November 4, 2007

Backup Followup

Following up on a previous post about losing data and backing your stuff up, I thought I’d tell you how I’m automating my backups now.

This is only for Windows users (possibly only XP users, in fact — I don’t really know much abotu the new Vista OS).

Microsoft provides a tool for “mirroring” a directory. It’s called “SyncToy” and its purpose is to take a folder and synchronize it with another folder.

What that means is that SyncToy will let you take two folders and make sure that the contents are the same in both folders. Folder synchronization is often used by people who have both a laptop and a desktop machine. If you share a folder over the network you can make sure that both the desktop and the laptop have all the most up-to-date files on them.

For my purposes, however, I’m interested in syncing my folders to an external hard drive which acts as my backup.

I’ve identified 3 folders that contain vital documents. The “My Documents” folder, the “Picture” folder and the “Development” folder. SyncToy has a number of setting which tell it specifically how to sync the folders. I have simply chosen the option to copy every updated file from the source folder to its corresponding backup. The result is that when I run the backup I now have a complete copy of important folders on my external drive.

I could just drag the “My Documents” folder to the backup drive instead of using SyncToy. Windows will certainly oblige and copy the entire contents of that folder over to the backup drive. However, these are very large folders. It tales a while to copy them. SyncToy will copy just the updated files, meaning that this is an “incremental backup.” It’s much, much quicker than trying to recopy all those files.

Because it’s so quick, it’s not a pain to fire up SyncToy and tell it to run all the backups. I do this manually every time I’ve offloaded a bunch of photos from my camera or done any important work.

Because it’s not automatic, there is a chance I’ll forget to run it. However, it’s so quick that running it is painless, and I haven’t forgotten yet. In the “Help” info within SyncToy, Microsoft describes how you can schedule it to run nightly or weekly if you want to, with a little bit of additional effort. But my favorite thing about SyncToy is that there is nothing additional running on my machine to slow it down when I’m not doing a backup. I’m not really fond of lots of processes running in the background on my computer. Dozens of little extras tend to slow it to a crawl over time.

In summary, here are some pros and cons of using SyncToy:


  • Not automatic
  • Scheduling takes additional effort
  • Not really a comprehensive backup solution (it’s just copying the files; you can’t go back to a specific point in time)


  • Free download from Microsoft
  • Can be scheduled, if you really want to
  • No processes running in the background, if you go the manual route
  • Pretty simple


Posted by James at November 4, 2007 7:18 PM
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Is mirroring a directory a better strategy than using Microsoft's Backup Utility to pack the files into a .bkf file?

Posted by: Mike at November 5, 2007 9:05 AM

I guess that's an individual decision. I actually like to be able to browse the files of my backups just using the file system. Maybe it's irrational, but archives bug me.

A side effect of my current backup method is that I can set up SyncToy on both my home and work machines, and have simultaneous copies of these directories at work and home. But I guess I could kinda do that with a bkf file, too. SyncToy will do it for me pretty automatically.

I had initially decided not to use Microsoft Backup because SyncToy was so easy to use, but maybe I should give it a second look.

Posted by: James at November 5, 2007 9:18 AM

Ah - now I remember why I didn't use Microsoft Backup. For some reason, the wizard didn't want to backup to my Western Digital My Book drive. It seemed to think that my iPod was my only backup device.

Posted by: James at November 5, 2007 9:25 AM

I took a second look at MSFT Backup. One big problem I noticed: it doesn't seem to know where my files are.

I choose the option "backup files and settings" (or whatever it's called) and it only backs up stuff from my C: drive. My documents folder is on my second drive (F:).

I specifically reset the location of the "My Documents" folder in Windows so that apps would know where to find it, but Microsoft doesn't seem to follow its own settings.

I can't recommend this to people because it could easily lead someone to believe they'd backed up their stuff when they really hadn't.

A savvy user can get around this by bypassing the wizard and specifying which folders to back up. But a savvy user probably doesn't need my advice anyhow. SyncToy forces you to be explicit, so it's your fault if you don't backup the right folders.

Some advantages of Backup are that it's specifically for backups (you can specify incremental backup, for example) and having all your junk in one file might take up less disk space. That's especially true if you have a lot of small files, like programming code.

SyncToy is still the more straightforward solution, but I would recommend that more advanced users at least consider Microsoft Backup.

Posted by: James at November 5, 2007 1:27 PM

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