Sync programs make local backups a snap by copying only changed files. Dropbox and other cloud storage systems are great, but they aren’t as fast as a USB flash drive or removable hard drive to back up a large amount of files. Microsoft SyncToy is one of the most popular, but FreeFileSync gives it a run for its money.
We have SyncToy listed on our Best Windows Software page – it’s popular and it works. FreeFileSync, a free and open-source sync program, isn’t as well-known, but it has SyncToy beat. As a longtime SyncToy user, I was impressed by FreeFileSync’s performance, support for locked files, features and portability.
How They Work
FreeFileSync and SyncToy both perform the same functions. Specify a pair of folders, usually on different storage devices, and the application will synchronize files between them. You can configure either application to sync changes in both directions or in only one direction. Both applications can use a database to detect deleted files so they’re deleted in both folders and not automatically recreated.
Each application has customizable options, so you can add exceptions to prevent certain files in these folders from being copied. Each application can check whether files have changed by examining their date (faster) or by their contents (slower, but can be more accurate).
In my completely non-scientific tests, FreeFileSync had a consistent edge when it came to performance. I had both programs synchronize the same folder, containing about 1.7 GB of data, both large and small files, to different folders on another hard drive. Microsoft’s SyncToy came in around 60 seconds to complete the process, while FreeFileSync took around 50 seconds.
With larger amounts of data, FreeFileSync’s edge should be even more noticable.
Copying Locked Files
If you’ve been using SyncToy for a while, you’ve probably encountered one of its most annoying limitations: it can’t copy locked files. If your web browser is open, you won’t be able to synchronize your browser data. To take a full backup of your application data, it’s best to close every program and let SyncToy run – but who has time for that?
FreeFileSync uses the Windows Volume Shadow Copy service to read locked files and synchronize them. You’d think an official Microsoft program would better use the operating system’s features, but you’d be wrong.
FreeFileSync isn’t completely bloated with unnecessary options, but it offers more features than SyncToy. While it offers three synchronization modes, FreeFileSync offers the same three – and also allows you to create a customized synchronization mode with your own rules.
Both applications offer a batch mode so synchronization can be scheduled and run automatically, but only FreeFileSync exposes and explains batch mode in its interface. You’ll have to dig into SyncToy’s help file to learn its batch mode.
FreeFileSync can also automatically shut down your computer or perform other actions when a sync completes.
Unlike SyncToy, FreeFileSync can be installed as a portable app. You could install FreeFileSync on your removable storage device and use it anywhere without installing it on each system.
SyncToy also requires you to recreate your folder pairs on each computer you use, while FreeFileSync has the ability to export your configuration and import it on other systems.
FreeFileSync trumps SyncToy on all fronts. Perhaps it’s not surprising, given that SyncToy isn’t something Microsoft is focusing on – it hasn’t been updated since 2009. Maybe it’s time to take it off our Best Of page and add FreeFileSync? I can’t see a reason to use it over FreeFileSync.
Is there a reason either one is better? Let us know in the comments.