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A brief overview of Windows 7 Backup

Backups are an often-discussed topic on Ask Leo!, but options for how best to perform backups and what tools to use can be both confusing and difficult to find.

In this video excerpt from an Ask Leo! webinar, I’ll provide a brief overview (not an in-depth review) of one of the options: Windows 7’s own backup utility.

It might do what I want, but it’s not at all obvious how it does in a brief overview of the product. At a minimum, it’s potentially useful for system images that can be restored in total.

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Ok, a quick overview of Window 7’s backup. We can’t really talk about backup much without also acknowledging that Windows has significantly improved the backup program that comes with the operating system as of Windows 7. If you’re using a version of Windows prior to Windows 7, you can, and actually, should ignore the backup program that comes with it or is available as a download for it.

The backup programs in the past were actually pretty bad. This one at least starts to rise to the level of acceptability. I realize that’s not a resounding endorsement.

My sense is the best way to find the backup program is in fact to do what I just did which is to click on the Start menu and type the word ‘backup ‘ into the search box. And all of a sudden, you end up with Backup and Restore as the program.

Now, the thing that I don’t like about Windows backup is and the reason that I’ll probably continue to recommend a third-party program is that I personally find the interface to it fairly confusing. It’s unclear to me, many times, exactly what the implications of my actions are.

For example, ‘Back up now’ is pretty straightforward since I have already configured a backup, it will, in fact repeat the backup if I click that button which I’m not going to do. I have a configuration here where I have a ‘D’ drive which is my backup disk onto which I’m putting backup images.

Creating a system image is pretty much what you might expect. It is an image of your hard drive that you can then later use to restore to. In this particular case, it’s allowing me to choose my external hard drive or my backup drive as the location to place it and it may…again, one of the differences with Windows Backup is that it’s going to try and manage the space for me – much along the lines of System Restore, which Microsoft considers to be sort of a related or an incremental or included

That makes me a little bit uncomfortable because, honestly, I don’t know
what I’m going to end up with. Will I have all of the backups I started with
or not?

So in this particular case, fine, it’s at least telling me what it’s
backing up: the System Reserved area and the C drive which is my system drive; again, that’s exactly what I want and the place it’s going to put it. I’m not going to start this backup because it’s going to take too long – longer than this webinar will allow for.

Managing space allows you at least to see what it is you have. This is my D drive; you can see that’s it’s got some data files; system image, other files, etc., free space…you can take a look at the backups to see which is there but it’s with the idea of deleting them and that’s not what I want to do at all.

System Images. Again, you are allowing Windows to maintain older system images. Now, what I think this illustrates, and again, it’s one of the reasons that Windows Backup continues to make me uncomfortable is that they have two completely separate models for what backups are. They have system images and data files. So when I backed up; when I first did a back up of this machine, I had it save the system image and my data files. Great! What are my data files? Well, as it turns out, it’s typically your /user folder your user/ login name including things like My Documents and so forth. But any data files that are stored outside of there may not be backed up because they’re not in your data file area.

If you manage your data correctly; in other words, if you always know that the things that you care about are always going to be in My Documents, or My Music or My Pictures, then that approach works well, but for a lot of us, that doesn’t.

The problem here is that Windows treats them almost as two completely separate things that don’t necessarily relate and yet, given a system image, a system image should be enough.

So if we want to try and restore my files, what we’re restoring from is a backup of C, but you’ll notice that the backup of C does not include a Windows folder. So is this coming from the backup that I did that included files or is this coming from my system image? I honestly don’t know but it clearly is not saving everything; it’s not making everything available to restore at that granular level. If there were a file in my /Windows folder that I wanted to go get, I couldn’t, having backed up the way I have backed up here.

Now with your folder; the same thing. My belief is that this might be the system image and that this might be my data file image because you can see that this is everything that is in /users/LeoN which is my user folder on this particular machine.

If you’re confused, don’t feel like you’re alone because I am too. Right now, I’m not particularly clear on as I said earlier, exactly what it’s doing.

Restoring all users files would presumably be…browse for files…backup of C; it would apparently allow you to browse the files from any other users that would happen to be on that machine. Since most people are using single users on a machine anyway, I’m not sure that this really buys you much.

