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Can’t I Just Copy Everything Instead of Using a Backup Program?

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For security in case of a crash, can I just copy my whole hard drive to an external drive as a backup rather than using a backup program? At the present time I am just copying My Documents to a flash drive, but am concerned that to recover I would have to rebuild all the files and updates if I had a crash.

The short answer is that you can, and it certainly provides a level of protection.

But your safety net has a hole in it.

There are definitely things you’re missing that a managed backup would catch and back up for you … things you’ll really care about should the worst happen.

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Copying C: to another drive

To be clear, the scenario here is that you’re attempting to backup C: by just copying all of it to another drive, like F:. If you’re familiar at all with the Windows Command Prompt, it might be something like this:

C:> xcopy /e /h c:\ f:\

There may be other options that would make sense, but I’ve included the important ones to copy the contents of all files and folders from the root of the C: drive to the root of the F: drive, and copy hidden and system files as well.

In theory it seems simple, and in many ways it’s fairly close (at least in concept) to what a backup program actually does.

But there are some important things missing.

What copying misses

There are files that will not be backed up by this approach.

Backup Flash DriveMost importantly, any files that are “in use”, meaning opened in running programs, will not be copied.

And some files are always in use. Like the Windows registry – the storehouse for millions of Windows and other application settings and configurations. If Windows is running, the operating system keeps the files that contain the registry open and locked from outside access.

If your hard drive were to die – even if you’ve backed up everything else on your machine – without the registry, you’re still looking at a complete reinstall of Windows, plus your applications, onto a replacement drive.

The registry is just the most obvious example, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Windows may have other files open that you can’t back up with a simple copy. In addition, other applications you may be running could also have files open, and those files will not get copied.

A back-up program catches more

A back-up program uses Windows functionality specifically designed to gain access to the protected files.

In other words, a back-up program will back up everything that a simple file copy cannot.

There are a couple of other benefits to using a back-up program that aren’t quite as critical, but still very handy.

I personally find back-up programs easy to “set and forget”. Once configured, they simply run and back up automatically. Depending on where you’re backing up, you won’t have to waste much energy thinking about your backups on a regular basis – they just happen.

But there’s an interesting scenario in which a back-up program can save the day that doesn’t involve a hard disk crash or other catastrophic failure.

Backing up incrementally

Let’s say on day one you create an important file, and that night your “file copy” backup places it on your back-up drive.

On day two, you make some changes to the file, perhaps deleting a section that you figured you no longer needed. At the end of day two, your back-up software once again copies the updated file to your back-up drive, overwriting the previous day’s back-up copy.

On day three, you realize the changes you made the day before were a huge mistake. Ideally what you want is the copy of the file at the end of day one, before you deleted everything. Unfortunately, even your backup no longer has that, as it dutifully overwrote it with day two’s work.

Back-up programs almost always include a feature known as “incremental backup”, which would solve this potential snarl. Each night, they back up only those things that have changed since the previous backup.

I’ll use my Windows configuration as an example.

On the first of every month, my back-up program takes a complete snapshot of my entire C: drive, a “full image backup”.

Each day thereafter, it saves the changes that happened since the previous day’s backup. For example, on the second day, only files that have changed since the first day are backed up. On the third day, only files that changed since the second day are backed up, and so on. This is called an “incremental” backup, and each is carefully tracked and stored separately (which means each can be accessed and restored separately).

The result is that on my machine, a full backup is about 45 gigabytes, but each day’s incremental backup varies between 2 and 6gb, depending on how busy I was on that particular day.

At the end of the month, I have the complete snapshot of the 1st as a starting point, and around 30 of these collections of incremental changes from each day to the next.

The downside is that if, on the 30th, I need to restore my hard disk to its most recent backup, the restore software needs to start with the full image of the 1st, and then apply each incremental change from 2nd through the 30th in turn. Fortunately, that only happens on a full restore.

The huge upside, from my perspective, is this: if, on the 30th, I decide I need a copy of a particular file as it was on the 15th, I can simply use the recovery tool to only apply the changes through the 15th, and pick up that file as it was on that day.

Now, aside from the files in use that I talked about earlier, you could probably devise a system using batch files and copy operations to mimic all this. In fact, that’s pretty close to what I did for a long time. But let me tell you, a back-up program that does this as its job is much more reliable, easier to use, and, in my opinion, worth every penny.

File copies can work

To be fair, there are some scenarios where simple file copies work, and work well enough.

For example, I have a couple of drives that contain only data, and no files are in use in the middle of the night, when my back-up scripts run. So I do indeed copy those drives to other drives each night, using a simple file-copy operation, much like the command line example shown earlier. There’s no need to set up a more sophisticated backup, and rather than being in a potentially proprietary backup format, the mirrored back-up drive is simply there, on my network, ready to be used at any time.

