Should You Backup Or Sync?

Category: Backup

What's the difference between backing up my files and syncing? If I sync files from my desktop computer to a laptop or website, isn't that basically the same as a backup? I'd like to know if there are benefits to one approach or the other...

Backup Or Sync: Which is Right For You?

I can understand why some people are confused about the processes of data backup versus data synchronization (or "syncing," as it's called). When should you backup your data, and when should you sync it? It helps to understand the differences between the two processes.

Backup is a one-way process: files are copied from the source location to the backup destination, and that's it. Syncing, on the other hand, is a two-way copying process. The object of syncing is to maintain identical files and folders in two or more locations. When files are added, deleted, or changed in any one location, the changes are replicated in the other location(s). Now, let's see what that means for backup purposes.
Backup vs. Sync

A backup is supposed to preserve a copy of data in a destination location in case it's deleted or corrupted in the source location. But a file deleted in the source will also be deleted in the destination if a sync is performed. So to preserve and protect important data, you don't want to rely on syncing.

Another difference between backup and sync is that in a sync, the files copied to a new location remain in their original forms. It's possible to make backup copies by just copying a bunch of files from source to destination, but that is not how most backup programs work. Instead, files are compressed to save space and stored in a single backup file. Individual files must be restored from the backup file before they can be used again.

Keeping Multiple Devices in Sync

Sync is preferred for making the same set of files available for use on multiple devices. For example, Let's say you have three computers in your home, and you're into photography. When you upload your latest batch of photos from your digital camera to your desktop, an automatic sync process would make sure those photos are copied to the other computers. You could then view, edit or manage your photos on any of the computers, and the changes you make will be automatically reflected to the others.

If photography is not your thing, maybe you could benefit by syncing your music, documents, or email contacts between a desktop and a laptop. Software like GoodSync makes it easy to synchronize your files between multiple computers, and also works with Windows Mobile devices.

If you have an Android-based phone, syncing is even easier. The Google apps on your Android phone, such as Gmail and Calendar, automatically sync in real-time with their web-based counterparts. While using your smartphone, any changes in your email, contacts, and calendar entries will be immediately visible in those desktop apps as well. And vice versa, of course. This eliminates the hassle of manually keeping email address books in sync across multiple platforms.

Apple's iCloud takes things one step further, for those who own multiple Apple devices. If you have any combination of Mac computers, an iPod touch, iPad, or iPhone, then your music, photos, emails, calendars, documents and apps will be automatically kept in sync across those devices.

DropBox is another alternative that doesn't care whether you're a PC, Mac, Linux or smartphone fan. This web-based file storage service functions like a hard drive "in the cloud" and will synchronize files on your desktop computer (Windows, Mac or Linux), laptops, and mobile devices. The DropBox software is also available for Android, iPhone and Windows smartphones.

Just drag a file to your DropBox folder, and it's automatically updated everywhere you use DropBox. Even better, if you're at a friend's house or a client's office, your DropBox folder is accessible via the Web. See my article Free Online File Sharing With DropBox to learn more about what you can do with DropBox.

Bottom line, syncing has some obvious benefits. If you use multiple devices, and you want to have an important subset of your information always available, sync is awesome. But it doesn't eliminate the need for full backups on desktop and laptops. A full image backup will save you hours of time and frustration if your files are damaged by a virus, hardware failure or natural disaster. See my advice on backup strategies in Hard Drives Are Not Forever.

Your thoughts are welcome on this topic! Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Should You Backup Or Sync?"

Posted by:

13 Sep 2011

You must be sure to know how to recover files from the backup, else your encripted backup will become useless.
I had the experience with the software that came with my external HDDs. I relied to simply copying the files (with a 1 Tb drive there is no capacity matter).
Drop box has been very useful to share files.

Posted by:

Bruce Fraser
18 Sep 2011

And then there is software -- like Microsoft's SyncToy which can do either backup (one-way) or sync (two way).

I'm sure glad you're here, Bob, to help people through the maze of figuring all this stuff out!

Posted by:

12 Jul 2013

Thank you Bob, at last I understand the difference between backing up and syncing! What you say below, in short, is all your synced files on your external HDD will be lost, should your C:\ HDD fail. Not much safety in that. But after reading your article, I understand the benefits of synching as well. Here I am, thinking I am safe!

"But a file deleted in the source will also be deleted in the destination if a sync is performed. So to preserve and protect important data, you don't want to rely on syncing."

There's no escaping it: I will have to learn how to use a backup, and I am told that Backup Maker is "easy" to use. Nothing is easy unless you know how! Thanks for the enlightenment.

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