Free software that's got your back

Every now and then a free product comes along that does a specific task very well.

I have one to recommend. Two, actually. From the same company.

My son is getting ready to head back to college, and I wanted him to have more space on his laptop hard drive. Buying the bigger drive is easy. The hard part can be reinstalling all the software and making sure all the files he already has don’t go away.

You could in theory install the new drive blank and start from scratch – assuming you made restore disks when you bought the laptop, and that you can find them, and that you can find the disks for all the software you’ve installed since you bought the machine.

Or you can use software to make an exact copy of the existing drive onto a new drive connected via a USB-powered external enclosure. That’s the better choice, in my opinion.

I first bought a copy of Acronis’ True Image 10 and set it up to clone the hard drive. It’s straightforward software. There’s a version made for Western Digital drives that I’ve used successfully before, but this was the full version, because neither the laptop’s original drive nor the replacement were WD drives.

For a reason I still don’t understand, the cloning operation didn’t work. Twice. It could have been operator error.

I decided it was time to look for a different answer, and I found it with Easeus Disk Copy and Easeus Partition Master. Both are available for download from the publisher’s website or any number of download sites (including my favorite: download.com). I installed Disk Copy on the laptop and it correctly figured out which was the source hard drive and which was the destination drive and copied everything over. I didn’t time how long the operation took; wish I had, because I don’t think it took very long.

Here’s a warning, especially for laptops. If you’re going to run software that will use your machine for a long time – and cloning software can take a long time – make sure you check whether it’s set to shut down or hibernate after a short time, before you start the cloning. Many laptops are, including my son’s. You’ll need to change a setting on this so the software doesn’t stop working.

To do this, go to Start/Control Panel/PowerOptions. You’ll see settings for a power scheme. Change the options in “Plugged in” to “never.” This will leave your hard drive and monitor running and won’t let the laptop go to standby.

I was almost finished, but the one thing Disk Copy won’t do is automatically resize the “partitions” that it creates on the new hard drive. I was cloning a 160-gb drive to a 640-gb drive. I used Easeus Partition Master to take care of that. It’s as intuitive and easy to use as Disk Copy, although I found myself with a small slice of drive (like 200 mb) that I couldn’t get rid of.

Once I resized the partitions, I installed the new drive in place of the old and it worked perfectly.

Bonus: My son now has a backup drive.

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dw wrote on August 30, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Or you could just use Carbon Copy Cloner. It's free, and it works reliably and has a cult following.

Oh, but wait, it's for a Mac.

If you gotta relearn an OS between Windows XP, Vista and 7, then why not just learn OS X instead and be done with it, and not have to worry about virus protection (the one application that slows down PC's the most).

Kidding aside, one of the best things to do with an older slower laptop to speed it up is to put a hard card in for the OS to boot from instead of a hard drive, and then have a secondary storage device (either a hard drive or a quality SD card) for mass storage. There's enough space on a 64Gb hard card for temporary storage for "on the road", and the speed gains are significant.