What is computer imaging?

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Joanne Yip|Updated April 25, 2024
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Computer imaging is the process of capturing an operating system image (AKA golden image) from a reference computer and deploying it to one or more devices — along with apps, device drivers, and settings. 

In this rollicking guide, we explore two common ways to image computers using sector-based and file-based imaging software, the key benefits of computer imaging, and how you can deploy your operating system images — plus some useful tips on choosing the right computer imaging software for your business.  

Ready? Let’s go.

How to image computers

You can image computers using two common types of imaging tools: sector-based or file-based computer imaging software.

Sector-based computer imaging software

Sector-based imaging tools (often referred to as “disk cloning” or “cloning” software) create a golden image that’s an exact clone of a computer’s hard disk containing the OS, drivers, and software — and apply that disk image to an identical device. Examples of sector-based imaging tools include Clonezilla (available for free) and Symantec Ghost Solution Suite.

File-based computer imaging software

In contrast, file-based imaging software allows you to create golden images consisting only of the unique operating system files and software you want — instead of the reference computer’s entire hard drive. With file-based imaging tools, like SmartDeploy, you can use virtual machines instead of physical reference computers, streamline imaging and deployment workflows, and maintain a smaller image library. 

Depending on your primary task, one may work better for you than the other. Want to know if it’s better to clone or image a computer? Read on, friend.

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 base or master image, this “captured state” of the reference machine contains the operating system files along with a predetermined set of software and settings.  

By deploying a golden image to user endpoints, you ensure that devices are consistent and compliant across the organization. You also save time since you can deploy a golden image to multiple computers instead of manually configuring individual devices.

What are the benefits of computer imaging?

For sysadmins managing devices across their organization, computer imaging has many advantages — from ensuring clean, bloatware-free devices to more efficient resolution of operating system issues. We break down the benefits below.  

1. Consistency across endpoints

Computer imaging is a way to achieve better consistency and quality control across your endpoint environment — by applying your master image to user devices so that they start from the same known, clean state. Perhaps the only thing more satisfying is successfully decluttering your inbox in one go.

2. A bloatware-free environment

Computer imaging helps get rid of pesky OEM-installed bloatware, which can contain security vulnerabilities, interfere with business applications, and impact the user experience (even if we agree that a round or two of Microsoft Mahjong can take the edge off a stressful day).

3. Help desk efficiency 

Help desk teams dealing with tricky operating system issues can save hours of troubleshooting by reimaging the problem device, allowing users to get back to work more quickly. And if that user happens to be your boss, feel free to flex at your next performance review.

4. Cleaner operating system migrations

When moving user devices to new operating systems, using computer imaging to do clean installs — instead of in-place upgrades — can reduce the risk of compatibility issues that impact device performance.

5. Better 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. To meet stringent regulations, New York investment firm Brean Capital uses computer imaging to sanitize devices whenever an employee leaves the organization.

“When managing multiple devices within an organization, one of the most critical tasks for IT is making sure that your endpoint environment is kept up-to-date and compliant. And when (not if) system-related issues arise, you want to be able to troubleshoot and nip them in the bud quickly — and sometimes, the most efficient option is to reimage the device to get it back to a clean working state.  

Across the device lifecycle, from onboarding and offboarding to system migrations, computer imaging — when done right — can contribute to more productive systems, happier users, and fewer headaches for IT.” — Julian Lancaster, Director of Compliance at PDQ and former network and IT administrator

How to deploy operating system images

To deploy operating system images to user devices, you can use offline media, local networks, or the cloud.


Offline deployment refers to the process of deploying an image to a target 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.

Via local networks

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

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

Pros and cons of free computer imaging software

The biggest advantage of free computer imaging software is that it’s, well, free. But free computer imaging tools, like Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT), can be more complex to configure and use, and they often don’t come with official technical support. While you may save on upfront costs, you have to spend more time trying to figure out how it works. Still, if you have the tenacity to navigate these murky waters, you have our deepest respect.

How to choose the right computer imaging software

When choosing computer imaging software that works best for your endpoint environment, consider the following questions as you narrow down your options.  

  • What is the size and diversity of your fleet? 

  • Do you manage remote devices or need to image computers remotely?  

  • What is the size and IT skill level of your team? 

  • What are your company’s regulatory requirements? 

  • What is your primary need (e.g., to create system backups or to image diverse hardware across your fleet more efficiently)? 

  • Is your organization growing rapidly? If so, you also want a solution that can scale as you grow. 

Whether you’re onboarding new employees or refreshing school labs before the new term begins, the right tool can streamline your computer imaging process, keeping devices healthy and productive.

What is computer imaging FAQs

How long does computer imaging take?

Imaging a computer can take as little as 15 minutes or as long as several hours depending on the method you choose. Some computer imaging tools, like SmartDeploy, come with out-of-box features and guided, intuitive workflows that allow you to create and deploy your image quickly. Others, like MDT and Configuration Manager (previously SCCM), require more elbow grease than a rusty door hinge and more time, effort, and saintly patience than most sysadmins have to spare.

Does Windows have a computer imaging tool?

Yes. Deployment Image Servicing and Management (DISM) is a command-line computer imaging tool that’s installed with Windows and can be used to capture Windows images. However, DISM does not format or structure the hard disk, set up the boot process, or deploy the actual image. You’ll need other tools to complete the computer imaging and deployment process.

Is cloning the same as imaging?

Cloning and imaging are often used interchangeably. Cloning refers to the process of making a sector-based image of a disk. Cloned disk images are useful for creating backups of specific machines or systems.

The term imaging is much broader and refers to both sector-based imaging (i.e., cloning) and file-based imaging. Unlike cloning, file-based imaging is the process of capturing individual files and folders from the virtual or hard disk of a reference computer — and not the entire hard disk. File-based images can also give you more flexibility to set up custom deployments.

Is it better to clone or image a computer?

Whether it’s better to clone or image computers depends on your use case and primary task. Cloning is useful if your main aim is to create image-based backups of specific machines. But if you need an efficient way to deploy system images to multiple devices and manage post-imaging tasks across your fleet, imaging computers (with the right computer imaging solution) can save you hours of work and allow you to scale more easily.

Can you use Windows Autopilot or Microsoft Intune to image computers?  

No, you cannot. Windows Autopilot and Microsoft Intune cannot image computers. Autopilot is used to preconfigure new devices using the preinstalled OEM operating system. Intune is a cloud-based endpoint management solution that allows you to configure and deploy policies across enrolled devices in your fleet. It's possible to use Intune and a computer imaging solution, like SmartDeploy, in tandem.

If you made it this far, bravo! You’ve now amassed enough computer imaging trivia to dazzle unsuspecting house guests at the dinner table. And if you’re hungry for more, check out our real-world case studies to see how computer imaging has helped IT teams achieve tangible results in industries like education, healthcare, and government. You can also request a SmartDeploy demo or jump right in with a free 15-day trial.

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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