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File and PC Backup (part 1) - Backing Up Documents, Pictures, and Other Data

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1. Different Backups, Different Goals

Now that you've moved to digital storage for your most valuable data, it's time to start thinking about creating backups, copies of your original data that are ideally kept elsewhere for safekeeping. Many people don't even consider backing up until the unthinkable happens: a hard drive breaks down, literally taking all the data with it, or fire or theft occurs. Whatever the situation, you should be prepared for the worst before it happens. This is all the more important because many people now manage both their professional and private lives on their PCs. It's one thing to lose this week's meeting agenda, but quite another when a hard-drive crash destroys the only copies you had of five years' worth of digital photos. Those are memories, for crying out loud.

Given the almost complete lack of decent backup solutions in Windows XP and previous Windows versions, you may be surprised to discover that Windows 7 (like Windows Vista before it) offers an almost mind-boggling array of backup and restore solutions, each aimed at a different need. Best of all, Windows 7 also includes friendly front ends to all these capabilities, so that even the most nontechnical user can get up to speed quickly. Before getting into that, however, consider the various types of data safety facilities that Windows 7 supports.

1.1. Data Backup

If you think of your Documents library as the center of your data universe, and keep an elaborate series of folders and files there and in other libraries, then you'll understand the necessity of backing up these crucial files on a regular basis. To this end, Windows 7 sup-ports both automatic and manual data backup options, enabling you to choose which files to back up and when. You can then restore your backups at any time to recover previous versions of documents, or to replace a file you may have accidentally deleted.

1.2. System Image

There's nothing worse than discovering that you need to reinstall Windows for some reason. Not only do you have to take the time and make the effort to reinstall the operating system again, you also have to ensure that you have drivers for all your hardware, find and reinstall all the applications you use regularly, reload all your personal data, and reconfigure all of the system's options so that it's exactly the way you used to have it. Rather than go through this rigmarole, you can use a Windows 7 feature called System Image Backup to create what is called a system image or snapshot. This image—which is essentially a huge backup file—contains the entire contents of your PC as it existed the day you created the image. If you need to recover your entire PC, you can simply restore the system image and get right back to work.

1.3. File Recovery

Windows 7 offers the following two excellent ways to recover lost files:

  • Previous Versions: If you want to recover an older version of a document, perhaps because you made an editing error and then saved it, you can use this feature to access previous versions of the file.

  • System Restore: If you make a change to your system that renders the PC unstable, such as installing a bad driver, you can use this feature to return to a previous state in time, or restore point. When you reboot, none of your data has been changed, but the rest of your system configuration returns to that of the day and time the restore point was first made.

Add all that up, and what you have is the makings of a full-featured data recovery software suite. Amazingly, Microsoft provides all of that functionality in Windows 7, for free.


Okay, there's gotta be a catch, right? Actually, there is: Microsoft does not offer two kinds of backup that would be useful to have as part of Windows 7. The first is PC-to-PC data synchronization, or what we might call peer-to-peer (P2P) synchronization. With a such a solution you could, among other things, ensure that all of the files in your home PC's Documents library were always duplicated, automatically, with the Documents library on your laptop; anytime you made a change in either place, it would be replicated in the other. As it turns out, Microsoft does make such a tool, two in fact.

The second type of backup is online backup, where you back up files to the Internet cloud. Microsoft does have two online storage solutions, Windows Live SkyDrive, which is aimed at general online storage needs, and Office Live Workspace, which is really about document collaboration.However, neither offers any automated way, perhaps through Windows Backup, to back up files or system images from your PC to the Internet. Maybe in Windows 8.

2. Available Backup Capabilities in Various Windows 7 Versions

Different product editions of Windows 7 include support for different features. These differences can be dramatic in some cases—digital media feature support is an obvious example—and subtle in others. In Windows Vista, lower-end versions lacked some of the system's best data and PC reliability features. Fortunately, this is no longer the case in Windows 7: now, all Windows 7 product editions get Windows Backup (with file and system image backup capabilities), Previous Versions, and System Restore. The only exception is network-based backups: Only Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate support that capability.

