What is computer imaging?

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Joanne Yip|September 12, 2022
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For IT administrators responsible for managing the lifecycle of dozens or hundreds of endpoints, computer imaging can be a thorny but necessary task. Computer imaging is crucial for device security and performance. And by choosing the right imaging software, you can streamline otherwise time-consuming workflows and make your life easier. 

It’s like going to the dentist. It feels like forever when you’re in the chair, but if you want clean, healthy pearly whites, you must soldier on. Thankfully, with more software tools readily available today, imaging computers doesn’t have to feel like pulling teeth. We’ll walk you through the types of computer imaging, the steps in the process, and how to choose the right computer imaging tool for your team.

What does computer imaging mean?

Computer imaging typically refers to the creation and capture of a golden image of an operating system (OS) from a reference computer for the purpose of deploying it to another computer or network of computers. Imaging is usually done when IT teams need to set up new computers, refresh or fix existing ones, or upgrade devices to the latest OS version. Computer imaging and deployment go hand in hand as closely interconnected parts of one process. In many organizations, corporate OS images are created and configured to organizational standards and deployed to user devices.

What is a golden image? 

A golden image is a preconfigured template of the contents on a reference machine’s hard disk or virtual disk. Also known as a master or base image, this “captured state” of the reference machine typically contains the operating system files along with a predetermined set of software and settings. Applying a golden image to user endpoints ensures consistency and compliance across the organization. It also saves time since IT can deploy a golden image to multiple computers instead of manually configuring individual devices.

What are the different types of computer imaging?

In general, there are two common approaches to computer imaging.

Sector-based imaging

Sector-based imaging (often referred to as “disk cloning” or “cloning”) involves creating a golden image that’s an exact clone of a computer’s hard disk containing the OS, drivers, and software — and applying that image to an identical device. One drawback of this approach is that you would need to create and maintain a golden image for every single hardware model and, in some cases, department-specific software within your environment. That’s a hefty investment in terms of money and storage space for all that additional equipment.

File-based imaging

In contrast, file-based imaging is a more flexible approach. It involves creating images consisting only of the unique files captured from the reference machine. File-based imaging software like SmartDeploy gives you control over the OS files, drivers, and software to include in a golden image. This allows you to create images that are more generic and compatible with any device model or user group, streamlining the deployment process and reducing the size of your image library.

Why is computer imaging important?

From device procurement and setup to providing ongoing IT support, making sure that an organization is well equipped with computer systems that run smoothly and securely is a lot of work. Computer imaging can serve as a tool to help IT teams increase efficiency, reduce user downtime, and keep endpoints secure and productive.

More efficient PC lifecycle management

Devices set up with the same corporate OS image start from the same known, clean state. This results in more consistency and quality control, leading to less ambiguity when similar issues occur across machines.

In the long run, this translates into more productive PC lifecycle management, greater helpdesk efficiency, and lower IT operational costs. Computer imaging solutions can also be used to push software updates and patches, keeping endpoints up to date and secure. Other common scenarios include:

Better endpoint security

OEM computers often come preloaded with undesirable bloatware, which can leave traces behind even after you uninstall it. Very often, they lack the latest OS media, resulting in security vulnerabilities that may go undetected or unresolved. Issues like these can increase a device’s exposure to possible cyberattacks. Deploying a standard, up-to-date corporate image to new devices can help to reduce such cybersecurity risks for a more secure endpoint environment.

Compliance management

For heavily regulated industries, like banking and finance, computer imaging can be a useful and efficient way to meet strict security and compliance requirements. New York-based investment firm Brean Capital follows a stringent data sanitization process, carefully reimaging devices when employees leave the organization.

How do you deploy images to user endpoints?

Depending on the imaging solution you use, there are several ways to deploy images to user devices. Having multiple image deployment options on hand is especially useful since more organizations are transitioning into remote or hybrid (part remote, part in-person) environments.


Offline image deployment refers to the process of deploying an image to a computer that is not connected to the local network or the internet. This could be because the network connection is unstable or unavailable (in air-gapped government and military organizations, for instance). Deployment is done via USB or other optical media that contains the necessary OS image, drivers, and software.

Online deployment via local network

Online deployment via a local office network is one of the fastest, most reliable ways to deploy images. Through the local network, you can connect to a file server, having it serve as a centralized image repository. At the same time, you can take advantage of your local network’s speed and performance. Online deployment via a local network also allows for larger-scale deployments in scenarios like hardware rollouts and lab refreshes.  

Over the cloud

Some solutions allow OS images to be deployed over the cloud. SmartDeploy, for instance, has out-of-box integration with third-party cloud storage providers like Box, Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Drive. You can securely deploy Windows images, applications, and driver packs using your corporate cloud storage account. Users don’t even have to be connected via VPN or on a corporate network. 

How do you choose the right computer imaging software?

Without an efficient computer imaging software, imaging computers can be tedious. To help you choose the right computer imaging solution, we’ve put together a list of considerations.

  • Do you support different computer hardware models and different user groups?

  • Do you need to support remote endpoints?

  • Is the software easy to install, set up, and use?

  • Is the solution scalable?

  • Does the software support multiple modes of deployment?

  • Does the software use standard file formats, like .WIM?

  • Does the software allow you to easily maintain and update your images?

  • Is there a fully functioning free trial?

  • Will you have ready access to technical support?

  • What kind of payment model are you comfortable with? (Common options include per deployment, per machine, per technician, or a monthly subscription.)

Why pay when there are free options?

While upfront pricing is usually a deciding factor, it’s just as important to think about cost in terms of time and resources. Certain free software may end up costing more hours and effort or require a skilled technician because of its complexity.

Choosing the right computer imaging software can make life much easier for sysadmins, equipping them to carry out day-to-day tasks with greater ease and efficiency. With an intuitive, wizard-driven interface, SmartDeploy’s myriad features and functionalities are designed to enable IT teams to set up, provision, and manage user devices more easily, whether they are onsite or remote. Learn more in our live weekly demo, or download our free trial to try it out.

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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