It’s inevitable: At some point you’re going to need to recover from a disaster. You’ll have an old hard drive fail and either you’ll lose valuable data or the machine will refuse to boot. When this occurs, if you happen to have a backup image or clone of the damaged or corrupt source drive, recovering your data to a new drive will be far easier.

Unfortunately, retail hard disk imaging software, like Acronis Backup and Restore, may not be in everyone’s budget. When you don’t have the budget, what do you do? You a disk imaging utility listed here, all of which do an admirable job of cloning a hard disk drive at an unbeatable price…free.

Some of these hard drive cloning apps are more powerful than others. While some will do a-bit-for-bit copy, others create a full ISO image of your running system. Some are Windows specific and others don’t care what operating system you’re running. In the end, what’s important is that you use the tool that best suits your skills and needs.

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1. Clonezilla

Clonezilla is one of my favorite HDD cloning tools. This particular take on the cloning process is more like a bootable Linux distribution that can do bit-by-bit copying, and it supports a ton of file systems (including FAT32, NTFS, HFS+, UFS, NetBSD, OpenBSD, xfs, jfs, btrfs, f2fs, nilfs2 and even LVM2). There’s an unattended mode and multicast support built-in, as well as the ability to reinstall the Grub bootloader. Clonezilla might be the single most powerful disk copy tool available that doesn’t have a price tag. And if you’re looking to clone multiple machines quickly, Clonezilla SE can clone 40 machines at once. Clonezilla does use a curses-based interface, so some might find it a bit challenging at first.

2. Macrium Reflect Free Edition

Macrium Reflect Free Edition touts itself as one of the fastest disk cloning utilities available. This hard drive cloning software supports only Windows file systems, but it does it quite well and has a fairly straightforward user interface. This software does disk imaging and disk cloning, allows you to access images from the file manager, creates a Linux rescue CD, and is compatible with Windows. The Macrium free edition is also capable of creating differential images, do direct-disk cloning, boot backups into a Hyper-V virtual machine, run scheduled backups, do bare-metal restores and can even encrypt backups.

3. DriveImage XML

DriveImage XML uses Microsoft VSS to create images and does so with the reliability you might not expect in a free tool. With DriveImage XML you can create “hot” images from a hard disk already in use. Images are stored in XML files, so you can access them from any supporting third-party software. DriveImage XML can also restore an image to a machine without the need for a reboot. This imaging software runs under Windows XP, 2003, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows 10. It’s important to note that you cannot use DriveImage XML commercially. To use this product for business purposes, you must obtain a license. You can purchase a commercial DriveImage XML license for 5 ($100), 10 ($150), 20 ($200), 50 ($400) and 100 ($500) users.

4. Mondo Rescue

Mondo Rescue is an open source disaster recovery solution that supports most Linux distributions, as well as FreeBSD. Mondo Rescue can work with tapes, disks, network and CD/DVD backup destinations. You’ll find support for numerous filesystems (such as ext2, ext3, ext4, JFS, XFS, ReiserFS, NTFS and VFAT), LVM (both v1 and v2), software/hardware Raid, and both BIO and UEFI systems. Using this free backup software, you can back up and restore your data, or even restore to bare metal. Mondo Rescue is used by enterprise-level organizations like Lockheed Martin, Nortel Networks, Siemens, HP, IBM, NASA’s JPL and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

5. Paragon Backup & Recovery Free

Paragon Backup & Recovery Free is for stand-alone Windows machines, and it does a great job of handling scheduled imaging. The Community Edition of Paragon is capable of scheduled backups (of files, volumes and/or disks), backup strategy definition, disk space management, version control, viewing contents of backups and even recover using WinPE. The free version is based on the powerful pro version, but it’s for personal use only. I highly recommend using the free version to try out the software. If it fits the bill, pony up for the full version (or even the server version). Paragon will run on any version of Windows, version 7 SP1 and newer.

Just in case

You’ve been looking for a free backup solution that will help to clone disks. With one of these five, you should now have that solution in hand. Yes, some of them might be a bit challenging to use and some might not have all the features you’re looking for. But each of them should allow you to clone a source disk to target disk to make your disaster recovery plan come to life. With luck, you won’t need any of these titles–but there’s a little law named after a man called Murphy that might have something to say about that.

Honorable mention: Linux dd command

As a freebie, I thought it worthwhile to mention the Linux dd command, which does a great job of cloning drives. And best of all, it’s already built into the operating system.

You can use dd to create a disk image or a byte for byte copy. Note: You don’t want to run this on a mounted drive that’s in use. Your best bet is to boot the machine housing the drive with a live Linux distribution, find the name of the drive to be cloned, and issue a command like:

dd if=/dev/sdX of=/image.img

Where X is the letter assigned to the drive to be cloned.

You could also do a direct to disk copy like so:

dd if=/dev/sdX of=/dev/sdY

Where X is the name of the drive to be cloned and Y is the name of the drive to house the clone.

Other good solutions?

What cloning tools have saved you when things when awry? Share your picks with fellow TechRepublic members.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the current supported operating systems as well as include Mondo Rescue and the Linux dd command.