How To Clone a Laptop to an External Drive

Posted by
Oct 02, 2023
Reviewed by
Jan 16, 2024
min. read
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A clone replicates data from one location to another, including files, applications, settings, and even system information and structure to create a byte-by-byte copy. The cloning process can produce backups, reproduce system files, migrate data to a new device, and troubleshoot problems. The experts at Secure Data Recovery, the leader in RAID, SSD, and hard drive recovery, explain how to clone a laptop to an external drive using common tools. 

Benefits of Cloning a Laptop to an External Drive

Cloning a laptop makes an exact bootable replica of its contents on an external drive. For example, cloning can help restore the system and all user files following a ransomware attack, catastrophic drive failure, or even laptop theft.  In some sense, the cloning process differs from traditional backups. A backup copies specific files and folders to safeguard against data loss from accidental deletion, corruption, or drive failure. A clone is less flexible than a backup because cloning creates a 1:1 replica of the source. It does not exclude anything. Cloning also has higher storage requirements. However, a cloned image or bootable drive replica is far more helpful than a data backup. There are two types of cloning. System cloning involves copying the operating system files. On the other hand, disk cloning duplicates the entire storage device.  The following steps for cloning a laptop to an external drive describe how to create a comprehensive system and disk image.

Common Cloning Tools

While Windows lacks a built-in cloning feature, plenty of free and premium third-party tools are available. These cloning tools possess powerful features that simplify and customize the process.

Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office (True Image)

Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office includes proprietary cybersecurity and system maintenance tools. It is popular for backup and disk cloning due to its easy-to-use interface, advanced options, and dependable performance. Its downside is that it requires an annual subscription that costs $50. In addition, the cloning tool is locked during the 30-day trial. To clone a laptop using the Acronis tool, launch the program and select Tools on the sidebar, then Clone Disk, as seen below.

An overview of the Tools menu on Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office

On the Clone Mode screen, choose the data transfer mode (Automatic or Manual), depending on whether you need to change the disk partition layout. Most experts do not recommend Manual for inexperienced users.

A menu for choosing the Clone Mode on Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office

Now, on the Source Disk screen, select the laptop’s drive. Then, select the target disk on the Destination Disk screen, which should be the external drive.

A menu for selecting the Source Disk on Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office

A menu for selecting the Destination Disk on Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office

Next, the software gives three options corresponding to usage scenarios for the clone image.

  • Replacing a disk on the laptop
  • Using the image on a different machine
  • Creating a disk image (no bootable operating system)
A menu with Disk Usage options on Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office

Before the final step, the user can exclude some files and folders from the cloning process. The clone will not include this data in the generated image. The option is available in the bottom-left corner of the window.

A menu to exclude some files and folders from the cloning process on Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office

Finally, review the settings, then click Proceed. The cloning process will start.

A status bar for the disk cloning process on Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office

Macrium Reflect Free Trial

Macrium Reflect is another popular choice for users who want to create a system image with freemium software. The Macrium Reflect tool comes with a 30-day free trial. It also has an intuitive interface and multiple options. However, Macrium Reflect is only compatible with Windows. To create a laptop clone with a Macrium Reflect free trial, scan a local disk on the main screen and select the Clone this disk… option for the computer’s primary drive.  

A screen where users select the disk to clone on Macrium Reflect

Next, on the Clone screen, select the destination disk.

A screen where users select the destination disk on Macrium Reflect

Confirm that the destination disk is correct and can hold the clone.

A screen where users select the destination disk on Macrium Reflect

At this stage, you can click Advanced Options in the bottom-left corner of the window, which will open a menu of additional settings. These settings include data verification, SSD TRIM, performing a forensic sector copy, shutting down the system after cloning, or sending a confirmation email upon completion.

A screen describing the cloning options on Macrium Reflect

In the following steps, Macrium Reflect asks whether you want to schedule the cloning process or perform the operations immediately. Afterward, Macrium Reflect provides a summary of functions and options for verification. Finally, users must name the image and click OK, which starts cloning.  

