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Quick Incremental Backups
Using FreeFileSync

by Wren McMains
(07/24/2018)

The hard drive on your computer contains your personal documents and pictures, it IS GOING TO FAIL, it's just a question of when. To avoid loosing them when it happens make frequent incremental backups. Because they're incremental (you only backup files that are new or have changed) the backups are very quick so you should do them frequently. I recommend weekly as well as just after downloading new pictures from a camera (before you format the camera card).
 
For 12 or more years I've been using a Microsoft program called SyncToy. I've recently started using FreeFileSync which has many advantages. Here's a quick tutorial on the basics. (For backups involving many drives and computers see ...)

Installing FreeFileSync

Go to the FreeFileSync Download page, but be careful, see below ...

FreeFileSync Download

When I just went there I saw Ads that contained Continue buttons ... you DO NOT want to go down that path. Some Ads aren't so bad, but it was easy to make a mistake with these particular Ads. Instead click where it says "Download FreeFileSync ##.# Windows Setup":

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That will download the current version of the FreeFileSync Windows Setup program. Run it to do the install.

Changing Letter Assigned to External HD

When backing up to an external hard drive (HD) using SyncToy it's important to change the letter assigned to that particular HD when it's plugged it. If you don't, Windows assigns letters as various things are plugged in and might not be the same the next time you want to update the backup. That letter is used to name the folder pair and can't be changed later in SyncToy. It is possible to change it later using FreeFileSync, but I still recommend giving it its own unique letter.

See Changing Drive Letters for details, but the quick version is: WinKey+X, choose "Disk Management", find you drive on the bottom half of the screen and right-click on it, choose "Change Drive Letter and Paths ...", click on the Change button, using the pull-down choose the new letter, click on OK, it will give you a warning that some programs may not work if you do, click on Yes, continue anyway. That's all there is to it. X might be a good letter for an eXternal HD.

Basic FreeFileSync Usage

  1. If there are no folders specified under where it says "Drag & Drop" select both the left and right hand folders (the folder pair) by using the two Browse buttons, or by dragging and dropping the folders. If folders are already specified and you want to define a new backup, Press the New button.
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  2. Press the Compare button to see what will happen during the backup (same as the Preview button in SyncToy):
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  3. You may want to exclude files or folders from the backup, if so press the Filter button:
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    If you do this after running the Compare and before Synchronize, FreeFileSync will instantly show you what will happen instead as soon as you press OK on the Filter dialog.
     
  4. Select the synchronization settings:
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    I recommend Mirror if you are backing up to an external drive and "<- Two Way ->" when backing up to a drive on another computer.
     
  5. When you're happy, press the Synchronize button to do the backup.
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This overview shows the layout of the FreeFileSync Window, it was found in the FFS manual which you can access from the link below or the Help menu in FFS.

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FreeFileSync Manual

Backing up all your data to an external HD with FreeFileSync

  1. The first step is to use Windows File Explorer to create an empty folder on you external HD. For the purpose of this example, I called mine Bkup-WrenIT.
  2. Assuming you're like most Windows users, all your personal data (pictures, documents, etc.) is stored under a folder associated with your <UserName> under the folder C:\Users. Starting with Windows 8, Microsoft started making these folder names a little weird, but they usually still start with at least the first letters of your name.
     
    Press the Browse button to the right of the left-hand folder and select your folder in C:\Users. On this machine I happen to have four different Wren users (two with Microsoft accounts and two local users) so I had to be careful to select the correct one. You'll probably only have a couple users on your computer so it should be obvious.
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  3. Next use the other Browse button on the right side of the right-hand folder to select the backup folder on the external HD. My external HD was mounted as the letter T, this it what it looked like after selecting my backup folder:
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  4. Before pressing the Compare button I used the green gear to change the Synchronization Settings (see above). If you use the gear instead of the arrow, it will describe the various settings. I choose Mirror since this was an external HD backup. Notice the it now says Mirror on the Synchronize Button:
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  5. Once I pressed the Compare button it quickly did the analysis and told me it was going to backup 13,365 files and create 3,679 directories. This was more than I really wanted to backup for this example. I did notice that I hadn't yet edited the Filter (red funnel) to exclude the hidden AppData folder. but even if I excluded that it was still going to backup more than I liked so decided to login as another user to complete this example. Here's the initial report:
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  6. Once I logged in as the other user did the steps above, I saved the Sync Settings by pressing the "Save As" button. By default it's going to save it in your Documents folder, you may want to create a folder just for these Settings File. It's also going to default to a name of "SyncSettings", you probably want to give it a name that describes the backup. The name I used here told me which user I was backing up, and the name of the drive and folder where I was putting the backup:
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  7. Doing the same thing with only the left-hand folder changed, you see it now wants to backup 2,169 files, and 1,309 directories (folders). 98% of those are under AppData:
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  8. To exclude everything under the AppData folder we apply a Filter by clicking on the red funnel. (Failure to exclude AppData will lead to lots of errors because many of the files in there are locked by other programs that are running and can't be copied. Not copying them isn't really a problem, but if you keep getting errors they become normal and you never look at them and will miss the important ones.). In the Exclude section FFS automatically adds many file name templates for files should be excluded from any backup. I've highlighted in yellow the two lines I've added:
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    "AppData\" says exclude everything in that folder. If you also are still using SyncToy you should include the second line.
     
  9. Press OK to save the filter. Now you see the Save icon (old disk) is black. Press it to save the updates to the SyncSettings. (You'll notice in a screen capture below that if they've been saved the Save icon is grayed out.) Not I'm ready to actually copy the data by pressing the Synchronize button:
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  10. Next this screen pops up. You can tell it to never show it again, but I find it useful, especially if you hit Synchronize accidently. You notice it summarizes what your going to copy. (It's going to add 49 files on the right-hand side, a total of 5.79 MB in this case.)
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  11. Once you Press Start it will do the copy. While the copy is happening a Progress dialog appears. I find it much more useful than what SyncToy shows. In this case it Completed with errors. I forgot to capture the Progress tab, but since there were errors I pressed on the Log Tab and saw this. I quickly realized these were other hidden files in every user's folder that are open and should be excluded from any backup.
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  12. So I edited the filter again, adding one more line (NTUSER.*):
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    The two highlighted lines should always be added to your filter is you are backing up an entire C:\Users\UserName tree. The last line should also be included if you continue to use SyncToy. I save the SyncSettings again and pressed Compare.
     
  13. Now we see it's just going to update one file on the right:
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  14. It's important to look at the icons on each line of the preview. If you hover over one with your cursor it will tell you exactly what it's going to do with that file:
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  15. I pressed Synchronize and again got the summary (which also appears at the bottom right of the FFS window).
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  16. This time I remembered to capture what appears on the Progress tab. (Not very interesting because only one file was copied, but it does show a successful completion.)
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This may seem complicated, but it's not. All you do is specify where you want to copy from (the left-hand folder), where you want to copy to (right-hand folder), modify the filter if there are files or folders you want to exclude from the backup, save the SyncSettings (somewhere you'll find them) and run either a Mirror Sync (for external backup) or a Two-way Sync (between computer when files might have been updated on either side). It's really that easy.

Below you'll find a link to another page which explains why I like FFS and lots of tips on using it, however, if you just want to backup your data to an external drive there's much more detail there than you'll need at this point. But one thing you should know about are what you can do by hovering and clicking on various places in the middle column of the Synchronization Preview:

There are many things I really like about FFS that are going to make my life a lot easier and my backups much less time-consuming. To learn more about the way I'm using it with multiple drives and computers the details of why I like it see ...

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