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Can’t I Just Copy Everything to Back Up?

Only if you really can copy everything. (Spoiler: you can’t.)

Backup 74% Complete
It's tempting to just use file-copy tools to back up what you think you need. But you can easily miss something very important.
For security in case of a crash, can I just copy everything — like my entire C: 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.

Sure. You can do that: just copy everything. It provides a level of protection, and it’s significantly better than doing nothing at all.

But your safety net has some extremely large holes in it.

There are things a “copy everything” backup misses that a traditional backup program would catch — things you’ll really care about when the worst happens.

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You can back up by copying all files from your system drive to a backup drive. Files in use will be skipped, including much of Windows itself. This approach also frequently saves only the most recent copy of a file, overwriting whatever was saved previously. A dedicated backup program has neither of these limitations and will keep you much safer against a wider variety of threats.

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 with Windows Command Prompt, it might look 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 files that normal accounts don’t have access to.

In theory, it seems simple, and it’s conceptually close to what a backup program does.

But there are some very important things missing.

What copying “everything” misses

Many important files are not backed up using this approach.

Most importantly, many1 files open in running programs at the time of the backup 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 them up with a simple copy/paste. Other applications may also be running with locked and uncopyable open files.

A backup program really can copy everything

Backup programs use functionality specifically designed to give 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.

Most backup programs easy to “set and forget”. Once configured, they run and back up automatically. Yes, you should test your backups, 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 that doesn’t involve a hard-disk crash or other catastrophic failures.

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. It’s been overwritten everywhere, including your backup, by version 2.

Had you been using a good backup program, that scenario may have had a different outcome.

Incremental backups

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:

  1. It only adds files to the backup, never deletes them.
  2. 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 with your backup software.

Incremental in practice

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 above. 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 — which files should be backed up and which 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 could recover data files from your backup, and perhaps some other files, but that’s about it. It wouldn’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.

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Footnotes & References

1: Some will be, but many will not. It depends on the restrictions placed on the files when they are opened by the programs involved.

2: Which can often be no pennies at all, since there are free solutions.

41 comments on “Can’t I Just Copy Everything to Back Up?”

  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).

    • Since this comment has been made, Leo has been recommending both Macrium Reflect and EaseUS Todo’s free versions. EaseUS Todo offers incremental backups in its free version and Macrium Reflect offers differential backups.

    • This article shamelessly did not inform readers of one of the most effective and free ways to back up everything using Microsoft Windows.

      You can save an image of your computers current state with Windows Backup.

      It saves the exact image of your computers current state like a snapshot in a VM, but with an image it includes the bootloader, so there is no reinstalling Windows.

      • Windows own backup has been deprecated and is supposedly being removed from future versions. Microsoft has stated that a third party program should be used now. I recommend Macrium Reflect or EaseUS Todo, both of which have free versions which will create images. I talk about image backups all over the site, just do a search.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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(
    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)

    Hash: SHA1

    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?



    Version: GnuPG v1.4.7 (MingW32)


  8. 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. 🙁

    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 ?

    • 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

      • 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.

        • 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.

        • 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.

  12. 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!

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

    • 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.

  14. 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?

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  15. 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.

  16. I’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……….

  17. Leo: You mentioned that an incremental backup “only adds files to the backup, never deletes.” That’s true, but they would appear to be deleted if you only looked at the latest incremental backup. You’d have to restore from an incremental backup taken after the file was created (or in the state you want) and before the file was changed or deleted. In other words, the file appears to be deleted or changed in the latest incremental backup.

  18. I’ve copied files in use without any problems. I became aware of this when I’ve tried to move files which were in use. It gave me an error message that it couldn’t delete the file in use. It performed the copy but couldn’t remove the file in use.
    It copies the original file without reflecting the changes the program which is using it is making, but I believe that’s how a backup program would also handle it.
    When I set up a computer for friends, I insist they have a USB HDD. I install EaseUS Todo with incrementals and a .cmd file with a Robocopy command to copy all of the user files. I do this because it means less work for me. It’s easy to find the backup copy on the backup drive. If something needs to be restored from the incremental backup, they usually call me. That additional copy backup avoits some phone calls and TeamViewer sessions.

    • There are different flavors of “in use”. A program can open a file saying “anyone can read this file while I have it open” for example. They can also open it “exclusively” so that no one can access it in any way (think the paging file, for example). There are actually many, many variants of what we kind of roll up into “in use”.

  19. My biggest concern with back-up software is that I will not be able to restore files unless I still have the original back-up software and it still runs on whatever computer I will use in future. So I create, I system image only for the system, but copy all my working files. Also, if I create a new version of a file, I rename them accordingly, as in XXXv1 and XXXv2. This is quite time consuming, or course.

  20. Hi Leo,

    I know you have stated that file get copied 100% of original quality, but no amount of copying can change a thing in both video and audio right? I’m asking since I have been copying and deleting a folder of videos back and forth many times.


    • Digital data does not degrade when copied, no matter how many times. (Or, rather, if there is an error in the copying process it will fail and you’ll get an error.) This is one of the HUGE benefits of digital data.


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