As a reminder, Table 1 outlines the backup technologies highlighted in this article and explains which are available in each mainstream Windows 7 product edition.

Table 1. Reliability Features
 Windows 7 StarterHome BasicHome PremiumProfessionalEnterprise and Ultimate
File backupYesYesYesYesYes
Backup to networkYesYes
System image backupYesYesYesYesYes
Previous VersionsYesYesYesYesYes
System RestoreYesYesYesYesYes

3. One Tool to Rule Them All: Using Backup and Restore

Although various data recovery tools are available scattered through the Windows 7 user interface, a single interface—Backup and Restore—provides a handy front end to most of them. Shown in Figure 1, this application helps you backup and restore files on your PC, create and restore complete system image backups as well, and access the System Restore recovery utility.

This interface was called Backup and Restore Center in Windows Vista.

Figure 1. Backup and Restore is a one-stop shop for all your data protection needs.

Because Backup and Restore basically sits in front of most of the other data recovery functions included in Windows 7, we will use this as the obvious starting point for most of the data, file, and system backup and restore features discussed in this article.

Backup and Restore can be found in the Start menu under All Programs => Maintenance, but the easiest way to find this application, as always, is Start Menu Search: type backup and press Enter.

3.1. Backing Up Documents, Pictures, and Other Data

If you want to create a data backup, you can use Windows Backup, which is available from Backup and Restore. To do so, launch Backup and Restore and click the Set up backup link. This launches Windows Backup's Setup up backup wizard, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Windows Backup helps you manually create a backup of your important data files.

In the first step of the wizard, you must choose a location to store the backup. You can save a backup to an internal or external hard disk or other storage device, a recordable optical disk (typically a writeable CD or DVD), or a network share. (Network backup is not available in Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, or Home Premium, however.) The amount of space you need, of course, depends on the amount of data you are backing up. The wizard automatically selects the local storage offering the most free space, but you can change this selection, of course.

Microsoft does not allow you to back up to the disk or partition you are backing up. That is, if you are backing up data from the C: drive, you cannot save the backup to the C: drive.

In the second step, shown in Figure 3, you have two options: Let Windows choose (recommended) or Let me choose. If you choose the former, Windows Backup will automatically back up data files saved in libraries, on the desktop, and in any folders found in your user folder. (Windows Backup will also create a system image if you choose this option, and then automatically make periodic backups on a schedule going forward.)

If you select Let me choose, Windows Backup will present an expandable view of your file system, as shown in Figure 4, with some recommended locations already selected for you. From this interface, you can pick and choose exactly what to back up. You can also optionally cause a system image to be made with this type of backup.

Figure 3. Here, it really is best to let Windows choose.

Figure 4. If you have specific backup needs, you can micro-manage Windows Backup as well.

In the next step, review what you've chosen. As shown in Figure 5, this step is important because you can change the schedule on which Windows Backup backs up your data going forward. Click the Change schedule link to change the default, which is to make a backup every Sunday night at 7:00 p.m.

Figure 5. This is your last chance to adjust settings before the first backup is created.

Click Save settings and run backup to start the backup and establish a backup schedule going forward. As the backup begins, Backup and Restore displays its progress (see Figure 6).

If you set up an automatic backup schedule now, Windows 7 will monitor your PC usage and prompt you to perform occasional full backups over time as well.

As the backup runs, the Action Center icon in the notification area of the taskbar changes, adding a small black clock. If you click this icon, you'll see the message shown in Figure 7: Backup in progress. This message will occur in the future, when Windows Backup runs in the background.

Figure 6. You can monitor the backup progress or get on with other work.

Figure 7. Backups trigger a change in the Action Center notification icon.

You can create multiple automatic data backup schedules if you want. For example, you may want to back up different drives or data file types at different times or with different regularity.

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