When you need to do some work on the hard drive in your PC, or want to protect your files, you’ll probably see a few terms flying around. If you haven’t used any hard disk tools before, it’s confusing to distinguish them.
Let’s take a look at three of the most popular hard drive operations: partitioning, cloning, and backing up. We’ll define and explain each of them, then discuss which one is best for what situations.
We start with the most complicated of the three operations, though it isn’t hard to grasp. Partitioning a disk allows you to split it into multiple (virtual) slices so you can use different sections of your hard drive for various purposes. Whether you know it or not, the hard drive in your PC has at least one partition now.
After you complete this step, Windows creates a usable partition on the disk. Once you boot into Windows, you typically see this partition as your C: drive. For the average user, one partition is all you really need. In this setup, your operating system (OS), personal files, installed programs, etc. are all on one partition.
However, if you add a partition, you can split off some of the disk’s space for another purpose. You can make a new partition and install Linux for dual-booting, for instance. Or you could place your files on a separate partition to make reinstalling Windows a cinch. When you add a partition, Windows shows it as a separate device in This PC, but it’s not actually a new physical drive.
Disk cloning allows you to copy the entirety of a hard drive’s contents to an image file, then place that image file on another machine. This isn’t a simple copy and paste operation; cloning takes everything from the host machine when it creates the image file. That includes hidden files that you would miss if you moved everything manually.
Typically, you use a specific program to clone a disk as operating systems don’t include this functionality. It creates a proprietary image file that contains everything on your source hard drive. You can transfer this to another PC or just save it as a backup. If you’re upgrading from a tiny drive to a new one, cloning makes the process much smoother.
In business situations, cloning is quite common as it allows IT staff to deploy a standard image to new computers — or move a user from one machine to another — without going through the setup process every time.
We’ve previously covered the process of cloning using free software.
“Backup” can have various definitions depending on who says it, so it’s worth stating a basic definition. Backing up is simply setting up a program to automatically copy important files from your PC to other places to keep them safe. Windows’s File History feature that allows you to restore files using another drive, cloud backup software like Backblaze, and moving your files into cloud storage all count as backups.
While any backup is better than none, a few guidelines to ensure your backups are quality.
The general rule is referred to as 3-2-1:
- 3 copies of your data,
- On 2 different types of storage,
- With 1 of them offsite.
For example, if you used a free backup tool to copy your files to an external hard drive while also backing them up to the cloud with Backblaze, you’re in compliance. Having a backup on your external hard drive means you have a copy of everything outside of your main drive when it fails. And with an offsite backup, you’re covered in case of theft or natural disaster.
Backing up is really important, yet not everyone does it. You can lose hundreds of hours worth of work and precious memories in an instant if you’re not backed up.
Pros and Cons of Each Method
Now that we’ve looked at these three different processes, let’s see what their strengths and weaknesses are.
Partitioning isn’t really a backup method per se, but a tool for specific purposes. While it was much more common years ago, partitioning isn’t as popular now due to hard drive prices falling and Windows’s better file management.
Partitioning can shine in a few ways, particularly if you’re on a laptop and can’t add additional hard drives:
- If you’re extremely organized, you might like to keep various partitions for different types of files.
- You can separate your operating system from your files, making it easy to reinstall Windows and protecting your files from infection.
- You can fine-tune each partition, such as encrypting some of them but not others.
- It lets you install Linux or another operating system on your existing hard drive.
However, partitioning isn’t all good news:
- For new users, it’s a bit complicated and could result in accidentally overwritten data.
- Managing multiple partitions means you have more to keep track of.
- It gives you a false sense of security because all those partitions are on one drive. If your hard disk fails, all partitions go down with it.
Really, if you don’t have a specific reason to partition, you shouldn’t. Folders and libraries provide plenty of file organization for most people, and VirtualBox is a more convenient option for using another OS. Most importantly, for this discussion, partitioning is not a valid backup solution.
Disk cloning, however, is more useful. Its pros include:
- You can use a clone image to restore a PC to an exact state.
- It’s easy to re-create your exact configuration on another machine.
- Serves as a complete backup in case of catastrophe.
The main drawback to cloning as a backup method is its slow speed. Since cloning takes a snapshot of the entire system, it’s not something you want to run every night. Plus, the image takes up a lot of space. And if you transfer an image to a different PC, it could run into driver or other stability issues.
Aside from cost and a bit of time to set it up, you won’t find any downsides to backing up. And those cons are offset the instant your computer dies and you breathe a sigh of relief because you have a backup. The alternative is losing a lot of time and irreplaceable files — not a fun experience.
I had problems with my computer. After trying everything I could to save my system, I was forced to reinstall my OS–with no backup. My novel was not backed up and was lost. Do I want to rewrite it? No. I don't have the heart to rewrite it. #quesirrah #cestlavie #gallicshrug
— Kaylene Irwin (@Kijake64) December 10, 2017
Once you set it up, you don’t even need to open your backup software except to check that it’s working properly. A good backup is set-and-forget.
Which Should You Use?
As you can tell, there’s no “best” method among these three because they all serve different functions. In general, for most people:
- Use disk partitioning if you want precise control over file management or to dual-boot another OS.
- Clone a system image if you want to transfer a perfect copy of your system to another. Make one once in a while so you have a full backup.
- Find a backup solution that works for you and implement it as soon as possible so you never lose a file.
In short: back up your data regularly, clone once in a while, and partition when you need to. That’s all there is to it!
For more disk fun, check out how to save disk space in Windows 10.
Have you every partitioned a disk? What use do you have for cloning? Share your solutions with us in the comments.