Friday, 22 July 2016

Cloning a laptop hard disk drive...

For the last couple of months I've been having problems with my No. 1 laptop, so-called because it's the one I use every day for business and entertainment, and so it's loaded to the gunwales with a whole range of software.

I've several other laptops; two higher-spec machines dedicated to analysis software only plus three serviceable older machines which were each previously the everyday No. 1 machine, and are kept as backups.  These earlier machines all run various versions of Windows XP.

The current No. 1 laptop is now three years old but was quite a high specification when new, and so it's well worth repairing.   The problems I was having related to slow boot times, which were getting longer and longer, and eventually the dreaded 'preparing automatic repair' loop which, in the end, prevented the laptop from booting up at all.   I'd previously ran diagnostics software from the hard disk drive (HDD) manufacturer (Seagate) which had indicated that the drive was about to give up the ghost, so the failure wasn't entirely unexpected.  

Three years doesn't seem much of a life for a disk drive, but this laptop is used day and night and is very rarely switched off - I also tend to use custom power settings which don't permit the disk to sleep if the machine's not being used for a while.

Anyway, I ordered a new 2.5" internal HDD, which is actually the exact same 1 TB capacity and type as that currently installed.   I thought about taking the opportunity to upgrade, but I don't need any more disk storage capacity on this particular machine.

I could have simply fitted this new drive, formatted it using a utilities disk in an external USB DVD-ROM drive (there's no internal optical drive on the machine), and then re-installed the operating system (Windows 8.1) by writing another DVD from an ISO file downloaded from the Microsoft website.  Apparently, with OEM-installed versions of Windows 8 and later, the product key information is hidden and stored in the BIOS somewhere and so there'd have been no need to re-activate Windows etc after an operating system (OS) reinstall.

However, I'd still have needed to reinstall all my software and updated drivers etc, and this could have literally taken weeks to set the machine up exactly the way it was before.   A lot of the software I still use was written for previous versions of Windows and I remember that it had taken me ages to configure everything In Windows 8 with the correct compatibility settings and hotfixes etc, when I first bought the laptop.

So I decided to attempt to clone the failing disk, which would retain all of the programs, configurations and data - if it was successful, then no driver or software re-installations would be required at all.

I first removed the dying internal HDD from the machine, and connected it to one of my analysis laptops using a USB-to-SATA cable.   It took several connection attempts before the disk was recognised, but eventually the disk seemed to be functioning OK.   I immediately ran chkdsk /r on the drive to repair any disk errors within its scope, which turned out to be a long process and took around 8 hours to complete.

On this other laptop, I also downloaded the free version of Macrium Reflect(*) and tried to directly clone the new HDD from the old one, both connected via USB-to-SATA adaptor cables.

But, the direct cloning operation kept failing repeatedly due to an unidentifiable read error.  However much I tinkered with the available software options and settings, I couldn't get the direct cloning operation to run to completion - I personally would have accepted copying a few data errors which could have been corrected on the new disk later, but the Reflect software was having none of it - if it couldn't clone the disk error-free, it wasn't going to do it at all....

So I then connected one of my external HDD drives (I have around ten or so used for data backups), which I'd first emptied by temporarily copying the files onto the laptop drive before deleting everything on the external HDD.

Using a different mode of the same Reflect software, I first made a recovery image of the dying disk, writing the image files to the external drive - this took around 7 hours.   Then I recovered this image to the new internal HDD I'd bought, another 6 hours or so.  

This two-stage imaging process produces the same end result as cloning the disk in one operation.

The new HDD was then fitted back into the No. 1 laptop and, hey presto, it booted up immediately with all the previous software, files and configurations exactly as they were before !

So hats off to the Macrium Reflect software.  Even though it would have been quicker if the direct cloning operation had worked, the two-stage process wasn't a real hardship since I just let the software do its read / write stuff, while I used one of the older backup laptops until everything was sorted.

I'm now impressed enough by this software and process to change my regular back-up routine.  In addition to backing up the data folders every few days, which is done as a matter of course, I'm also going to write a fresh recovery image to an external HDD once a month, which will preserve all the Windows and program configurations if the problem should occur again.

The Reflect image has a distinct advantage over Windows' own recovery system, in that the Windows recovery process must be run from the OS installation on the affected internal HDD itself, which we've seen may not be accessible at all if you encounter the 'preparing automatic repair' boot loop or other serious disk error.  

With Reflect, in the event of a HDD problem that prevents access to the OS, the HDD can simply be refreshed or renewed - the regular back-up recovery image can first be written to the drive using another computer before the HDD is replaced in the affected machine.

* note that I've no affiliation with the makers of this software - there are other cloning software packages out there which may do the job equally well, but of the several free versions I tried the Reflect seemed the most intuitive and also had extensive online documentation and forum support.

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