Copying files to back up can also be a space saver, under two conditions:

  • You know – and I mean really know – what files should be backed up and which ones you don’t need. Often that’s as simple as having all of your data on a separate drive or partition.

and

  • Your system drive is either backed up using a back-up program, or you plan on reinstalling the operating system and all applications from scratch in the case of a catastrophic failure.

It’s important to realize that for many people, a complete reinstall would be a couple of days of lost work that a back-up program could have taken care of in an hour or so.

And that actually brings me to my final point about using copy operations as backups: restoration.

Restoring your copied files

As we’ve seen, a “reverse copy” of the original example, of D: back to C: would not restore your system. Certain critical files, such as the registry, would be missing. Your “restored” drive won’t boot. You can recover data files reliably, and perhaps some other files, but that’s about it. It won’t be nearly enough to restore your entire system.

If your intent is to back up everything, so that in the case of a failure you can simply and quickly replace a hard drive and restore everything, then a back-up program is really the only way to go.

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33 comments on “Can’t I Just Copy Everything Instead of Using a Backup Program?”

  1. Leo,

    Any suggestions for free/ low cost backup software? I know you “get what you pay for” much of the time, but as a recently married grad student, software can be a hit to the budget. At the same time, having to do a full reinstall mid-semester, the week before a paper is due, is daunting at best (and before you ask, my data files are safe and regularly backed up).

    Reply
  2. —–BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE—–
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    Not really, perhaps other readers will chime in with some ideas.

    My default answer would be the backup utility that’s included in Windows. It’s
    gotten a bad rap in past years, but I also understand that it’s improved
    somewhat as well.

    Leo

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  3. I started using SyncBackup from 2BrightSparks. Have been very happy with it after struggling with Retrospect for some time. There is a simple mode and an advanced mode. If you use the advanced, the configuration options can be a bit complex. It is not exactly intuitive. Must complement them however on support. They sorted out a problem I had backing up to an external hard disk and response time was within 24 hours to requests. Cost from memory was around US$45 for a 5 user license. You can trial the software for 30 days so suggest you give it a go.

    Reply
  4. I was looking for a larger HD and noticed Aconis True Image was bundled with the HD which is a good idea. I think it was on Google.

    Reply
  5. I agree about the new ghost software. Its completely different to the 2003 version and hard to do a complete image backup of your c: drive. I find ghost is the best (and fastest) way of doing a complete backup of your system and its fast to restore from too.

    Reply
  6. I’m sorry to be a ‘What about me’ on this subject, but I’ve been trying to find a product that I believe was recommended in a recent (within the last 3 months) Leo newsletter. It had to do with back-up solutions for small servers. I though it was an HP product. But HP is not answering my emails about it. I’ve tried to find the newsletter and haven’t been able to. We have a 75GB server and I’d like daily back ups.
    Thanks…

    Reply
  7. I’ve used Acronis for years, every week I do a complete image backup and if I’ve ever had a problem, picked up a virus, anything at all I’m back up and running in about a half hour. It’s always worked flawlessly for me. I recommend it highly.

    Reply
  8. As I recd. nil response last time, please can I request an opinion to the following which hasn’t been covered before as far as I am aware –
    My DELL 9300 laptop has 3 partitions (all different format – FAT16.32 and NTFS) for ‘DELL utilities’, ‘Shipping condition’ recovery using Ctl/F11 and the C: partition (NTFS). The HDD also has the ‘special’ DELL boot sector to enable the shipping recovery action – see(www.goodells.net/dellrestore/recover.htm)
    Can you advise if its possible to copy whole HDD to my ext.250Gb USB drive please and then do incremental updates of the C: partition – to cover possibility of HDD failure?
    Rgds. G (an oldie UK fan)

    Reply
  9. —–BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE—–
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    I’m probably just not understanding the question. Based on what I *think*
    you’re asking, the answer would be “yes”, though I would tend to copy each
    partition individually.

    What am I missing here?

    Thanks,

    Leo

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  10. You wrote:-

    On day three you realize the changes you made the day before were a huge mistake. Ideally what you want is the copy of the file at the end of day one, before you deleted everything. Unfortunately even your backup no longer has that, as it dutifully overwrote the backup with the results of day two’s work.”

    That happened to me about 25 years ago. šŸ™

    What I reelly reelly want is software that will take a file on my hard-drive (say “My Current File.doc”), compare it with the files in the same folder on the back-up drive, and, if it exists, and has the same size and datestamp, ignore it. However, if either is different, the software then changes the name of the file on the back-up drive to (in this example) “My Current File 20090812 145302.doc” and then copies the new version under its own name.

    I’ve been struggling to create a VBA routine in Excel to do this…..

