Sure. You can do that: just copy everything. It certainly provides a level of protection, and it’s significantly better than doing nothing at all.
But… (You knew this was coming, right? )
Your safety net has some large holes in it.
There are things you’re missing that a traditional backup program would catch and back up for you — things you’ll really care about should the worst happen.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Copy everything to another drive
The scenario proposed here is backing up C: by just copying all of it to an external 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. It would have to be run “as administrator” to pick up many files that normal accounts don’t have access to.
In theory it seems simple, and in many ways it’s fairly close (at least in concept) to what a backup program does.
But there are some important things missing.
What copying “everything” misses
Many files are not backed up by this approach.
Most importantly, many1 files “in use”, meaning files opened in running programs, will not be copied.
And some files are always in use.
The most notable may be the Windows registry — the storehouse of settings and configurations used by Windows and installed applications. If Windows is running, the files containing the registry are locked from outside access.
Without the registry, if your hard drive were to die, you’re still looking at a complete reinstall of Windows, followed by a complete reinstall of your applications, onto a replacement drive.
The registry is just the tip of the iceberg. When running, Windows has many other files open, preventing you from backing up with a simple copy/paste. Other applications may also be running with locked and uncopyable open files.
A backup program can really copy everything
Backup programs use functionality specifically designed to given them access to protected files and files in use.
In other words, a backup program copies everything.
There are a couple of other less critical yet handy benefits to using a backup program.
I find backup programs easy to “set and forget”. Once configured, they run and back up automatically. Yes, you should test your backups occasionally, but you won’t have to waste much energy thinking about them on a regular basis; they just happen.
But there’s an interesting scenario in which a backup program can save the day not involving a hard disk crash or other catastrophic failure.
How “copy everything” backups lose files
Imagine this scenario:
- You create an important file. I’ll call this version 1.
- Your nightly file copy backup backs it up.
- The next day, you make changes to the file, creating version 2.
- Your nightly file copy backup backs it up, overwriting version 1 in the backup.
- The next day you realize that those changes to version 2 were a horrible, horrible mistake.
You really want version 1 back. Except it’s gone, overwritten everywhere, including in your backup, by version 2.
Had you been using a good backup program, that scenario may have had a different outcome.
Imagine this scenario instead:
- You create an important file. Once again, it’s version 1.
- Your backup software creates a full image backup of your hard drive, including the file.
- The next day, you make changes to the file to create version 2.
- Your backup software creates an incremental backup, backing up only those files that have changed since the previous backup, including version 2.
- The next day, that same realization hits: version 2 was a disaster, and you need to revert to version 1.
In this scenario, you can. An incremental backup has two important differences over the “copy everything” approach:
- It only adds files to the backup, never deletes.
- It only adds those files that have changed since the previous backup.
That means that version 1 of your file is still there, ready to be recovered using your backup software.
Incremental in practice
My approach is pretty straightforward. I configure my backup software to:
- Create a full image backup of everything once a month.
- Create an incremental image backup each night of everything that changed that day.
- Save backups for at least two months.
That means I can revert any file to the state it was in any day in the preceding 60 days.
Now, aside from the “files in use” problem I talked about earlier, you could probably devise a system using batch files and copy operations to mimic much of this. But a backup program is more reliable, easier to use, and in my opinion, worth every penny.2
“Copy everything” can work sometimes
To be fair, there are scenarios where simple file copies work, and work well enough.
For example, I have some drives that contain only data, and no files are in use in the middle of the night. I just copy or “mirror” those drives to other drives nightly using a simple file copy operation, much like the command line example shown earlier. There’s no need for a more sophisticated backup, and the mirrored drive is simply there, on my network, ready to be used at any time.
Copying files to backup 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, partition, or folder.
- Your system drive is either backed up using a backup program, or you plan on reinstalling the operating system and all applications from scratch in the case of a catastrophic failure.
It’s a completely valid way to back up as long as you know it’s sufficient for your situation. It’s important to realize that for many people, a complete reinstall would mean a couple of days of lost work, whereas a backup program could have taken care of it in an hour or so.
And that brings me to my final point about using copy operations as backups: restoration.
Restoring your copied files
As we’ve seen from our original example, a “reverse copy” of the backup on F: back to C: would not restore your system. Certain critical files, such as the registry, would be missing. Your “restored” drive would not be able to boot. You can recover data files from your backup, and perhaps some other files, but that’s about it. It won’t restore your entire system.
If your intent is to back up everything, so in the case of a failure you can simply and quickly replace a hard drive and restore everything, then a good backup program is the only way to go.
For a complete overview of one approach to backing up properly, have a look at How to Back Up Windows 10.