A screen showing the name and location of the saved image on Macrium Reflect

Macrium Reflect will also report the overall or specific progress of the cloning process.  

A screen showing the progress of the cloning process on Macrium Reflect


Clonezilla is the best choice for those who value the freedom to use tools without licensing, time, or limitations. Clonezilla is an open-source cloning software that creates a bootable OS image. However, it is not as user-friendly as Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office or Macrium Reflect. Clonezilla supports many file systems, offers numerous partitioning options, and can perform simultaneous cloning on up to 40 machines. 

Screenshots showing various modes and statuses on open-source Clonezilla software

If you want to try Clonezilla, consider starting with their cloning guide.

Other Options

Of course, there are other cloning options beyond the software highlighted here. While finding the perfect fit could require experimentation, the aforementioned tools should address many typical scenarios.

Cloning Tips

During the cloning process, regardless of the tool, keeping the laptop connected to a power source is recommended to prevent disruptions. Additionally, all resource-heavy apps should be closed to allow the cloning tool to perform well and achieve the best possible results.

Users should note that cloning can be time-consuming, with the duration determined mainly by the volume of copied data. Even minor bottlenecks can extend cloning time by several hours. A SATA connection or a Thunderbolt port instead of a USB will provide superior speeds. 

If your laptop supports multiple USB generations, always choose the newest one. For instance, prioritize using USB 3.2 2x2 (20 Gbps) over the older USB 2.0 (480 Mbps).

Performing a system cleanup before starting the cloning process is wise. Reducing the amount of data to copy can significantly speed up the process. For instance, clearing out a Recycle Bin with 200 GB of deleted files can hasten cloning.

Some other topics worth considering: 

  • Users cannot clone dynamic disks.
  • The source and destination disk must have equal logical sector sizes.
  • The source and destination disk should operate in the same controller mode.
  • Users should unlock encrypted disks to enable cloning.
  • Disks in poor condition might not be cloneable.
  • Windows often ties licenses to the original hardware, so the OS image might appear as deactivated once migrated to a new device.
  • Some cloning tools use a proprietary file format, which means you can only access or manage that image through the software.

Post-Cloning Advice

The most essential post-cloning test is ensuring the new image is bootable. To check the image, follow these steps: 

  1. Connect the external drive containing the image.
  2. Restart the laptop.
  3. Access the boot menu by pressing the highlighted key during startup.
  4. Choose to boot from the external drive.

Users should see the operating system boot from the external drive if the cloning was successful. The image could fail to boot, or the cloning parameters cause problems. The data is corrupt in that case, and users must repeat the process. 

Once the image is verified, users should consider encrypting it to protect the stored data from unauthorized access. External drives are portable storage devices that can be easily lost or stolen. Unencrypted images on external drives could expose sensitive data or personal information, from financial records to private photos, so experts recommend encrypting files and enjoying the peace of mind.

All major operating systems offer built-in encryption tools, including BitLocker for Windows, FileVault on macOS, and LUKS on Linux. It is also worth noting that there are encrypted external drives. Hardware encryption provides an additional layer of security. An encrypted drive’s password requirement makes it ideal for secure backups. 

However, despite our best efforts, creating regular backups and clones do not always prevent data loss.

In those situations, the team at Secure Data Recovery can help. Since 2007, we have seen every failure scenario and resolved over 100,000 cases, returning billions of files to our customers. We specialize in recovering lost data in the most challenging circumstances. Our experience and expertise have enabled us to maintain a 96% success rate.

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Timothy Burlee

Timothy Burlee is a content writer for Secure Data Recovery Services. He specializes in various topics in the data industry, including data recovery technology, storage devices, and digital forensics. Throughout his career, he has covered complex concepts and provided accessible solutions for users. Before joining Secure Data, he worked as a freelance technical writer.

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