine with the same operating system. I have never seen an answer to this.

    In a previous comment by Robert Reznikoff he seems to allude to this when his new mechine cannot find a Ghost image backup from his old computer.

    There’s no simple answer to this. In general it will not work – you would need to reinstall your OS and applications on your replacement machine. The backup is still valuable in that you should be able to get your backed up data files from it. The biggest determining factor in understanding whether it will work or not is how different the new machine is from the old. The more similar, the more likely it’ll work to simply restore an image and boot into the restored operating system. The more different the old and new hardware are, the less likely that’d work.

    Leo
    22-Apr-2010

    • Hello, I have successfully done this Its called bare metal restore most free versions of disk imaging software don’t have this ability. Acronis and Marcium Reflect paid versions do . The Ultimate question is and Leo is correct is does the motherboard you select have drivers for older OS’s. Its a trail and error situation and is never easy

  7. Essentially same question. There is no shortage of affordable – even free – disk cloning programs that will install an image to the same hardware.I need software that will clone my hard drive and restore it to a new computer – different hardware. I recently resumed using an old computer (dumb!) that has a small ide hard drive. I hope to transfer everything to a new computer without spending several hundred dollars for the software, such as Acronia Bacup and Recovery with universal restore. Anything available that is not quite so expensive?

  8. It is a very simple process to create an Image and restore to the same computer. Cloning is just as easy with free software on Seagate’s website called DiscWizard. The problem is the Image is hardware specific and cannot be restored to a different computer. DiscWizard is Acronis, just not a full version. You can clone to the same size or a larger drive. You can create an Image, but you cannot do incrementals to the Image. That is really not necessary if you are doing regular Data backups. You restore your Image and then update your Image with the data in your incremental backup.

  9. Transferring your operating system to another HDD sometimes will invoke a message to registrar your copy of Windows… Just enter the product number from your install disk OR on a label on your computer. Usually on back..

  10. I had to use Acronis twice this week on 2 different computers. Both were software upgrade problems. The latest iTunes upgrade (9.1) is a train wreck (see Apple forum.) I couldn’t sync my music. The other was an upgrade to GoodSync which left me unable to eject the drive or shut down the computer without a hard shut down. I got out of both like they never-even-happened because I have backed up images using Acronis. Acronis has saved me HOURS of tech troubleshooting – you just make the problem “disappear!” Fabulous!

  11. I backed up with the easiest program ever called “Click Free”….plug it in, it backs up and to reinstall, just plug it in and it puts everything back on your computer. I can’t say enough good things about it – mostly because it is so easy and also because I’ve had to use it when my computer crashed and yeah – there was all my music,photos and documents! It can be used on multiple computers, so I backed up my husband’s computer too.

  12. Was this article helpful? Yes and No.
    For someone who is not familiar with this process – most of us users – “booting from my backup programs bootable rescue media (where is it and do I have one?)and restoring the backup to the machine” seems like treading on a minefield.
    Computers have the unfortunate habit of becoming
    slow and degraded after a few years of use of the Internet. How can one ensure that the mirror copy is free from problems?

  13. It’s much easier than you may think to salvage your data. But the best thing to do is like Leo always “harps” about, backup, backup & backup. For those who can’t afford Acronis (which is the best paid for backup software), Macrium Reflect is the best free one. And easy to use. The one included with Windows 7 is good, too. The main thing I’m saying, is that no one has an excuse not to backup. You don’t have to do it every week, but it’s a good idea anytime you make a system change to do so, including creating a restore point before making changes.

  14. True Image also offers the option to clone drives. It is faster than backing up then restoring.
    One thing about backups. They are not always right !!! Check them. Back in 1975, my data center lost considerable data and when I went to restore it from the IBM supplied backup to tape program, I found the data was corrupt. There was an error in the program !!! It took a week of analysis to determine and fix the corruption in the tapes !!!
    More recently, I was creating images of a Windows 2003 Server hard disk with True Image V 8 for months. Last week, I decided to put in a larger drive and after restoring the backup image I found the drive was NOT bootable. Apparently an issue with V 8 because when I created an image with V 11 then restored it, the disk was perfectly bootable. Lucky the source drive had NOT failed !!
    So, it is not a bad idea to CHECK that your back ups ARE good.

