Free Backup Utilities and Desktop Storage Tools

By Kevin Fogarty  |  Posted 2008-08-21

Corporate backup and storage apps are serious, expensive and rigorously tested both before release and after installation.

What we have here is a list of the most effective free storage and backup utilities, which are designed more to help you recover data that's important to you, not necessarily your employer, after the "harmless" x-ray machine at airport security turns out not to be, or you become one of the hundreds of pitiable fools who drop or lose or jostle a laptop at the wrong time or do one of a dozen other easy things that could turn your precious data into so much magnetic residue.

Any IT department worth its salt, needless to say, will have a backup solution available so you won't lose data from your work machine in any of those circumstances. You might even have spec'd or paid for it.  You might even know how slow and embarrassing it would be to have to wait in line behind Bob from sales, who still doesn't realize it's not a good idea to tuck a stack of magnetic promo cards in the case with his laptop, or to clean off the keyboard with a damp sponge and doesn't understand why the help desk treats him like an idiot.

Being able to fix these things yourself is so much more convenient – especially if it means you don't have to stop making fun of Bob while the support techs you hired pull copies of your Personal and My Music folders off the VTL.

One of the more popular freeware/shareware/open source backup apps, Cobian has gone through eight major revisions and is in beta testing for a ninth. Version 8 is available as open-source at; version 9 will be proprietary (though free) because the author was disappointed that so few open-sourcers jumped in to add features to the version he released. Could be because version 8 was already pretty good.

The support forum is also among the best single-app freeware support groups around, for your own inevitable questions.

Version 8 allows backup from and to FTP servers, backup for files larger than 2GB, a range of strong encryption options, a "green" installation that marks up the registry only to enable the backup service, not .ini files and other extranea.

Backup jobs are highly configurable; remote backup is available; and the app can split files to make backup even more flexible.

Version 9 (still in beta) backs up open or locked files, adds 7zip compression, SMTP-over-SOCKs, SMTP-over- SSL, detailed download logs, FTP using UTF transfers and "prettier About boxes," according to the author.

Past history is no indication of future performance, of course; but picky individual reviewers report very few problems, even after two to three years.

Considering it's freeware (consider making a donation) that's an awful lot of value for the money.

Microsoft Windows Backup

It comes standard in and XP Pro, and has to be installed separately for XP Home, but Microsoft shipped a creditable, free, backup utility with its most recent OSes. It's a little kludgy (we said it's from Microsoft, didn't we?), but effective.

You pick the folders it backs up, but the selection isn't terribly flexible. Tell it to back up c:\ and it will get all your apps, system settings and data, so it's great if your hard drive gets fried. But both backup and restore are slow.

Its boot support is also weak. It offers the chance to create a boot disk, but will only talk about floppies, not CDs or DVDs.

For those you have to go to a third-party utility. It and the following Microsoft utility are perfectly serviceable, but not as your only backup option. Use them as backups for your backup, if you have to, but look for Cobian or something else for more convenience.

SyncToy for Windows

Less complete but more convenient than the previous two utilities, SyncToy is a Microsoft tool designed to keep two folders synchronized – whether it's the master and a backup on one hard drive, folders on peer-linked computers, or on a network client and server.

It manages both NTFS and FAT, works with the XP task scheduling utility, and is easy to use, though not flexible enough for granular control of which folders and subfolders get backed up at which times, or what to do if the synch folder is unavailable for a while.

It's from Microsoft, though, so it's unlikely to fry your system software, and is free.


This is pure backup-and-recovery, rather than storage management, as SyncToy and Cobian can be.

SelfImage creates an image of any disk or partition (even a Linux partition in a Windows machine) and can restore your machine as-was, including system settings and data.

It stores all the partition data and boot records, so if you're recovering a whole hard drive you don't have to re-do all your organizational work; it also backs up partitions that are currently live so you don't have to shift from one OS in a dual-boot system to the other before making your backup.

It does not create bootable floppies or CDs, but a test version is available that works with the BartPE bootable CD-builder or the Ultimate Bootable CD for Windows.

DriveImage XML

DriveImage XML also provides drive imaging, but stores the image data as XML files rather than in a proprietary format that requires you to use the same application for either backup or restore.

It doesn't include the ability to build a bootable CD, but does work in conjunction with Microsoft's WinPE, which is a pre-installation environment designed to let OEMs install Windows and other software on new machines before loading the whole OS.

One caveat: the XML image is broken up into a series of files and restoration is not intuitive. If you like the XML approach, go through a dry run or two before you really have to rely on it.


Available in both paid and free varieties, SyncBack specializes in flexible folder synchronization across networks using either FTP or normal file transfer.

It's designed to let you pick and choose among folders to back up, allows for regularly scheduled updates and, because of its support for FTP and file-level backup options, can help automatically update content on a Web site by sync'ing with folders on your hard drive.

More usefully, that same feature can back up your hard drive to one of a range of online storage providers (free, of course).


Also in the automated-sync family is FileHamster, which is designed to monitor the files you tell it to in real time, making an incremental backup copy every time you try to make a change.

It only takes snapshots of the files you tell it to, though, so if you change the name of a file, the hamster could lose its grip. Safer to monitor a whole folder and tell FileHamster to keep track of file-name changes.

It supports LAN Universal Naming Conventions, so it can sync files across the network, but is designed for on-disk backups and version control. So the ability to identify and restore a specific version of a file is more advanced than the ability to keep the backup off-site.


DocSyncer also focuses on file-level backup, but is designed to work with Web-based storage services to back up your critical documents someplace you're much less likely to spill coffee or magnets on them.

DocSyncer specifically works with Google Docs to store as many documents as will fit in your Google Docs account – usually 10 GB. It offers version control and remote viewing and backup of documents from any of your machines via Google Docs' Mobile access.

Mozy Online

For file-level sync, version control and backup without the storage limitations of Google Docs (10GB is a lot, but not if you're backing up your whole hard drive), there are online services such as Mozy, which offers 2GB of space for free, charges $4.95 per month for unlimited capacity, but has a more sophisticated storage client than most other options (as you'd expect for an online consumer service owned by corporate storage giant EMC Corp.).

Mozy does only uploads changes to existing files, meaning you don't have to back up 100GB at a time, and provides file-level selection and version control. There is a host of other free or near-free services out there, most of which offer about the same amount of free space as Mozy, with more space available for a monthly charge.

Microsoft Office Live and Google Docs

Directly competitive with one another are the still-in-beta Microsoft Office Live and Google's Google Docs.

Google provides apps with its free storage space; Microsoft provides free storage with its apps. Microsoft's 500MB capacity is paltry compared to the multi-gig space available on Google Docs, but Google space includes email and all its other available services.

Both provide some level of sharing and integration, but Microsoft's straight-from-Office connection and available screen-sharing gives it an edge on the collaboration front.

Both are designed to back up your documents (or have you create them online in the first place), which makes them an add-on to a full backup, not a replacement.