Xcopy vs Robocopy

Both Xcopy and Robocopy are command line tools that are often used for file transfers in Windows. If you are a command line jockey, you may already have special places for these two programs. However, for a beginner and first-timer, choosing to use either Xcopy or Robocopy can be quite confusing. What are actually the differences between Xcopy and Robocopy? Is there any real advantage of using Robocopy instead of Xcopy? Below, we will see the detailed comparisons between Xcopy and Robocopy. So, continue reading below!

History

Here is a brief history of Xcopy and Robocopy. In the beginning, there was COPY, which was and still is a DOS command for copying files. It was fine for performing simple tasks, but, however, it started to show its limits once people had hard drives full of files. Microsoft tried to solve the problem by extending COPY’s capabilities – the result was XCOPY. The most important feature that XCOPY added was the ability to copy subdirectories, allowing you to copy multiple files along with the subdirectories at once. However, once networks full of servers were introduced into the corporate world, XCOPY started to show the limits. Microsoft once again tried to answer, this time with ROBOCOPY. They had added a lot of features into ROBOCOPY, but perhaps the most important one is the ability to skip identical files already in the target location and the ability to pick up and resume an interrupted copy. If the network connection drops while you are still copying a bunch of data, you will not have to start all over from zero. There are also various other things that you can do with ROBOCOPY – hundreds of things that you never knew that anyone would ever need to do.

And this is why ROBOCOPY is quite controversial. It is definitely one of the most powerful programs that Microsoft ever wrote, but those things you never knew anyone would ever need to do may bite you. If XCOPY can do the job, why should you use an ultra-powerful tool instead? As if you are killing a mosquito using a nuclear bomb. On the other hand, though, to destroy a huge meteor that is coming towards our planet, a simple handgun wouldn’t be enough.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the features and capabilities offered by Robocopy not available in Xcopy.

Features

– Mirroring
One of the primary reasons why Robocopy is used over Xcopy is the ability to mirror or synchronize directories. Instead of copying all files blindly from the source to the target directory, it actually checks the target directory for files that are identical to the ones to be copied. It will not waste time to copy identical, unchanged files. However, since it is a mirroring or synchronizing command, it also checks the target directory for files that are not in the source – and these files are going to be removed. So, if you are not careful when using Robocopy, you may accidentally lose files in the target directory. The same issue does not happen on Xcopy because the command simply copies all files without caring about identical or non-matching files.
– Automation
Another reason why Robocopy is chosen over Xcopy is the ability to perform automation. By using the Run Hours (/RH) option, you can specify when files should be copied. This feature is very useful for making daily backups and performing large-batch jobs automatically. It also supports logging and automatic retrying. Xcopy can’t perform such actions.
– Monitoring
Xcopy does not have any monitoring capability, whereas Robocopy has “/MON” and “/MOT” commands for monitoring. You can make the system copy files from a directory after a specific number of changes using the “/MON” command, or every after a number of minutes using the “/MOT” command. This way, you can make sure that the latest versions of files can be saved regularly and efficiently.
– Attributes
While both Xcopy and Robocopy are able to copy over the ‘archive’ attribute on files, they are different that Xcopy can only copy over the ‘archive’ attribute whereas Robocopy can copy over all attributes, including the timestamp, owner, auditing info, and security. This capability is useful for maintaining the proper directory structure.

When to use Xcopy

Despite the advanced features of Robocopy, Xcopy is not to be abandoned completely. In fact, there are many scenarios in which you would want to use Xcopy rather than Robocopy. If you are only copying a single directory tree that is not terribly large, Xcopy is sufficient. It is simple and straightforward, and, as long as you understand a couple of switches and you type the file names correctly, there won’t be any surprise.

When to use Robocopy

If Xcopy is a manual hand saw, then Robocopy would be a power saw without any safety features. It is strong and powerful, but it may accidentally hurt you or anything nearby. It is very easy to accidentally delete files you never mean to delete, as well as to accidentally copy a bunch of file you don’t intend to.

However, if you know how to handle it, it is indeed a lifesaver. If you are copying huge files over a connection that may drop from time to time, Robocopy is the answer. It will sync up files and resume the copy whenever the connection drops. You just can’t use Xcopy to copy large files over a WAN link – the process is guaranteed to fail upon a connection drop.

When you are migrating file servers and in the maintenance window, there is also no substitute for Robocopy. You can quickly update and copy only the new and changed files instead of everything – saving a lot of time and computing resources.

XcopyRobocopy
- Copies all files and subdirectories without checking- Syncs files and subdirectories to avoid copying identical/unchanged files
- Limited features, only copy the ‘archive’ attribute- Comes with mirroring, monitoring, automation features and the capability to copy all attributes
- Cannot resume an interrupted copy – must start all over again- Can sync and resume an interrupted copy
- Relatively safer with significantly lower risk of losing or copying unintended files- Riskier to lose or copy unintended files due to the more complex nature
- Suitable for copying a single not-so-large directory- Your choice for copying large files over an unreliable network and migrating file servers efficiently

Conclusion

Xcopy is a relatively simple file copier that is also able to copy subdirectories. However, it simply copies everything without any mirroring, monitoring, or resuming capability. It is still the way to go for copying a not-so-large directory due to the simpler and safer nature. Meanwhile, Robocopy is packed with so many more features (mirroring, monitoring, automation, and resuming capabilities are some notable examples) and is riskier, but is your only reliable option for copying huge files over a noisy or unreliable network as well as for migrating file servers.

Leave a Reply