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By Fred Langa/Windows Secrets
Every copy of Windows 7 includes a complete suite of backup tools. The suite contains everything you need to back up (and restore) your entire system.
What’s more, after you’ve set up your initial backup, future backups happen automatically.
In fact, Windows 7 makes it so easy to set up fully automated backups, it’s almost nutty not to do it.
But (you knew there had to be one) Windows 7′s backup tools are based on a different philosophy than previous versions of Windows and so do not operate exactly as you might expect. Until you understand what Microsoft is trying to do, the differences can be confusing.
Win7′s backup system has three major parts
The first component is designed to protect a system’s user data — and nothing else. User data includes each user’s locally stored library files plus the contents of the user folders and subfolders, such as AppData, Contacts, Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Favorites, Links, Music, Pictures, Saved Games, Searches, and Videos.
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Those folders contain a system’s most valuable and rapidly changing data files — after all, your user files include all your documents, spreadsheets, e-mails, and so on. These are the files that need the most careful and frequent backups. As a result, the Windows 7 backup puts most of its emphasis on automatically protecting these files.
But the Windows 7 primary backup applet does not — repeat, does not — back up system folders or program files, even if you specifically select them or if they’re inside a folder that’s otherwise being backed up. The user-data backup process specifically excludes program files.
Win7 includes a second tool — a system-imaging app — to back up system folders, installed programs, and the like. Microsoft’s theory is that these less frequently changing files don’t need to be backed up as often as user data. That’s not unreasonable.
A system image is the gold standard of backups. It’s an exact digital copy of the complete contents and logical structure of your hard drive. You can use a system image to restore a PC to full running order, with all your software set up and ready for immediate use. When you restore a system image, you put your PC back to exactly the way it was at the moment the system image was made.
You need to make a new system image only when your system changes in some major way (a major new software update, or whatever). It’s a low-frequency task.
When you run a Win7 backup for the first time, you’ll automatically be prompted to make your first system image. It’s part of the initial backup process, built-in, and very easy to do.
The third and final component of the Win7 backup system is a bootable System Recovery Disk. With the recovery disk, you can restore your system even if the hard drive is otherwise completely unbootable. Making the System Recovery Disk is automatic; you’ll be prompted at the right time.
In a moment, I’ll walk you through a complete, three-part, Win7 initial backup.
Windows Vista and XP backup and imaging
Win7′s backup tools evolved from Vista’s. Many of the techniques described in this article also work on Vista PCs. If you need more information, see Microsoft’s Vista backup/restore FAQ or the more general Vista Safety and security page.
XP’s tools are completely different, but you can back up and image XP systems, too. Many of the very best XP-maintenance tips, techniques, and free tools — including XP backup and imaging options — are collected for you in the August 12, 2010, Top Story, “Preparing Windows XP for the long haul,” and in the November 11, 2010, Top Story, “Windows XP: Looking back, looking forward.”
Step one: Setting up your initial backup
Naturally, your backups will consume some disk space and/or blank CDs or DVDs. The exact amount depends entirely on your local setup, but you can use this ballpark guide:
Estimate the size of your initial User Data backup by right-clicking on a username folder — e.g., C:Usersusername. Select Properties and note the size. Your initial backup will be no larger than this amount and will most likely be somewhat smaller (because not everything gets copied). Future backups are smaller still because they’ll include only files that have changed since the previous backup.
The system-image tool backs up an entire drive — for example, your full C: drive. But it doesn’t back up empty space (what would be the point?), and it compresses what it does back up — typically by 30 percent to 50 percent. If you have a drive containing 50GB of actual data, a system image of that drive would probably end up being 25GB to 35GB in size.
Whatever device you back up to (typically, an external USB hard drive or network-attached drive), make sure it has plenty of free space for future incremental and image backups. (Win7′s backup tools will guide you toward storage locations with the right sizes and attributes. More on that below.)
The System Recovery Disc uses just a single CD or DVD.
Once you’re ready to get started, simply click the Start orb, type the word backup in the Search programs and files box, and press Enter. This works on any Win7 (or Vista) PC.
If you prefer the all-mouse approach: click the Start orb, open Control Panel, and (if in the Control Panel’s default view) select Backup and Restore from the System and Security category.
Whichever way you get there, the Backup or Restore your files applet initially opens a dialog box like that shown in Figure 1. This dialog box gives you centralized access to all of Win7′s major backup tools.
Figure 1. Win7′s Backup or Restore your files applet gives you integrated access to all of the OS’s built-in backup tools.
The first time through, click Set up backup. After a moment, you’ll see the dialog box shown in Figure 2, and you’ll hear your mechanical drives buzz and chatter. Don’t worry; the backup has not started without you! The backup software is merely learning what drives are available for later access.
Figure 2. This somewhat misleading dialog box is not actually starting the backup.
► Choose where your backups will be stored. After a few moments, your system will quiet down and a new dialog box opens to let you select the destination for the backup files you’re about to create.
Windows places the word Recommended next to the location it thinks is best, but you’re free to select other locations. For more information, see Microsoft’s Win7 Help & How-to page, “Where should I save my backup?” On the system shown in Figure 3, Win7 offers to save backups to a D drive, a DVD burner, or an external 1-TB drive. Naturally, your PC’s options will be different.
Figure 3. Win7 displays acceptable backup locations and offers its recommendation.
(Note: Windows 7 Pro, Ultimate, and Enterprise also offer a Save on a network … option button, as shown in Figure 3.)
When you’ve chosen a destination for your backup files, click Next.
► Now choose which files to back up. The What do you want to back up dialog box, shown in Figure 4, lets you accept Windows’ defaults for what to back up, or it allows you to make your own selections.
Figure 4. Windows can automatically choose what it thinks should be backed up — or you can make the selections manually.
If you select Let Windows choose, Win7 backs up all user data folders and files, as listed earlier. This is usually a good choice. (See Microsoft’s article, “How does Windows choose which files to back up?”)
This post is excerpted with permission from Windows Secrets.
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