Disk Partition, Clone, Backup: What’s the Difference?
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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.

Disk Partition

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.

When you buy a brand-new hard drive, your computer only sees it as unallocated space. Say you’re installing Windows on a new drive. During the process, you’ll see a screen like this:

disk partition vs clone vs backup

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.

We’ve covered all you need to know about hard drive partitions in Windows 10 How to Manage Hard Drive Partitions and Volumes in Windows 10 How to Manage Hard Drive Partitions and Volumes in Windows 10 Is Windows slow and running out of storage space? Or do you want to re-allocate space? We'll show you how to use Windows 10's partition manager. Read More , as well as the best third-party tools for dealing with them The Best Free Windows Partition Manager for Your Needs The Best Free Windows Partition Manager for Your Needs Partition managers are an essential part of PC maintenance. Keep at least one Windows partition manager installed! We recommend these six free tools. Read More .

Clone

Disk cloning allows you to copy the entirety of a hard drive’s contents to an image file How to Create an ISO Image of Your Windows System How to Create an ISO Image of Your Windows System Need a quick and easy way to backup and restore Windows without relying on backup tools or the cloud? It's time to learn how to make an ISO image of your Windows PC. Read More , 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 How to Move a Full Operating System From an Old PC to a New One How to Move a Full Operating System From an Old PC to a New One Would you like to move your entire Windows setup form one computer to another, rather than having to manually set everything up? We'll show you how you can do that with Macrium Reflect. Read More .

Backup

“Backup” can have various definitions depending on who says it, so it’s worth stating a basic definition 5 Basic Backup Facts Every Windows User Should Know 5 Basic Backup Facts Every Windows User Should Know We never tire to remind you to make backups and keep your data safe. If you're wondering what, how often, and where you should back up your files, we have straight forward answers. Read More . 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 The Ultimate Windows 10 Data Backup Guide The Ultimate Windows 10 Data Backup Guide We've summarized every backup, restore, recovery, and repair option we could find on Windows 10. Use our simple tips and never despair over lost data again! Read More that allows you to restore files using another drive, cloud backup software like Backblaze CrashPlan for Home Shuts Down: What Now for Online Data Backups? CrashPlan for Home Shuts Down: What Now for Online Data Backups? CrashPlan is a popular cloud based backup provider. Their recent announcement to close the Home solution has left users in the cold. But here's what you can do next to safeguard your data. Read More , 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 Windows Backup and Restore Guide The Windows Backup and Restore Guide Disasters happen. Unless you're willing to lose your data, you need a good Windows backup routine. We'll show you how to prepare backups and restore them. Read More .

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 The Best Backup Software for Windows The Best Backup Software for Windows Your data is fragile – it only takes one small accident to lose everything. The more backups you make, the better. Here we present the best free backup software for Windows. Read More 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 How to Back Up Data From a Computer That Won't Boot How to Back Up Data From a Computer That Won't Boot When your computer won't boot, your data might still there. Here's how to install Linux on a bootable USB flash drive to recover your files. Next time keep a backup though. Read More .

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

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:

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 The Easiest Way to Run Windows Programs on Mac The Easiest Way to Run Windows Programs on Mac Running Windows software on your Mac isn't as tough as you'd think. Here are the most popular ways to run Windows programs on macOS, including the best method for most people. Read More . Most importantly, for this discussion, partitioning is not a valid backup solution.

Cloning

Disk cloning, however, is more useful. Its pros include:

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 7 Most Common Reasons Windows Gets Unresponsive 7 Most Common Reasons Windows Gets Unresponsive Sometimes, Windows freezes up and hangs without much of an explanation. Next time you suffer from an unresponsive system, review these seven common causes of Windows hangups. Read More .

Backing Up

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.

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 How to Save Disk Space in Windows 10 How to Save Disk Space in Windows 10 In terms of disk space requirements, Windows 10 is downright gluttonous. Wasting 20 GB on a small SSD can be frustrating. Fortunately, you can reduce the Windows 10 footprint and reclaim some of that space. Read More .

Have you every partitioned a disk? What use do you have for cloning? Share your solutions with us in the comments.

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  1. earl
    January 23, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    In Linux you can clone a partition or drive using the 'dd' command... it's built right into the OS.