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File and Folder Synchronization Revisited

by Alan German

One of my data backup strategies is to maintain a copy of the data partition of my hard disk on a USB memory stick. The “live” data (as opposed to archived material) usually adds up to no more than 2-3 GB so there is lots of room to store the entire contents on a reasonably sized memory stick.

For some time now, my – free – backup program of choice has been Microsoft’s SyncToy (See:; however, recently, I have found SyncToy getting confused and insisting on trying to copy files between disks when I know that the files have been synchronized. Unfortunately, the only way I have found to rectify the situation has been to delete and then recreate the relevant folder pair. Now, I didn’t mind going through this exercise on a once-in-a-blue-moon basis but, when the problem kept recurring, I decided that it was time to move on.

In the Linux world, the equivalent program that I use is FreeFileSync, an open-source offering from ZenJu on SourceForge. The promotional blurb states: “FreeFileSync is a free and Open Source folder comparison and synchronization tool. It is highly optimized for performance and usability without a needlessly complex user interface.” The really useful feature for our present purposes is that the program runs on multiple platforms, so there are both Linux and Windows versions.

Downloading and installing the Windows version (6.3 MB) is straightforward. I find it best to tweak the settings when first running the program. In particular, I disable the “Overview” window on the main screen since this simply lists the folders that are to be synchronized and this information is effectively displayed as part of the “Relative path” column. I also right-click on the file category listing in the left-hand window and check “Date” so that the file categories displayed are Relative path, Name, Size and Date. Similarly, I enable the date field in the right-hand window so that it’s obvious which is the newer file in the list of comparisons.



Other settings for “Compare” and “Synchronize” can be accessed through the blue and green cog wheels adjacent to each button. The default comparison method is “File time and size” (as opposed to “Content”) which I find adequate for my purposes. In the synchronize settings, I opt to leave the synchronization method as “Automatic” (effectively a two-way folder synchronization). This works well for me since I use the USB memory stick to synchronize my data files between two different machines. Since I can create, modify or delete files on either computer, allowing the program to perform a two-way synch between the memory stick and a hard drive maintains the same set of data files on both machines. I also change the “Deletion handling” field from “Use Recycle Bin” to “Delete Permanently”. On my system, FreeFileSync complains that the recycle bin is not available on the memory stick and permanently deletes any deleted files so, to avoid the warning message, it is simpler to have the files deleted. I don’t mind this since, once I decide to delete files, I frequently follow up by emptying the recycle bin.

The final tweak to the program’s settings is to click on the Filter Files icon and add to the excluded items. By default, FreeFileSync will exclude files like System Volume Information and $Recycle.Bin. My preference is to add .Trash-1000 (the Linux trash folder for my data drive) and SyncToy*.* (the SyncToy database files for various folder pairs). I don’t need to back up any deleted files and SyncToy is probably going to disappear from my system, so backing up its database files seems somewhat redundant! Once the exclusions are set, we hit the “OK” button and check “Hide excluded items” which prevents the listed items from being displayed in subsequent folder comparisons.

Now we have reached the main event. We want to back up the data drive to the memory stick. All we need to do is hit the “Browse” button in the left-hand window and drill down to select DataDisk (E:) in order to establish the first disk for the file comparison. Similarly, using the browse button in the right-hand window, we select Lexar (F:) i.e. the backup USB memory stick. Hitting the “Compare” button creates a listing of those files that are different between the two disks together with an indication, using various arrows, of how the files are to be synchronized.

For example, in the screenshot we can see a number of new files on the memory stick that are to copied to the hard disk (left arrow with plus sign) and also some updated files on the hard drive that are to be copied to the memory stick (right arrow) so as to overwrite the older versions.

This preview allows the synchronization process to be reviewed and possibly modified before any actions take place. To avoid an individual file being processed one simply unchecks the appropriate box. Alternatively, the action to be taken can be changed by hovering the mouse over the arrow and moving it either to the left or right to select a different action (e.g. take no action or delete the file).

Once the file actions are satisfactory, pressing the Synchronize button causes all the files transfers to take place and effectively synchronizes all the files and folders on the subject disks.

This is simply one way in which FreeFileSync can be used to maintain a mirror of specific files and folders. The power of the program is in the various optional features that can be harnessed to undertake the desired tasks. The beauty of the program is the simplicity of its operations once the appropriate options have been set.

Bottom Line:

FreeFileSync (Open-source software)
Version 5.5

Originally published: November, 2012

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