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How to image a computer: Three common approaches

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Joanne Yip|June 1, 2023
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Let’s face it: No sysadmin chooses to image computers for the sheer pleasure of it. In fact, frustrated by conventional imaging methods that are often tedious and inflexible, many have turned to alternative (non-imaging) strategies such as using tools like Windows Autopilot and Microsoft Intune

But computer imaging is crucial to ensuring the integrity, performance, and security of your endpoint environment. The question is how to image computers efficiently, no matter how many different devices you support.

We’ll lay out the options for you by looking at two common methods — imaging manually and using disk cloning software — including how they work and what challenges you might face. Then, we’ll walk you through a third and better alternative: file-based imaging software.

How to image computers manually

One conventional way to image computers is to do it manually. Metaphorically speaking, the process is a lot like building a house from scratch: You lay the foundation, build the framework, install essential systems and utilities, and furnish the interior — all by hand.

1. Manually install Windows

Start by installing a fresh version of Windows from bootable media, which is usually a fully attended process.

2. Install Windows updates

If you’re using older install media, you need to download and install all the Windows updates that have been published since. This part could easily take a couple of hours or more. You also need to restart the computer several times.

3. Install drivers and applications

Hunting down the right device drivers alone calls for saintly levels of patience. After downloading and installing all the drivers and apps you need, you should also test them for performance or compatibility issues.

4. Configure the device

When you’re finally done installing the necessary drivers and apps, you can then move on to the minutiae of device configuration. Common tasks include setting up domain joins, network mapping, and setting up local user accounts.

Rinse and repeat for every machine you need to image. Oh, joy.

Pros and cons of imaging computers manually

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. If your organization uses highly customized systems, imaging computers manually can be a suitable approach. It gives you absolute control from start to finish, and you can decide exactly how you want to set up each device. If you support just a small number of devices — too few to make it worth investing in a tool — going the manual route makes more sense, too.

But man, does it take a whole lot of time. Besides being time consuming, a manual computer imaging process is prone to human errors. If you’re a one-person team or supporting a larger fleet, consider using a computer imaging solution to make life easier.

How to image computers with disk cloning software

Another conventional way to image computers is to use disk cloning software, which uses sector-based imaging to create an exact copy of a computer’s hard drive and all its contents.

1. Set up a physical reference machine

Your first step is to manually set up a physical reference machine with a clean install of Windows. You then need to install all the latest Windows updates, the right device drivers, and line-of-business applications. And nope, you’re not advised to skip steps, do them out of order, or do them all at once — unless you want to risk conflicts during installation or device functionality.

Sound familiar? That’s because these are the same steps you’d take to manually image a computer.

2. Prepare for image capture

Before you can capture the disk image, the reference machine needs to be generalized (this is the process of removing any unique identifiers from the machine). In the old days, you’d have to use third-party tools for this step. Then Microsoft released Sysprep, a tool for generalizing reference machines. Running Sysprep can take anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. 

3. Capture and deploy image

Disk cloning software copies every single sector on the reference hard disk, including device-specific drivers. You can save image files on a storage device like a USB flash drive or hard drive; more typically, you’ll store images on a network storage device (often a Network-Attached Storage, or NAS, device). For the best results, a cloned image should be deployed to a device that’s identical to the reference machine or one that’s similar enough to be compatible. 

4. Configure the device

After the disk image is deployed to the target machine, you can then install any custom apps needed and perform the usual device configuration tasks. This can be done manually or by using scripts. 

When to use disk cloning software

Disk cloning solutions are ideal for imaging a fleet of identical devices or creating an image backup of a specific computer or server hard drive. If that’s your use case, perfect. Sector-based imaging tools are also platform agnostic, and they can be used to clone any type of operating system or device as long as it can be read. If you support mixed operating systems, disk cloning software can be useful. 

Limitations of using disk cloning software

But (you knew there’d be a but, right?) when using disk cloning tools, you need one image for every hardware make and model you support. And for every image, you need one physical reference machine, which cannot be used for any other purpose. That’s potentially a lot of money and space spent on single-use machines that will just be sitting around collecting cobwebs. (Technically, you can apply a disk image to a device of a different make and model from the source machine, but you’d be compromising on the quality of results.) 

It can also be difficult to make dynamic changes to a cloned disk image during the deployment process. And a disk cloning approach won’t allow you to streamline workflows by slipstreaming custom apps or postdeployment scripts with your operating system image. 

Now, let’s say you manage a sizeable fleet with a bunch of different hardware models and multiple user groups, each using a different set of software. And, just like any self-respecting sysadmin, you take pride in keeping user endpoints consistent, properly provisioned, and up to date — without losing sleep or weeks of your life that you can never get back. You need an approach to computer imaging that equips you to handle it all. 

How to image computers with file-based imaging software

With SmartDeploy’s file-based imaging software, you can create a single operating system image that contains only the files, software, and settings that you need — and not the entire hard disk. This file-based image is captured from a virtual reference machine with the drivers stripped out. Once you’re ready to deploy the image, you can add drivers from SmartDeploy’s Driver Package Library for any machine in your fleet, making your image truly hardware independent. 

By using virtual reference machines (reference VMs), you save yourself the trouble of dealing with physical equipment. And you get more flexibility during the deployment process. With file-based imaging software like SmartDeploy, you can easily modify images during deployment and slipstream custom apps, device drivers, and postdeployment scripts with your operating system image, deploying them in tandem. Here’s what a file-based imaging process with SmartDeploy looks like. 

