Schedule Automated Backups on Windows using SyncToy

"You do have backups... right?" Thats a phrase I've asked often and rarely gotten a "yes" reply. If your computer completely died tomorrow, would you be prepared?

With USB disk drive prices falling lower and lower every day, there's no reason not to have your important documents backed up. For users of Apple's Mac OSX, the process for setting up a full backup of their computer is a simple as plugging in a USB disk and telling the prompt that, yes, you want to use the disk for backing up. Under Microsoft's Windows there's never been a simple method. As far as most users know the only way to backup is to manually copy and paste their files onto a USB drive occasionally. They usually start doing this manual backing up after a loss of some sort, then gradually let their guard down until they're no better off than before. If you're one of those users who doesn't backup, here's a solution to your backup needs.

By the end of this tutorial you will have fully automated backups of your "My Documents" folder to a USB hard drive.

A note: This backup method keeps an exact copy of your My Documents folder and all changes you make to it on an external drive. If you accidentally delete a file from your My Documents, it will be deleted off of the backup USB drive. However it will automatically put a copy of the file in your Recycle Bin should you need to recover it.

We're going to need one piece of hardware and one piece of software for this setup. The hardware will consist of a USB hard disk drive attached to your computer. The software we're going to use is Microsoft's SyncToy utility. Download it here: SyncToy from Microsoft and install it. Installing it is straight foward, hit "I Accept" a few times, check a box and then hit "Next" a few times. After you've installed it, go into your Start menu and open it.

This is the screen you're greeted with when you first run SyncToy. The way SyncToy works is you set up "pairs" of folders. A "left" folder and a "right" folder. You can then set up three different ways for those folders to backup and copy files from one folder to the other. Click "Create New Folder Pair" to set up our first backup.

The left folder is the source you want to backup. Since our goal is to backup our whole My Documents folder, our My Documents folder is what we need to select. Click Browse under the left folder side then highlight "My Documents" if your on Windows XP or your user name if your on Windows Vista or 7 and then hit "OK".

Now we need to select the "Right Folder" for where are backed up files will go to. In this case thats going to be our external hard drive. Hit Browse under the right folder side click the little plus sign or arrow next to "My Computer" then highlight your USB drive. The drive will most likely have  "E:" or "G:" name next to it. Now click the "Make New Folder" button so we have a place for all of our files to go. Give the folder a useful name like "My Documents Backup" and then hit "OK". Now hit next to move on to the next step.

This screen is where we setup how we want the folder pairs to backup and copy files from our "left folder" to our "right folder". We have three options: Synchronize, Echo and Contribute. The only one we care about for this tutorial is Echo. Echo will backup all of our files from our My Documents onto the USB drive. Select it and hit next.

The following is a description of the three backup method options. You can skip on to the next paragraph if you are just interested in getting the tutorial setup. Read on if you want to be able to use the SyncToy utility in a more advanced method.

  • Synchronize: This option will set up your folder pair so that any change you make to a file in either the left or right folder will be mirrored into the other folder. Example using this tutorial: If you add, delete or change a file off of the USB drive, it would add, delete or change it in of your My Documents.
  • Echo: This option is the traditional backup method. All file additions, deletions and changes in your left folder are mirrored over to your right folder. Any additions in your right folder will be ignored. Example: You add a file on My Documents, it gets copied to the USB drive. You change a file on the USB drive, the original from My Documents replaces it. You delete a file from the USB drive, it gets placed back from My Documents.
  • Contribute: This is exactly the same as Echo except it never deletes anything from the right folder (USB drive in our example). This may be the best backup method. If you accidentally delete a file from your My Documents, you can recover it from the USB drive since nothing is ever deleted from it. The only problem is it will eventually fill up your USB drive and you will need to clear out older files.

Name your folder pair. Give it a decent name like "My Documents Backup" and hit Finish.

Huge Success!

All finished! No you can hit the Run button to run your first backup.

To automate the backups we need to schedule them using the Task Scheduler.

Schedule SyncToy Sync Task in Windows Vista and Windows 7

  1. Click on the Start menu, then select All Programs – Accessories – System Tools – Task Scheduler.
  2. Click on Create Basic Task in the “Actions” pane on the right.
  3. In the “Create Basic Task Wizard”, type in a Name and Description. For example: My Documents Backup.
  4. Click on Next button.
  5. Choose the frequency of when do you want the task to start. Daily is a good choice.
  6. Click on Next button.
  7. Set a Start Time leave the start date alone. I would set the start time of 1am.
  8. Click on Next button.
  9. In the “Action” step, select Start a Program as the option for the task to perform.
  10. Click on Next button.
  11. Under “Program/Script”, click on Browse button and locate the SyncToyCmd.exe. It’s located in “C:\Program Files\SyncToy 2.1\SyncToyCmd.exe”
  12. In the “Add Arguments” textbox, type "-R" without the quotation marks.
  13. Click Finish!

Schedule a SyncToy Task in Windows XP

  1. Go to the Start menu, select All Programs – Accessories – System Tools – Scheduled Tasks.
  2. Select Add scheduled task to start the Scheduled Task Wizard. You will see a list of possible programs to run.
  3. Select SyncToy from that list.
  4. The wizard will next prompt you to enter how often you want to run the scheduled SyncToy. Select Daily.
  5. The next page asks when to start the task. Select a start time, I recommend 1am.
  6. The next page asks for the user name and password to run the program under. If you have one, enter your password you use to log onto Windows. Otherwise click Next.
  7. The final page contains an option to open the properties dialog when the wizard ends. Select this checkbox.
  8. In the pop-up box, go to the end of the Run textbox and add " -R" (notice the first space) without the quotation marks, after the last quotation mark already in the Run field.
  9. Click OK!

All finished!

You now have fully automated backups of your My Documents folder onto a USB disk drive. This exact same tutorial can be modified using you My Pictures folder or My Music folder instead of My Documents if all you want to backup is your pictures or music or any other folder on your computer.

Now no more worries about weather your documents, pictures and music are backed up.

  1. avatar Merrill Hammacher says:

    Thanks Jason for the read! I'm thinking about getting one of my clients a NAS device for their data but was relunctant! After your read, I think I might just do that. Also thinking about converting their servers into virtual as well.

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