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How Do I Restore a Backup Image to a Smaller Drive?

Common when switching to an SSD, it’s not hard, but takes a little planning

Hard disk under a stethoscope

Restoring to a smaller drive is often difficult. I'll list the steps necessary to get the job done.
Question: Hi, Leo, I recently broke my hard drive. A 750 GB drive. I made a full system image using the Windows backup utility. The data on the drive was about 150 GB. I would like to recover the image to an SSD drive 250 GB, but Windows says that the target drive is too small. Is there any way to do this?

Yes and no.

The scenario is very common, even without a hard disk failure: simply replacing a traditional hard disk with a newer SSD is likely to involve “downsizing” the drive, as SSDs are generally smaller than HDs at comparable prices.

Restoring backup images across differently-sized drives has become easier since this question was originally asked. Unfortunately, Windows built-in backup utility hasn’t improved in this regard.

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Clean up, uninstall, or move things around to first make sure the amount of data on your old drive fits in the space offered by the new drive. Create a backup image of the old drive, then restore it to the new one. Most backup programs will do the right thing when performing a restore and make everything fit. If that won’t work you might need to resize the partition on the old drive to something smaller than the new before creating the image. Third-party backup or partition management tools might be required.

First, the data

The data needs to fit.

In the question, only 150GB of data was on that 750GB drive, so moving that data to a smaller 250GB SSD should be relatively easy.

For most people, though, the first problem is that the original drive is filled to the brim, and the data that would simply need to be transferred exceeds the capacity of the replacement drive. In cases like that, a few more steps may be necessary:

  • Disk cleanup. Remove all temporary files, caches, and cruft that might be on the drive.
  • Uninstall. Remove applications you don’t use to free up space.
  • Install a second drive and move as much of your data to it as makes sense, freeing up room on the primary drive.
  • Add an external disk, and move as much of your data to it as makes sense. (While often slower than installing a second internal disk, this is sometimes the only alternative, and generally much easier.)

Once you have the amount of data to be transferred down to something less than the capacity of the new drive, you’re at a point where you can start.

Restoring an existing backup image

Some backup programs will “do the right thing” when restoring an existing image, as long as the amount of data on the image is less than the size of the new drive. In the original question, while the image was of a 750GB drive, there was only 150GB of data on the drive.

Some programs restore that to a new drive as expected: they’ll set up partitions on the new drive to the largest available, and then restore the data, as long as it fits.

Windows Backup is not one of those programs. You’ll need to do something different.

Restoring when you can’t

The real problem here is that the failure has already happened, and the original disk is no longer available. We need to restore the backup image if we’re going to restore at all, and Windows Backup isn’t going to help.

Thus, the solution becomes somewhat more complex.

  • Get another hard drive large enough to hold the backup image; ideally the same size as the original disk or larger. It can be internal or external.
  • Restore the image to that drive.
  • Using partition management tools — either Windows or third-party tools — resize the partition to something smaller than the size of the replacement drive.
  • Back up this new, smaller partition. Ideally, back it up with better software that will resize the partition properly on restore.
  • Restore it to your new, smaller SSD.

It’s a bit of a pain, but in theory it should work.

Preparation, if you can

If you’re not dealing with a drive failure, but still have the original working drive, I’d follow the same or similar steps without getting a replacement drive.

  • Using partition management tools, resize the partition to something smaller than the size of the replacement drive.
  • Back up this new, smaller partition using software that will resize the partition properly on restore.
  • Restore it to your new, smaller SSD.

That only works, of course, if the drive hasn’t yet failed and you’re replacing it for other reasons.

About Windows Backup

Besides Microsoft warning us that they plan to stop supporting it, Windows’ built-in backup program is just too limited in too many ways to be a reliable tool for scenarios like this. I recommend you stop relying on it.

Instead, get a copy of Macrium Reflect or EaseUS Todo and use either to do your regular backups. Both are more flexible, more forgiving, and have better support than Windows Backup.

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4 comments on “How Do I Restore a Backup Image to a Smaller Drive?”

  1. Leo,
    I struggled with the same scenario for 2 weeks before I was able to successfully clone my Windows 7 installation. My 640 GB hard drive has 4 partitions: PQservice (9.7 GB, hidden, recovery for Vista), Windows 7 boot partition (100 MB, no-letter, system, boot), C: partition 40GB active, non-boot (Windows 7, programs, etc.), and D: data partition, approx 545 GB. This drive is actually a third generation clone from my original 160 GB laptop hard drive. I finally succeeded by following a guide by GroverH which uses TrueImage Home 2012 to do a partition by partition restore. I only wanted the 100MB system boot partition and C: drive partitions cloned to my 120 GB SSD. After cloning, I had to do a Windows 7 repair to get the SSD to boot. Then I used GParted Live to realign the first partition to the 1 MB boundary and extend the C: partition to fill the entire drive. All of this to clone only about 25GB of files! It was definitely a learning experience!

    My advice to anyone else attempting to do this: Do a fresh Windows 7 install, which will automatically align the partition boundary. Restore from backup any needed programs and data.

    Regards, Don

  2. Leo that (reply article) was really bold of you and it actually makes me cry out of happiness to know that I trust such an honest and awesome guy!

  3. About a year ago I went from a Samsung 250 ss to a 1000 gig ss drive. At first I did a Macrium direct “restore” but wound up with a 250 gig on the larger drive. I am not sure if Macrium can actually deal with that and you wind up with all your original operating system and data on the larger drive with all the size of the drive being available as “C” as it were. So, I reformatted the new drive and used a free download from the Samsung site to migrate the smaller to the new larger. Worked like a charm. I then stuck the smaller drive in a drawer as an ultimate backup if the newer larger ever fails. Macrium has never let me down where Acronis which I used for over a decade did on a couple of occasions. I think there may be some viruses in the wild that were written to thwart Acronis. I really enjoy reading your posts and they are always filled with great info. Though I have been in computing since Windows 95 days and all the iterations since and build my own boxes I realize I am a newbie compared to most of your audience.

  4. I have EaseUS but there is a concern. After sending image to thumb drive many months ago, I decided to update the backup. But EaseUS opened to the USB port I used back then, but in the months since I’ve plugged/unplugged many ext devices many times so the port was not the same.

    And EaseUS could not find the drive. Would it be able to find the drive in the restore mode?


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