  15. If I replace the ‘failing’? hard drive with a larger one,can I simply copy my ‘backup’ or ‘image’ off my external drive straight onto the new drive and will my system and programs still be legal? If,for example, I replace my current drive(150Gb) with a different make and size (750Gb) will everthing work as normal, but with a lot more space, after I click on ‘Restore my Computer’ ? I’m sorry if I appear ‘thick’ but it’s important to me that everything is legal!

    A case like that certainly sounds legal to me. (Of course I’m no lawyer, but I can’t see how it could be any other way.)

    Leo
    14-Nov-2011
  16. Dear Leo:Hello and thank you once again for your wise advice.I plan on buying “Acronis True Image” A.S.A.P. because I just crashed this system myself. Ouch! Foolishly I shut down a perfectly good working XP system and plugged in another Hard Drive and restarted the computer and “Boom!” Everything -blinking and ticking! Thank God I was able to restart it after alot of work.My Toshiba 8200 laptop is still down also “after” my brother in law turned off all start up items and changed the boot path options also! Bad person right? So,Back up is Imperative!Thanks again,Michka’el.

  17. @Nick
    I looked up some info on that website, and not much came up. WOT (Web of Trust, a cloud sourced website which rates customer experience) hasn’t rated them yet, so there’s no way of knowing how reliable they are.
    One thing I found suspicious on their web site was their links to well known companies’ websites. Those seem to imply some kind of recommendation or partnership with those companies. Normally, if companies really recommend their software, a link like that should point to a page containing a recommendation. Those links just point to the generic home page of those companies, and apparently those companies haven’t expressed any recommendation for the service.

  18. Why did you stop promoting Macrium Reflect ? I upgrade to version 6 and haven’t had to restore my computer using it yet. Is there something better that I should be looking into ?

  19. Hi again Leo, and thanks as always to for your info. This is all very timely as I am in process of doing just what you’re discussing…my new hard drive arrives day after tomorrow. It’s a little exciting to see if I’m going to pull this off (replacing the hard drive, etc. I mean, with no previous experience, wish me luck).

    Anyway, just thought of another relevant question. What to do if something destroys the whole computer, not just the hard drive. Would the system image backup work on a whole different computer…I’m kinda thinking it might not?

    The possibility of this really happening was brought home to me, literally, not too long ago when, during a huge electrical storm, lightning struck a gas line coming into my house, exploded, there was a fire shooting up literally a couple of feet from the eve of my house. I was blessed, and all was well in the end. But it easily could have been different and a lot could have been lost including computers.

    But even if I had a copy of my backup off site (in my safe deposit box, in my case), would it help if it couldn’t replace the computer?

    thanks, Leo

      • Yeah, this is one of those times when “Could you?” and “Should you?” don’t necessarily have the same answer. Could you = probably; should you = probably not. Attempting to restore to dissimilar hardware can be a problematic process that’s further complicated by the fact that Windows licenses are often bound to the original hardware.

      • I’m using AOMEI Backupper and found a tutorial for restoring to different hardware even with the free version (you just click an option called ‘universal restore’. during the restore process. However, it has this caveat at the bottom of the page which is probably some of what Ray is referring to:

        “When you finish restoring a Windows system installation to a computer with different hardware, Microsoft Windows and third-party software may ask you to reactivate or even input a second registration code. It is a good practice for you to be well aware of your software vendor’s license agreement in advance.”

        Yes, can see where this could get sticky! πŸ™‚

    • Restoring an image to a different computer (topic of an upcoming article if I remember my scheduling properly) generally does not work well, if at all. However by having an image backup you have ALL of your data that can be restored to a newly built-out replacement system.

    • Eureka! πŸ™‚ Just replaced the failing hard drive on my older Dell Vista machine (using owner’s manual instructions), restored my AOMEI Backupper system image to the new larger drive, and VOILA! Runs like new! Thank you, Leo!

      OK, there were a couple of small hiccups as I am tech-deprived. When I restarted my machine with the new hard drive it told me it had nothing to boot from (slightly paraphrased, lol) so I inserted my AOMEI boot disk into my dvd drive at that point. It still wouldn’t boot, hmmm. I have a backup of my boot disk, so I put that in the cd drive, restarted the computer and went into the boot drive order by clicking F12 while it was booting, and changed to CD drive (it didn’t show the DVD drive) and told the computer ‘Take your pick!’ and it did.

