Quick Overview: This page deals with utilities that can copy files and folders from one location to another. It is a good principle to backup either onto another computer via a network or the internet or onto external media that can be removed from the PC and stored safely elsewhere. If data is particularly valuable then keeping more than one set of backups or of rotating the backup medium or device is recommended. Historically, "Floppies" and Tape-Drives began to give way to CDR/CDRW media and they, in turn, have been largely supplanted by USB "pen/flash-memory" drives/cards or complete hard drives (both 3.5" desktop and 2.5" laptop sized ones) inside an external enclosure.
It is of course possible to backup from one folder to another on the same or a different partition or hard drive within any particular PC. This can be a quick way of ensuring one has copies of particular data and especially when one may want to retain older as well as newer versions of data (differential or incremental backups). It is no substitute for keeping copies in a separate and safe location. You have been warned.
Three basic destinations for any backed-up data will be considered. There will be some cross-over and variation between what various utilities can do and to where they can make their backups.
(Note: Packet-Writing CDs are ones that have been specially formatted to behave as if they were large floppy drives such that, once so formatted, data can be copied to them directly from Explorer/MyComputer utilising specialised Packet-Writing software such as Nero's InCD or Roxio's Direct CD).
- Direct Backup to a Local File System (Drive letter or sub-folder)
- Network and Internet Backup (Network shares or FTP folders or Internet Hosts)
- Backup to Optical Media (Normal non-packet-writing CDR/CDRW/DVDR/etc)
The File System container must be writable (not read only) and be of adequate size for the task. It can be the root of any partition or one of its folders/sub-folders on:
- Hard drives
- Floppy drives
- USB flash-memory drives/cards
- Packet-writing formatted CDs/DVDs
There are simply loads of such utilities but we will particularly mention just four:- (a.) Cobian (freeware), (b.) SecondCopy (trialware), (c.) Nero's BackItUp (shareware) which is a full retail version (though often bundled with a new CD/DVD burner) and (d.) Syncback (freeware) and its cousin SyncbackSE (trialware). We will concentrate on the SyncBack pair of utilities from BrightSparks but mention the others in passing.
- Cobian is completely free and generally a good program and easy to use. We found it a little buggy on occasions and couldn't get it to work via FTP. We haven't however yet tried the Amanita Version 9.
- Second Copy was probably the easiest to use of these three packages but not the cheapest nor the most versatile.
- We haven't used Nero's BackItUp that much but its interface is straightforward and of course being a cousin of Nero's burning software it is particularly good at backing up to optical media, whilst still being able to backup to other media as well. Unless you get an old free version it is not the cheapest backup solution. It has an interface pretty similar to Microsoft's native Windows backup utility, which we deprecate if only because it differs radically in the various versions of Windows and doesn't have backward compatibility.
- We have found Syncback to be a very useful piece of free software and were so impressed that we paid to get the SyncbackSE version. There is also a Pro version with extras (such as SFTP support) but which we have no need for. There is a comparison chart for all three versions.
When you run SyncBack for the first time you are prompted to start a new profile. You may only want one profile but can add others later on for different backup tasks. The initial window asks you to choose between copying or synchronising files.
The next interface will get you to select a source and destination with a number of other options to choose from. In the picture below the whole of drive G: has been chosen to be copied to a network share called backups on another network computer named Vik.
Once OK'd such a profile gets added to the main window. The next picture shows that window with an existing profile that copies the My Documents folder to the G: partition, which in this case is a pen drive kept entirely for backup purposes.
Profiles can be run (they can also be tried-out with a simulated run) by highlighting the profile and using the run button. They can also be run at times in the future utilising a Scheduled Task or (our own favourite method) by running the profile in the background as often as suits ones purposes. In order to use the background option it is necessary to first use the Modify button and then go from Easy to Expert Mode and make the necessary adjustments to the Background Tab as in the picture below.
We trust that is enough detail to get you started - particularly for simple straightforward backup from one to another folder. Play around with all the other options to suit you. If backing-up to a network share you may well need, for example, to supply the authentication details on the Network Tab.
As with the free version, SyncBackSE has loads of options. It has a similar but slightly different interface. Two of the features we regularly use are its "Insert" and "Fast Backup" options. The "Insert" option is found under "Click for Options" then "Expert" and then "When". It allows backups to be triggered simply by the insertion of a particular device such as a pen drive as shown in the picture below by reference to its serial number.
The Label and Serial Number of a drive can be found from a command prompt. One can usually open the command prompt by entering cmd into the run box from the Start button. Then enter the Drive letter followed by a colon and then enter DIR /P (the /P switch restricts the directory list to a "page" at a time). The label in Drive E: in the example below is A6_EPROG_A8N and its serial number is 304E-D18B. The label can also be be found and usually changed by right clicking on a drive letter in My Computer and choosing Properties. This way of identifying drives is particularly useful when using external storage devices, whose letters are especially liable to change from time to time.
Fast Backups rely on lists of data made when the backup is first run. Only files that have changed in the source since the last time are considered for copying. Destination folders are not re-scanned so if changes have been made manually some unpredictable results can emerge. Because the destination is not rescanned and comparisons made, such backups, particularly for long lists of data or on slow network or ftp connections, are performed much more quickly. Full rescans can be done manually or at specified intervals and can be normal or differential in nature.