Now, with that in mind, however, one thing I do want to be clear about is creating a system image…if you do nothing else, use Windows Backup to do two things; one, create a system repair disc which clearly I cannot do here because Windows Backup requires a CD/DVD burner. Create a system repair disk so that should you need to restore, you have something to do it from and then create a system image; put it on an external drive and you’ll now have at least, one way of saving your entire machine and restoring your entire machine but that’s about as resounding of a recommendation that I can make for Windows Backup right now simply because I don’t find the user interface all that friendly and it’s unclear to me what the ramifications of some of my actions are.

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7 comments on “A brief overview of Windows 7 Backup”

  1. What do you think about using Briefcase as a backup? I know it doesn’t do incremental backup, but other than that how useful it it?

    I’m not a huge fan of briefcase, but anything that makes a remote copy of your important files is better than no backup at all. If briefcase is your style you might consider DropBox.


  2. I was liking Windows backup until, I bought two Seagate 7200 RPM 500 gig 2.5 inch hard drives for my wife’s laptop. I put one in a nice little aluminum inclosure and one in her laptop. I ran Windows backup creating a system image. So far so good, after that I ran what I assumed were incremental backups. Well after a few times, maybe 5 or 10. The external identical 500 gig hard drive was full! Her system had only about 230 gigs. Why would this thing backup stuff that it had already backed up? This caused me a lot of extra work. Now I have put Paragon Backup & Recovery Suite 10 on it. Have you tested this product? I really hate having to install extra software when it’s already included with Windows. What do you think is the best paid product? I want something that is smart and easy. This should be very easy, I’m not exactly a novice but some things you should be able to do without much studying and research.

    Unfortunately even after all this time and the critical importance, “easy” and “backup” are two words you rarely see together. I’m evaluating some. I now have links up to invidual segments of the Webinar 4, Backup Sampler where I touch briefly on Paragon and Macrium.


  3. I just read a review on Macrium Reflect free. He said it was so good and easy he would be willing to pay for it if he had to. I didn’t care for Acronis but I liked Paragon.

  4. There is a history of fundamental and long-standing Microsoft aversion to providing its licensed end-users the option to make and retain system images. That aversion is most dramatically expressed in its nominal “Windows Backup”.

    Many suspect Microsoft’s notorious failure to provide an imaging option for versions previous to Windows 7 is a direct fiat from MS legal counsel– expressing fear that if MS sanctions any system image-making by end-users, it will compromise its efforts to impose licensing controls.

    While licensed end-users never have been challenged by Microsoft on the widespread practice of using third-party tools to make an image, users need to understand it is in their own best interest to acquire and use regularly an imaging utility (free or commercial). Someday, it may save their bacon.

    That feels borderline conspiracy theory to me – I’m certain that MS legal hasn’t issued any such fiat. I think Microsoft’s backup offering suck primarily because it’s not been high on their list of priorities, and they’re concerned about competing with backup software vendors. They’ve had a similar situation with anti-malware tools, and are only now providing something that can be said to compete with other offerings in that space, after years of there being an issue and opportunity. The one thing Windows 7’s backup does and does well that goes against your theory is that it can and does make system images. My sense is that’s about all it’s really good for. Regardless you are correct in that we should all be making sure to backup our machines regularly.

  5. I’m a casual user with 10 years of using Acornis True Image, and found Windows 7 image backup to be easy.
    And I have already had an incident where I needed to restore the image and it went smooth. I could have worked through my problem and undid the problem, but the computer was new and not much on it, and I wanted to see if the image backup/restore really worked. And it did.

    Thank you Microsoft.

  6. @ Leo— “borderline conspiracy” or no, it is appropriate to compare your own emphasis on imaging backup with more than 20 years of studied indifference by MS to this crucial user need.

    Even today, an unhealthy plurality of Windows users still does not regularly image Windows-based systems because– unlike built-in browser and email options on which MS did at least passably well, early on– MS did not make a comparable effort with backup, though it easily could have.

    If MS concern about third-party camp followers meant so much to Steve Ballmer, he would have generated a much better effort at imaging. Twenty years is a long, long time in the industry– hence absence of imaging backup was not merely an oversight, but an inexcusably deliberate omission.

    Microsoft has put far more money into developing automated harassment of licensed, legitimate Windows users with various DRM schemes (Windows Genuine Disadvantage) than into any grade of backup.

    Put another way, just because you are a Windows user doesn’t mean Microsoft is out to help you. Your own feeling and intuition about Microsoft is countered by Microsoft’s own deplorable record with looking out for Windows users on a most basic, critical issue.


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