Powers Unfiltered

An entrepreneur’s journey into grid computing and partnering with Microsoft, by John Powers

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Preparing to Copy? NO — Robocopy!

May 5th, 2007 · 1 Comment

John Dvorak’s column in the back of the May 22, 2007 issue of PC Magazine (and online here) points out the “Windows’ Words of Doom” that he “dreads to hear” which are:  “Preparing to Copy.”  He goes on to lament the decades-old problems that Windows users encounter in moving or copying files (or more accurately, folders full of files).  And while I take issue with one or two minor points in his rant, basically he’s right — the process of selecting one or more folders and dragging them someplace is fraught with far more peril than necessary. 

So don’t do it. 

Since 1999 (or maybe earlier), Microsoft has included a full-featured but lightly-publicized tool for handling heavy-duty file copying chores.  It’s called Robocopy, and it’s as brilliant and elegant and reliable as the “select and drag” method is perilous.  (Robocopy is one of the few truly useful bits of technology I discovered before Robert Anderson, who now uses it regularly — it saved his bacon again this week, but I’ll let him relate that story.) 

Robocopy started as a command-line tool with enough readable documentation to make anyone a copying wizard in just a few minutes.  It solves most of the seven “idiotic Windows glitches” Dvorak cites in his article, although it does not help with estimating the total time to copy (a harder problem than Dvorak cares to admit).  It is especially useful for copying chores that take a long time (like the one Dvorak describes), because it never pops up a dialog box to ask a stupid question in the middle of the activity (so it’s safe to walk away in the middle of the process!). 

No, it’s not as “easy” as just selecting and dragging — but spending 10 minutes figuring this out once will elimnate headaches for years to come.  Or you can just take my word for it that the following is sufficient for 99% of home copying chores: 

Robocopy source destination /S /E /W:3 /R:2 

I still use the command-line version, but there is also a Robocopy GUI (as described in this Microsoft Technet article). 

Robocopy is available for all versions of Windows since 2000 (and I think even NT 4.0).  The best version for XP is buried in the “Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit Tools” (where else would you put a useful tool for Windows XP?).  Earlier versions are also tucked away in obscure “resource kits,” but it actually ships with Vista.  It may very well be on Dvorak’s hard disk right now, hidden in plain sight.

Dvorak makes a final observation:

We’ve all experienced [these problems], wondering to ourselves “Gee, does this ever happen to Bill Gates?  And if it does, why doesn’t he do anything about it?!”  I have no idea. 

More mysterious to me, however, is why Microsoft does not TELL anyone that this problem was solved many years ago.  Microsoft seems to think this is the sort of tool that only an enterprise system administrator should want — but anyone who has seen the “preparing to copy” message should go get it now.  You’ll be glad you did.

Tags: Usability

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Lee Hammond // May 16, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    As I was reading Dvorak’s rant, I was thinking of Robocopy and wondering why it is such a well-kept secret.

    I too love Robocopy and use it for syncing [and purging] large numbers of photo files. However, even it does not work on a 64bit box or between 32 and 64 bit boxes.

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