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Is cloning to a second internal drive a viable backup strategy?

Question: Leo, I’ve reformatted my PC several times in the past which is a real pain. Since then, I’ve done things a little different. Now, I just use another internal hard drive hooked up via USB adapter to clone my present hard drive. It takes less than an hour to do so and I do this every six months using flash drives in-between to save anything new. It seems to work well for me. Can you think of problems that may occur from doing this sort of backup?

Backing up puts you ahead of the game. You’re doing more than probably half of the people out there today.

Cloning your hard drive is a reasonable solution, but personally, I’m not comfortable with it because you can run into a few “gotchas” every now and then.

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Gotcha #1: Manual updates can be error-prone

In your question, you say that you save anything new to flash drives. How do you identify when something is “new” and when it isn’t?

When you manually save anything new, you run the risk that you might miss something. Any kind of a manual operation that requires you to look for updated files or relies on your memory of what you did is error-prone.

It’s all too easy to overlook a file that you needed to back up.

An Active Hard DIskGotcha #2: What affects the hard drive can affect its clone

The other problem with cloning your hard drive is that certain types of failures can be pretty destructive.

A power spike could take out the original hard disk and the clone in one zap. Some malware can infect all of the connected drives, rendering them unusable.

The concern is that the clone remains vulnerable to various forms of failure that could be the result of the very types of issues that you’re trying to protect yourself from.

Gotcha #3: Backup frequency

I’m a little concerned with how often you’re cloning the drive.

No matter how you’re backing up, every six months seems like a long time between full backups.

At a minimum, if I had you do nothing else, I’d have you do your clone a tad more often.

No more gotchas

To be honest, I would add backup software (like Macrium Reflect) to your current strategy, and have it save backup images (periodic full and daily incremental) to an external drive. It won’t take much time to save everything that actually changes on a much more frequent basis. This way you’ll know for certain that everything that was changed was backed up – whether you remembered it or not.

If you’re looking for a more substantial change, I would then use the internal drive for additional space or speed instead of using it to create a backup of your hard drive.

But as I said in the beginning, backing up like you are is great. You’re way ahead of the game compared to a lot of people. I don’t want to necessarily say that you need to stop doing what you are doing, but just be aware of some of the gotchas that you might find.

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17 comments on “Is cloning to a second internal drive a viable backup strategy?”

  1. I also prefer cloning my HDD for backup. I tried using Macrium Reflect and I was surprise the number od CDs and time required to make a backup image. When I first hear about an image backup, on “Ask Leo”, I pictured a 5 minute 1 CD image. Judging from the first CD (using Macrium Reflect), it appeared the image backup would take several hours and more CDs I choose to count. The clone backup takes approximately an hour, but you had valid points with the “Gotchas”.

    • If you are cloning your HDD to *CDs* you are doing it wrong. I hope you meant DVDs, but you should really use an external harddrive to save a whole bunch of work and time.

    • To be clear, the number of CDs being used is NOT a reflection of the backup program, but simply the amount of data being backed up. I recommend using an external drive for backups – CDs and DVDs are just too impractical.

  2. I do backups with EaseUs ToDo Backup. It does everything I want including Full/Incremental, Images etc. I do a weekly backup (Full followed by 6 incrementals). Nightly, I use another program to copy files of my user directories and several others that deal with my two navy ship websites, email, dropbox etc. These are full actual copies of the files using Karens Replicator. Should something happen to me, the website data files can be passed to someone else without the need for any special program.

    I find this works well for me. A network attached hard drive is used foa all backups. Once every three months, I make an image backup to DVD of the system for restore purposes.

  3. Dear Leo:
    I use the StarTech Duplicator Dock, invested in two extra exact O/E drives,
    backup and test them both every six months, use an HP/PC running Win-8,
    so far so good, the total cost for drives & doc was $211.04 from Amazon.
    The only downside, having to unplug the PC, ground and remove the drive,
    then reverse the process, other then something unexpected happening,
    always a small chance, is this strategy OK in your opinion?

  4. Using Acronis True Image Home to clone my data drive every month has been a godsend since this practice has saved my butt a fair number of times. I built all of our computers (and those of clients) with a solid state “C” drive for the Windows operating system and all programs/applications and a large “D” drive, a conventional hard drive for all data (in Windows 8, you can easily reassign default folders like “Documents” to your D drive). I use Acronis to create an image of the C drive which I save to the D drive on a regular basis. Being cautious (since our computers are primarily for business use), I keep one clone of the D drive in a safety deposit box at the bank and another clone in the office — cloning monthly. I have found that Acronis is a lot faster than the otherwise perfectly fine Macrium Reflect — cloning a 2 TB drive in 90 to 110 minutes. Whatever cloning program you use, be sure to disconnect the clone from your computer after you’ve cloned the drive and store it in a secure place.

  5. Thank you Leo for expert articles. I find them very instructive, and easy to grasp. What I want to know, is whether synchronizing your main C:\ drive to an external hard drive is a workable way of backing up, and whether synchronization is in fact a backup. Thanks.

    • Well, in part that’s exactly what this article attempted to answer. In your case it really depends on exactly what you mean by “synchronizing”.

  6. I have found the perfect backup plan for my needs. I use Macrium Reflect to save a system image to an external hard drive whenever I add or change a software installation, or when Windows does a major update; for files such as documents, pictures, videos, and music; I have those folders saved in cloud storage, specifically Dropbox and Copy. Whenever I add or make a change to them, they are automatically saved. Unless your files are excessively large, this kind of storage can be free.

  7. I have a identical internal drive and use Casper for a file by file clone copy. It’s fully bootable which makes it far superior to images. I enter Setup, change the boot sequence and boot to the second drive to ensure the backup worked. That’s another weakness with images–how do you know it worked?

  8. I have been using a imaging software program called Casper (Future Systems) for several years now. I do an incremental imaging daily after I’ve finished using the computer for the day. It only takes a couple minutes. The customer support has been excellent. Recently, my computer started crashing when running Casper and I contacted Casper. They instructed me on how to generate special reports to aid them in troubleshooting. They replied the next day the problem was a failing C: drive and that I needed to replace it asap. I did so by replacing the C: drive with the external drive I was copying to and then putting a new drive to then use to copy to. Doing this got me back in operation w/o losing anything. Casper isn’t advertised on Amazon but Googling for it will direct one to their website. Overall, their customer support has been excellent even before the above described problem.

  9. Edwin Johnson, interesting. Maybe Casper has more than one product? I have also used Casper for years, but mine is a clone copy, and not an image. It’s a file by file copy, fully bootable.

  10. If you have an external hard drive connected via usb, wouldn’t a voltage spike still travel through the usb connector and damage the external hard drive. Conversely, if you had an extra internal hard drive used only for backup purposes, couldn’t you just unplug it’s power connector when not in use…or could a voltage spike travel through the data connector and still cause damage to the data?

    • A spike could travel through any connection. I’m not typically concerned about it travelling through a USB connection, though. I could happen, but it’d be very rare.

    • There is a free version and a paid version. The advantages of the paid version are that it gives you very good support from Macrium, and it allows you to make scheduled incremental backups, which copy only the data which has been added or changed since the last backup. This is a great advantage.
      A good backup program which allows scheduled incremental backups in the free version is EaseUS Todo Backup.

  11. I have been using Casper (Future Systems Software) for years and find it an excellent piece of software. I always make a full clone of the internal drive (HDD or SSD) and have never had a problem and that is how I upgraded from a HDD to a SSD (Crucial). Certainly, using a drive connected via USB and not leaving it connected except for backup/cloning is the smart (only?) thing to do.


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