    Do you happen to know of any commercial software that would do it for me ?

    Reply
    • If I understand your question correctly, DropBox will do that. Each time you save a file DropBox will copy it to it server as the newest version of your file. So, if you need to go back to a prior version, just see DropBox. They keep version up to 30 days, but I have had older ones restored from there. DropBox is not an answer to full system backup, but it is great at what it does.

      Reply
  11. Leo! I have been following you for a while now and i have to say that you saved my butt. I attempted to install Ubuntu and something went crazy. I had done as you suggested and backed up with Easetodus on a cd (no outside hdd in budget) which with the help of youtube ihave my machine running again. Just a tip for others uninstalling ubuntu; use EasyBCD just as shown on the tube first, then remove that useless piece of a step-back binary learning tool from linux.

    Reply
  12. I use a three-step approach to system security.

    1. Backup of the C: drive every week to an external drive.
    2. Save all data files to an external drive, every week.
    3. Clone the C: drive to a separate drive every month.

    In addition to the above, I create a restore point once or twice a week.

    Reply
  13. I’ve often wondered about this. My image backups works once a week so after a couple of years have original large file and a 100 followups. So if I needed to restore, it’d begin with the first one, but do I have to restore all hundred files? Or just the first and last one? This part is confusing.

    Reply
      • My backup created a huge full drive image two years ago, and every Sat night it makes an incremental.
        If I ever have to restore, so I use the first large one and then add all the rest of them?
        About a hundred incrementals.

        Reply
        • If you restore your computer, it will look at all of the backups from your first backup up to and including the incremental backup point you are restoring to. That’s why it’s generally more practical to start your backup sequence over again every so often. The most common backup plan is a monthly full backup with a month of incrementals. In your case, you can do a full image backup and start the sequence again after approximately 30 incrementals or whatever is most convenient.

          Reply
        • Yep. That’s why I recommend typically doing a new full backup once a month, and thus only 30 daily incrementals at most to go through.

          Reply
  14. Suddenly my Windows-10 “Start” i.e. the icon onthe left bottom corner, does not work by cliking on it, to do anything, including “shut down”. But if I RIGHT CLICK on it, I get the options that were there before.
    Windows-10, 32-bit, Professional, upgraded from Windows-7 32-bit.

    Reply
  15. I am using windows 10 on a HP lap top for a little while now.What has happened is that i resently discovered that when i move my hand over the area where the mouse is, the arrow jumps to different places be it my document or my desk top this did not happen before and it is driving me crazy. What do you suggest I do?
    Another case also, with my windows 10 is that since I an user of NetFlix I cannot use the dropdown system becouse i don’t have my minus sign. Why is this happening? Lastly it drives my totally nuts that fact the screens keep on changing size which forces me rub the mouse area to bring it bach to a readaible size.
    Please help!

    Reply
  16. I notice in your discussion of backup types you mention only “Image”. How about “Clone”?
    Please discuss the plusses/minuses of each.

    Reply
    • Leo has mentioned in other articles that he doesn’t talk much about cloning, because for all practical purposes a system image backup contains all of the relevant information of a clone backup and takes up much less space on the backup drive.

      Reply
  17. Which is better: image backup or just copy backup (for my personal computer at home, running on Windows 7)?

    Does Windows Backup provide the incremental backup? Like, if I backup today, and run another next month, do I have the option to choose that only modified files will be backed up?

    Reply
    • By copy backup, I mean to say that only the files in registry and everything will be copied, but the hard drive shall not be bootable, rather than the cloning operation of partitioning the external hard disk.

      Reply
    • It’s not a question of which is better. It’s a question of which is better for you. Backing up just your files is not a bad strategy, but if your drive fails or you get hit with severe malware, your files may be safe, but you would have to install of your programs and get their and Windows settings back to where you like. I recently had a system failure and for that laptop, I didn’t have image backups. Now 3 weeks later, I still find myself installing programs I forgot to install when I reinstalled Windows. No data was lost because I do all my work in OneDrive, but I could have saved a lot of time with regular image backups.Backing up only files also runs the risk of missing some files.

      Windows 7 built-in backup doesn’t allow incremental backup but it allows you to restore individual files.

      Reply
    • They serve two different needs, but I prefer image backups in general. That way there’s no question about what’s backed up (everything). Windows backup does not do incrementals.

      Reply
  18. Leo, the article was really great. The comparison and stuff, great. I am also using incremental backup technique to backup my important files at the end of the day. To do this I use GS Richcopy 360, it has other features too that you listed. Now, I know this software much better thanks to you.

    Reply
  19. Iā€™m just learning Power-Shell and run now exactly into this, because i wanna evaluate gs richcopy 360 Logs. In this Logs there are lots of pathnames longer than 220 Chars……….

    Reply

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