Variables (for example %DAYOFWEEK%) can be used in two ways. The destination folder can have such a variable added to it (eg D:\backups\%DAYOFWEEK%. In such a case the backups will be made into seven folders D:\backups\1, D:\backups\2, etc depending when the backups are run. They can also be used to select when a full rescan should take place if using a profile with the Fast Backup option chosen.
There is quite a learning curve if you want to use and understand all of the options within the Fast Backup settings so have a good read of the help files if you want to benefit from such versatility. We suggest that you don't use Fast Backup if you want to keep things as simple as possible.
The SyncBack utilities can be used to backup to both network shares (as already indicated) but also to accessible FTP folders on either a LAN or the internet. In this way SyncBack functions like an FTP client, such as the excellent FileZilla (freeware), but can however allow such operations to be automated. The FTP server settings are entered as in the picture below and, if desired, the settings tested using the indicated button.
The source folder and destination server are modified, as shown in the example below, noting that most subscribed webhosts use the www folder as the root of a web. The actual example allows static shots taken by a webcam and stored locally as webcam.jpg to be uploaded at whatever interval is required. In the same example only the file webcam.jpg has been added as an allowed filter setting.
The internet can be a useful place to backup files to if you have no other external safe place to keep the copied data and particularly as a quick or temporary way of doing this. There are a wide number of websites (or indeed one's own free or paid-for webhosting package) which allow this and which we have already covered elsewhere under Storage on the Web.
Remember that free webmail accounts (google, gafana, hotmail, etc) can be created and files (zipped or unzipped) then sent to oneself attached to an email as a quick and uncomplicated way of backing up some data. Some email providers wont allow the transfer of executable files, be they zipped or otherwise. One trick to sending these is to change the exe file extension before transmission and then change it back before use.
Backup to Optical Media (non-packet-writing CDR/CDRW/DVDR/etc)
Ordinarily writable and re-writable optical media can no longer really be considered expensive and do still have a role in the storage and backup of data. Of course one needs an appropriate CD or DVD burner drive and appropriate burning software installed. All other storage media have also come down tremendously in price and are generally much easier and quicker to use so we forsee the decline in the use of CDs and DVDs (particularly for the storage of large amounts of backup data) in favour of external hard drive enclosures and USB "pen" drives. On the plus side, such disks are robust and don't take up a lot of space; (of course neither do pen drives). Another thing not widely known about the media is that, unless fully reformatted, files are never over-written on them. If the same file is copied/burned to the same folder then it is actually written completely in full to a new area of the disk and a new list of contents created. The very clever program isobuster can be used to both visualise and recover such old data.
In the main, the way such media are written-to involves software such as Nero's Burning ROM or Roxio's CD Creator (both are retail but are often bundled with new hardware and on new OEM PCs such as Dells and HPs). There is also the native burning software that comes with Windows XP and above and InfraRecorder (a free open source solution). Such burning is said to take place in sessions. After a session has taken place there may be an option to close the disk. This prevents further sessions being burned to that disk but makes it more likely to be readable by a wider range of different CD/DVD drives. There is nothing to stop one from simply burning data to optical media manually using Windows or other relevant software. We will hovever now give some outline of how Nero's BackItUp can help this process.
Most of the software already mentioned on this page has used different profiles for copying disparate data on a hard drive. One of the things that BackItUp (and for that matter MSBackup) can facilitate is to backup different folders kept on different parts of ones file system as one single backup job. In the picture below one can see that the My Pictures and My Music subfolders of the My Documents folder and an errolshoes folder on the Destop have been chosen for backup.
One can see that this type of interface is very similar to MSBackup but because Nero is built around CD burning the backup job can be burned directly to a writable CD/DVD if one is chosen as the destination for the backup files. BackItUp can backup to other locations as well but is ideally suited to backing up disparate data to such disks. If there is not enough space available on one CD/DVD then one will be prompted to insert additional disks as necessary to create a spanned set of backup disks.
It is also possible to create image files of partitions and drives using BackItUp's "Drive Backup" section. The images can be raw or compressed block data and they can be verified as part of the process (which is generally a good idea when using CDs/DVDs so that one knows that the burn was OK). The resultant .dat file has proprietary headers (as with most of Nero's image files) but the complete block data can easily be read with a hex editor if the image was not compressed.
Up-to-date versions of BackItUp claim to be able to lock a current system partition but we, as elsewhere, do not advise such methods and believe that the only sensible way to backup images of active partitions is from outside Windows altogether using utilities such as ImageForDOS. One of the biggest problems you may run into, if you go such a route, is to be not be easily capable of restoring the image when your system is unbootable. By all means backup data partitions using such methods but we particularly caution against backing-up systems.
Unless you got BackItUp as a free bundle it is likely to seem rather expensive. If it does the job for you satisfactorily and means you are more likely to keep backups of your important data then it is likely to be cheap in the long run. In the main we find free open source solutions for most software but that doesn't mean there is no place at all for retail programs.