Updated: December 7, 2018
I cannot stress enough how important data backups - and system images, if you will - are. There are many reasons for having your data safely replicated to another location. Hard disks can fail, hardware can get stolen, you can accidentally corrupt your files. Unlike real life, where you can't have a clone of yourself, not yet anyway, software gives you easy ways to create copies of your data.
In the Windows environment, my favorite data backup (and replication software) is Karen's Replicator. Alas, since the author unfortunately passed away several years ago, it has not been maintained, and it does not work well with Windows 8 and above. A change in the NTFS data structure sometime in 2017 made Karen Replicator unable to create new folders. I began a hunt for an heir, and found out that there's too much focus on cloud backups. Eventually, I found a bright spark among the ashes - a program called SyncBack Free. Hence, this review.
Sync it back, sync it back, sync it back for free
There might be other song references in this review, who knows. Anyway, a few more words on the reasoning behind my choice. Data backup to cloud has many advantages - and limitations. Sometimes, all you need is a simple, quick offline data replication to multiple hard disks or computers. And to that end, you need a program that that copy files and folders in bulk. There are strikingly few programs of this mature on the market, especially in the Windows world (Linux has rsync, which is very cool). You either get rigid copy and xcopy frontends, or over-complicated mandatory-encrypted archiving tools.
SyncBack provides the answer to my dilemma. It's a simple, straightforward, portable tool. It offers backup, sync and mirroring, it's recently seen a visual site-and-code revamp, it's actively maintained, it supports Windows 10, it works with network nodes, FTP - and even some cloud providers. You can schedule, compress and encrypt data, and all this in the free version. Payware editions also offer scripting, mail backups, versioning, and more. Well, I set about using the tool. Let's see what gives.
Very easy. Just click your way through the installation wizard. The next step, once the UI launches is to actually create a backup task. This is where things get a little more complicated, and you need to pay attention. Which is why I decided to spend some time going through every option and explaining what gives.
The creation of a backup/replication task takes two steps. You click on New to create a new profile - essentially a backup job. First, you are asked several basic, generic questions using a wizard, which defines certain profile defaults. After that, you can edit the profile in detail, and use either the easy mode, which assumes lots of things for ordinary users, or the expert mode, which really lets you configure everything.
Name the profile. Then choose type.
In essence, this is how it works:
- Backup - copies data from left to right (source to destination), does not delete files.
- Synchronize - keeps the two sides identical, so it may delete files on your source side.
- Mirror - keeps the destination identical to source, so it will delete files not found on the source side.
Next, you are asked to choose your source and destination types - this is still not the step where you actually choose the relevant folders for copy/replication. This is only the broad definition, like internal disk, external disk, network share, etc.
Then, you will be prompted to edit the profile. Don't worry, even if you skip this step, you can always edit the profile in the main view via right-click. Everything can be reached or done in three different ways through the SyncBack UI, which can be a little confusing or overwhelming, but it also means you won't get lost.
And then, you get the simple/expert views. You can see in the sidebar the differences in the available options. For less skilled users, they just need to sort out the source and destination and then schedule the profile. Advanced users can really tweak the details.
Edit profile settings
Let's go through the sidebar tree and see what gives.
Scheduling is the most important part, because you want the backup tool to run in the background, probably overnight (provided you don't allow Windows 10 to randomly reboot your box outside "active hours"), so you need some sort of repetition in place. In fact, my personal recommendation is, if you're not using Windows 10 Pro, which lets you defer updates, to run Windows Updates only manually using the metered connection feature or by controlling the WU service on demand, however often you like, so you don't mess up your backups. I'm sure the security zealots are foaming on the mouth at the very notion of this digital sin, but having your data safely backed up is far, far more important than whether you miss some update by a few days.
First, you will see a confusing prompt that prevents users with blank passwords from running scheduled tasks. This means if you're not using a password for your user - or for the backup user - for some reason, you will not, by default, be able to run scheduled tasks. SyncBack can remove this restriction. You can leave it in place and then when prompted, provide the relevant password.
The next step is to decide when and how to run your profile in the unattended more. This can be a little confusing, so let me explain. If you select Daily, for instance, then you can also setup recurrence, i.e. you can run every day, every other day, etc. This gives you granularity that is finer than the standard day/week/month option.