      Very satisfying experience. I paid over $1000 for this machine in 2007 and it was about to be junk. I recently maxed out the RAM memory by adding two more GBs for $20. The new, larger (320 GB) hard drive from Western Digital cost me $20. For $40 I now have a perfectly good back up computer for my newer, faster machine.

      Not sure I would ever have had the nerve to do this without AskLeo!

      • PS: I also have some great programs on my old machine that I only use occasionally that were free when I got them, but I would have to pay big bucks to buy them for my new computer, so now I don’t have to!

        Another quick question–I tried mounting my backup to my new computer onto my old computer to find out if I could access all my files in case my new computer goes out. It wouldn’t let me access the files saying I didn’t have administrator privileges–I actually right clicked on the AOMEI program and clicked on ‘Run as Administrator’ when I opened the program hoping to avoid this problem, but it didn’t work. I did see some suggestions pop up for getting control of the files, but trying to follow those instructions just got more and more complicated. Can anyone tell me if it’s really possible to mount and view a backup from a different computer on another one? And then hopefully even copy come files to the old computer? Could it really be a problem of not having enough space on the old drive?

  20. I ran a Macrium Reflect free backup (latest version) for the first time a couple of weeks before the SSD (C drive) suddenly broke with no warning (would not boot up). Geeks put in a replacement C drive, same brand, same size. After reading all I could about restoring a Macrium Reflect backup, I was pretty sure I knew what I was doing. I ran into problems when I didn’t realize the computer had a C and G drive (I thought it was a partition of C and G). It seems I was shown other letters during the restore and I became confused, not knowing which drive to restore to. Help from the MR forum made me more confused. Long story short, the restore failed. I had to install all the programs manually, but unbeknownst to me, my data was still on the G drive. The “Geek” had told me I “lost everything.” So I attempted a restore of just the G drive. The result was the G drive had newer files on it than what was in the latest MR backup. The restore did not restore over what was already on G. This surprised me. Even though the restore didn’t work as smoothly as it should have, I was still VERY glad to have the backup. Thanks, Leo, for all the posts, videos, and blogs about making backups!!

    Another problem is that I’m not able to access the C drive image in the MR backup file (disk partition image). I get a message, “You have been denied permission to access this folder. To gain access to this folder you will need to use the security tab.” Whatever option I click in the security tab continues to result in not having access to the folders inside “Users.” I tried to change the administrator, but that doesn’t help. Maybe something is defective about the MR image, and could be why the restore didn’t work. I sure wish I knew what went wrong. Leo, you make it look so easy to restore! πŸ™‚

  21. This may help someone: a friend with Windows 7 had a failing hard drive which was giving SMART warnings, so we decided to copy its contents on to a new one for use in the same machine. I used disk copying software (I think it was Minitools Partition Magic) to do this, but the new disk wouldn’t boot. I tried again, with the same results. The contents of both appeared to be the same.
    In the end, I used an MS Emergency Recovery Disk on a CD to run Startup Repair. Many computers have this already installed on a separate partition, which might be available if an entire hard drive has been copied. Anyway, it did the job, and the system is still working a year later.
    Next time, I’ll try one of the clone tools mentioned above. I would be inclined to trust to one of these more than to a standard backup program which produces a compressed disk image file, as I have found that sometimes these files are corrupt and cannot be used.

    • Macrium Reflect and EaseUS Todo backup are very good tools for moving your system to a replacement drive. I’ve done it myself with success using Macrium Reflect.

  22. Just a word to the wise. Macrium can have a problem with Dell computers that have WINRETOOLS installed. It is a Dell backup and Recovery drive and the failures to backup are intermittent and unpredictable. Macrium is aware of the problem. So keep an eye on your b/ups and I believe that if an incremental fails so will everything else until you correct the problem.

  23. When I previously told you about an error msg when trying to view your recent videos, you said that using Chrome would solve the problem. That suggests that you’ve changed the type of format or stream you’re using. May I inquire as to what the change was/is and why it was done?
    I’ve been using Firefox for many years and find no reason to change save for your videos. Nor do I quite accept that doing so for just one — albeit a most important one — is a necessity. Does it have something to do with me still using Win XP? Or is there some other reason?
    Please advise as I’m more than just a little curious and frustrated.
    Thanks muchly, Mike

    • It’s essentially a security measure. The change was made due to vulnerabilities in Flash. Flash and Java are very old technologies which are constantly being patched against newly discovered vulnerabilities. Websites are moving away from those technologies in favor of html5 which is built into modern browsers without the need for Flash or Java. For many years, Apple has disallowed Flash from running on its iPhones and iPads.
      I view the videos without any problems on my Windows 10, 8.1 and 7 machines. I can also view them with Firefox in Linux. Sometimes with older systems, we need to find workarounds to do the things which we took for granted when they were being fully supported.

