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FreeFileSync as a Briefcase Alternative

September 24, 2013 2 comments

My post from last December on getting briefcases to work on Windows 8 has gotten a lot of traffic, which makes me feel a little guilty. My experience has been that briefcases on Windows 8 don’t actually work all that well. For one thing, they were painfully slow. Additionally, I’d often run into a bug that made the briefcase think that both versions of some huge number of files (sometimes every file in the briefcase) had been modified, forcing me to click through every single one of them and manually decide which version to keep. Between these problems and the looming threat of the workaround being disabled in future versions, it eventually became clear that I needed to try something else.

The solution I decided on was an open-source (GPLv3) application called FreeFileSync.

In a lot of ways, FreeFileSync works similarly to briefcases. You specify directories to synchronize. The program compares them and shows you a list of which files have changed and what it plans to do to bring the two directories in sync, giving you the opportunity to change the action for each file. Then you click Synchronize, and FreeFileSync updates the files.

There are some differences, though. The first and most obvious is that FreeFileSync isn’t integrated into Windows Explorer like Briefcase is, so you have to open the program each time you use it. This doesn’t bother me, though, since the program is so much faster than briefcases on Windows 8 even with the extra clicks. This can also be an advantage: You can open the program once and run several sync jobs in one session without having to browse to each briefcase in Windows Explorer.

Additionally, FreeFileSync’s file list offers more information and more options for sync actions than a briefcase’s, and is easier to read. The program offers multiple sync options, like “mirror” and “update” in addition to the briefcase-like “two-way” sync. It also displays a graph with detailed information about sync progress, whereas a briefcase only gives you a progress bar. In my experience so far, most of the differences have just been advantages or additional features of FreeFileSync.

Screenshot of FreeFileSync main window

As a replacement for how I used briefcases, FreeFileSync hasn’t given me any major trouble. However, I generally created sync copies of entire directories, not individual files. If your briefcases had sync copies of several files form disparate locations on your hard drive, the transition to FFS may not go as smoothly. You can probably get what you want using filters, though this can be a bit of a pain to set up. Jobs can be saved, so you don’t have to re-enter the filters every time, but I won’t deny that this is still a cumbersome solution, especially if you add and remove files from your briefcase frequently. Whether it’s worth the hassle depends on your needs and how much trouble briefcases are giving you.

Screenshot of FreeFileSync showing filters and multiple folder pairs

FreeFileSync also has a few other features that I haven’t even tried yet. I’m not going to cover them here, since I’m focusing mostly on using FFS to replace the Windows briefcase, but they may be worth checking out. One such feature is the bundled RealtimeSync app, which can watch directories and run a command (generally a saved FFS batch job) whenever it sees a change. Another is the ability to maintain old versions of files deleted during sync, or move them to the recycle bin, instead of deleting them outright.

I’m happy enough with FreeFilesync that I’ve started using it on my Windows 7 PC as well. Briefcases were giving me an odd permissions issue when I tried to use them outside my user folder, but FreeFileSync has no such problems. It’s also a nice way to avoid the annoying “The briefcase is open on another computer” message that would often appear when I tried to use a program to open or save a file in a briefcase that was already open in Windows Explorer.

I have run into one problem so far: At one point, after I had some files deleted from a directory, FreeFileSync wanted to copy the files back across from the backup to the local copy, rather than deleting them from the backup. (The directory was a Git working directory, and the files disappeared because I switched to a branch that didn’t have them. I doubt that’s actually related to the problem, though.) This was trivial to work around, but it was a bit annoying. You’ll want to keep this in the back of your mind lest it catch you off-guard.

Overall, I’m very pleased with how FreeFileSync has worked for me. It isn’t perfect, but it does a good enough job that I recommend it over trying to keep using briefcases in Windows 8. Actual mileage will vary, of course, but if you’re relying on briefcases using the workaround I posted before, you should at least give FreeFileSync a look.

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