Then, at the bottom, Repeating means how often you want to run the task in a given recurrence period. If you want an hourly job, then you can set it to run every 1 hour. Duration lets you choose whether to just keep doing the task come the repeat sequence or a certain number of times. This can be more elegant. Indeed, if you make a weird choice, you'll get a weird prompt:
The Security tab lets you decide whether to run the task when logged in, password storage - very important for network locations, especially under Windows 10. You will need to store the password for anything except local storage. Misc lets you run the task if missed, whether to wake a system to run the job, and if to power down the system once the backup is complete.
This sounds odd - and somewhat confusing, but you have the option to decide what happens to your files and folders to cover all copy scenarios: 1) file exists on source but not on destination 2) file exists on destination but not on source 3) file exist in both locations and differs in certain attributes.
While making changes to the decisions, I effectively changed my profile from backup to mirror. I had selected the first type, but when I decided to delete files on destination, it became mirror. For folders, the decisions are a little more complex. You may find yourself not really seeing what you want, and the button labeled Automatic will be selected. The online help section is quite helpful, and it turns out that the default behavior for folders is to delete on destination if not found on source. This could be a bit clearer, but okay.
You will be warned - multiple times - that you're deleting stuff on destination, though.
Here, you can choose how the program copies and deletes files. Some of the features are only available in payware versions of the tool and will be grayed out. In general, even advanced users will not really need to bother with most of these settings.
As the title says. You can use compression, with the necessary performance degradation, if you're short on space. Most people will probably not need bother with this - plus some options are locked in the free version.
Under this section, you will find several rather useful options. One, you can change the program priority, both for manual and unattended runs. You can also pause the profile for a few seconds, to make sure that network sources go "online" and can be used. You can also check that external media devices work correctly.
If you're backing up to a network, you might need to provide username and password, both for source and destination, especially if you run your backup tasks as different users. No biggie. Identify yourself and move on. In general, this should be straightforward, but then, it is important to test.
Running the profile
This is the fun part. SyncBack lets you run a simulation of your profile, to make sure everything is dandy before you actually do the job. Lots of helpful information all along the way. The program does inspire confidence.
And then, we're running in earnest! Fast, true, reliable. Me likes.
Options & global settings
As I mentioned earlier, there's a wealth of option in the UI. Can be a bit overwhelming. You can change how the program behaves, set it to startup with Windows, disabled suspend or hibernate, change language, log and debug the execution, and even link cloud accounts, more on that in a second. Likewise, for your profile, you can copy or export the settings - and use them on other systems, use different background colors, and tons of other options. Very handy.
Global settings are somewhat awkwardly bunched together. The order of presented options isn't really logical. Not sure why ransomware detection/protection is located under Expert and not under its own label. The usage mode also isn't clear - technically, SyncBack will use a file as a data immutability token, and if this file changes, for whatever reason, it will not run backup profiles in order not to spread potential data damage to backup nodes. This might work, but it's tricky - you could end up without any data backups for an innocent false positive reason, and not even realize it.
The Settings tab (in the global settings wizard) is all about the program behavior and its settings. FTP means FTP - no secure FTP in the free version. Encryption also feels a bit quirky. You can encrypt your destination files, but that somewhat misses the point of replication.
This is the one thing that looks a bit odd in the freeware version of SyncBack V8. I only had the Google option, and you need to go through the whole app access permission sequence. I believe the payware editions do offer more than this. Anyway, it's not bad, but I'm not 100% sure this is the main strength or focus here.
I have deployed SyncBack on two Windows 8 hosts and one Windows 10 machine and done some real life testing, not just games. Roughly 2 TB of data, some 2 million files and about a quarter million folders later, I can say that this is a worthy successor for the sturdy workhorse that is (was) Karen's Replicator. SyncBack Free is an excellent options for anyone looking for a powerful and reliable backup/replication solution.
If you don't have a backup mechanism in place, I'd warmly recommend one. Backups offers a peace of mind, especially since data loss is a given. No matter what you do, at some point, the digital medium that stores your stuff will fail. When that happens, your biggest hassle should be the time needed to replace a disk, restore the data and move on. SyncBack Free offers all the right answers. I'm very pleased, and you should grab the program and start testing yourselves. Right now. P.S. I couldn't find an up-to-date high-res icon for the program, so I used a generic - and witty - alternative on the home page.