1. Create your reference VM

To create your reference VM in SmartDeploy, you can use free virtualization software like Oracle VM VirtualBox and VMware Workstation. On the VM, install Windows and all available Windows updates. 

A. In the SmartDeploy menu, click Build Virtual Machine.

SmartDeploy: Getting Started: Build Virtual Machine

B. In the Build Wizard panel, choose your virtualization software and the operating system you’d like to install.

SmartDeploy Build Wizard 1

C. Then name your virtual machine and enter its location.

SmartDeploy Build Wizard 2

D. Finally, select the OS location.

SmartDeploy Build Wizard 3

E. And you’re done! SmartDeploy builds your reference VM for you — and you can confirm your reference VM’s name, location, and other details.

SmartDeploy Build Wizard 4

2. Build and capture your golden Windows image

Now it’s time to install apps and perform any customizations that apply to all user devices. There’s no need to run Sysprep on the reference VM as this is done automatically during deployment. When you’re ready, capture your image. 

A. Click Capture Image from the SmartDeploy menu.

SmartDeploy: Menu: Capture Image

B. Then enter the location of the reference VM’s hard disk you’d like to capture into the Capture Wizard.

SmartDeploy Capture Wizard

3. Download driver packages

SmartDeploy comes with a library of more than 1,500 prebuilt driver packages, or Platform Packs, that support all major OEM business-class models. All you have to do is download and deploy. When deploying to different hardware, SmartDeploy uses WMI queries to detect hardware and deliver the right drivers to the right devices. Boom, and you’re done. 

A. In the SmartDeploy menu, click Download Platform Packs.

SmartDeploy menu: Download Platform Packs

B. In the search bar, enter Download a Platform Pack.

SmartDeploy: Download Platform Pack menu

C. Search through available platform packs by manufacturer, model, or OS.

SmartDeploy: Download Platform Packs menu

4. Download Application Packs

Via the Application Manager, you can create your own Application Packs for things like silent installs, Batch scripts, and PowerShell scripts. You can also create customized Application Packs or request one if you need. Just like Platform Packs, Application Packs can be easily slipstreamed into your deployment — or deployed on their own.

A. On SmartDeploy’s left-hand menu, click on Applications & Tasks. You can create your own Application packs.

SmartDeploy Application Pack dropdown menu

B. You can also search existing Application Packs by publisher, title, or product version.

SmartDeploy Application Pack search menu

5. Automate deployment

Next, create answer files to automate deployment tasks like setting default Windows settings, migrating user data, and running custom scripts. You can also automate the deployment of individual applications, patches, or tasks.

A. In the SmartDeploy menu, click Create Answer File.

SmartDeploy menu: Automate Deployment

B. You can select an existing answer file…

SmartDeploy: Answer file menu

C. … or you can use the Answer File Wizard to create your own answer file.

SmartDeploy: Answer File Wizard

6. Create deployment media and deploy

Finally, create your deployment media by following the steps in the Media Wizard. You can deploy locally using offline media like a USB flash drive or over a local network — or remotely via the cloud (even if you don’t have VPN set up).

A. In the SmartDeploy menu, click Create Media.

SmartDeploy menu: Create Media

B. Use the Media Wizard to create your deployment media.

SmartDeploy Create Media Wizard

C. Select the type of media you’d like to create for your deployment.

SmartDeploy: Create Media Wizard: Choose media type

And there you have it. SmartDeploy will guide you through every step of file-based imaging so you can reimage your fleet in no time.

Comparing computer imaging options

Manual imaging

Disk cloning software

File-based imaging software





Physical reference machines




Automated deployments




Suitable for hardware-diverse environments




Easily scalable




*In non-hardware-diverse environments.

Computer imaging FAQ

What are computer imaging best practices?

Besides figuring out how to image computers efficiently, it’s equally important to keep these computer imaging best practices in mind.

  • Always start with a clean operating system image.

  • Do it in stages to keep things manageable.

  • Always use the right device drivers.

  • Create proper test environments.

  • Update your golden images regularly.

  • Document important changes.

What’s the difference between computer imaging and a factory reset?

With computer imaging, you apply a custom operating system image, with selected files, apps, and settings, to a user device. This sets the device up to meet company requirements and provides the user with what they need to perform their role. 

In contrast, a factory reset restores a machine to its original OEM system state by deleting all existing user data, settings, and applications. You may do this when retiring the device or before reassigning it to another user. Doing a factory reset also frees up the system volume license for that device. 

Between onboarding employees, dealing with never-ending support tickets, and fixing the office microwave (again), sysadmins don’t have time for inefficiencies in their day. Choosing the right computer imaging approach and imaging tool can go a long way toward making your life easier. 

Get a free 15-day trial to see how quickly you can set up and start using SmartDeploy’s flexible imaging software. Or drop in at our live demo to learn how you can use SmartDeploy to simplify time-consuming tasks and lighten your deployment workload. And who knows? You might just end up, dare we say, no longer hating the process. 

joanne profile
Joanne Yip

Joanne has always loved the impact that words can make. When she isn’t typing away in the world of sysadmin, Joanne loves hiking with her husband and dog, true-crime podcasts, and dreaming of her next scuba diving adventure.

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