    • I’m moving away from requiring Flash – a known persistent and problematic source of security issues – for playing videos. I’m moving towards using HTML5-native video players, which require more current browsers and more current operating systems. (Videos for courses that I’ll be offering will also include downloadable versions for playing wherever. πŸ™‚ ).

  24. I don’t see anyone develop the strategy of cloning their hard drive with an external docking station or a cloning cable. Recently I bought a hybrid SSD/HHD drive and I bought a docking station that allows one HHD to be copied to the other. After the very easy transfer of data I installed the new drive and off I went. Suddenly I realized I have the “other” HHD that is identical. since I have the equipment to copy the drives I will just do a disk copy every couple months and I should have a fully functional second hard drive that in the event of a system disaster I can just install and be once again operational. Does this seem like a bad idea? Is there something that would be a downside that I don’t recognize. I’m not overly well versed about all this but it seems like a good idea to me.

  25. Depending on your level of technical expertise, this is usually a good time to just backup data and not a disk image. It is a good opportunity to start with a clean install of the OS and get rid of the junk built up on your present HD.

    • The problem with only making a data backup is that so many little things are hidden on the hard drive and it’s easy to forget something. Many applications save data in their own folders. Email programs are a good example. If you use Outlook and forget to backup your pst file then you lose all your emails. You may not realize this until later. So a full image backup is always a good idea.

  26. The original failure referred to an imminent HD failure.
    Is there not a danger that the HD will already have bad sectors? If so would a disk image at that stage not be corrupted and possibly unusable?

    • It might be possible that in some cases the backup isn’t able to restore the system correctly if for example, the backup is taken when the drive is beginning to fail, but at least having a backup will preserve much of the user data which would otherwise be completely lost.

    • A bad sector is an actual physical thing. It’s an area of a drive that a PC cannot read from/write to because of some permanent physical problem such as damage to the surface of a disk or a failed transistor. And, because a bad sector is a physical thing, it will not be included in a backup and, consequently, will not be restored to a replacement drive. However, a bad sector could cause a backup to fail with an error as the backup software may not be able to read the data stored in that sector. The majority of backup programs provide some method of working around this problem.

      It’s worth noting that, if you’re using either Windows 8 or 10, it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter this issue. Unlike previous operating systems, Windows 8 and 10 automatically run check disk (CHKDSK) during system idle time. This means that bad sectors are identified and marked as such so that both Windows and backup programs know to skip them.

  27. I had a hard rive that was about to fail and did several image backups. However, when I took the laptop to a tech shop to replace the drive and install the image backup, they told me I needed the original discs that came with the laptop in order to install the image. As I didn’t have them at the time, they went ahead and did an installation of the image but it only installed all the files, not the programs….What went wrong and how can I correct it? If I do another install of the image backup, will I still only get the files and not the programs?

    Thank you

    • What he told you was simply not true, unless somehow the backup was damaged. This doesn’t appear to have been the case, since they were able to restore your data files. They should have booted from the rescue media and run the system restore option.

      • Thank you very much for your answer! I will try that on my own at home and see what happens. It’s been frustrating having all my files replaced but not being able to open them as the programs needed to open them no longer exist on my laptop. Another question I have regarding the image backup: can I restore from any of the backups with one rescue media or does it have to be the same rescue media made on the same day the backup was made? For example, can I use the rescue media made on April 5 to restore a backup made in January?

        • The rescue media can be created at any time. If you don’t have one, you can create it on any machine and it should work.

  28. Great help in restoring my old drive to a new one. I had no message asking for windows credentials. If I might add a tip, however. When recovering using Easeus Todo, it will ask for a Source and Destination (also a Drive 0 and Drive 1), each of which it wants to name the C: drive. It can be very confusing. My solution before you begin the process, was to name my Source drive, the one with the image, as Backup. Easeus showed this C: drive as “Backup (C:)” so I knew it contained the image. Thanks for the help, Leo.

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