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Why can’t I restore my AppData folder from a backup?

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Fortunately, I have heeded your advice, Leo, and have backed up my C drive on to an external drive. Shortly thereafter, I developed serious problems and decided that the best way out was to format my C drive and reinstall Vista. I’ve tried to make sense of the restored files and folders. I tried restoring the AppData folder requesting that it be restored to the original location, but all of my old emails do not appear in my new email folders as expected. Any advice you can give me would be very much appreciated.

Well, I hate to say it, but the approach that you’re taking is not really how this is designed to work.

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Using image backup

There are two ways to use an image backup. One is to restore the entire image. That means you don’t start by reinstalling Windows. Instead, you restore everything, which includes Windows, from the backup image. That would get your machine back to the exact state that it was in at the time that image backup was created. Windows would be installed, your email folders would be in place, and so forth.

The other approach is to reformat, reinstall, and then use the backup image to recover only specific folders and files. That sounds like what you’re attempting to do.

The problem here is the success becomes highly dependent on each and every specific program whose files you are attempting to recover. Unfortunately, this means that things fall down fairly quickly once we talk about Windows Live Mail and the AppData folders.

What are AppData folders?

External Backup DriveAppData folders are special folders that are created by Windows and the applications that you run. While it’s possible in theory that you could simply copy data into them and have it work, that’s rarely the case. (Unlike “Documents” or “My Documents”, the default location for working documents for many programs.)

Typically, you’ll have installed or reinstalled the program that you intend to use – Windows Live Mail, in this case. And it will have set up an entirely new set of data folders as part of that process. Just copying in the old data folder over those won’t necessarily work. There’s other administrative data that we don’t know about or don’t know how to replace in order to make Windows Live Mail even aware of these other files that we’ve just dropped on it.

The registry comes to mind, but it could be many different things. And this isn’t a problem that’s limited to just Windows Live Mail.

So, the question is… what the heck to do to get your email back?

What you can do

If you haven’t used your machine for too long in this configuration, you could still restore the entire image and return everything to exactly to the way it was.

You could try restoring that backup image to another machine and then fire up Windows Live Mail on that machine – perhaps to be able to export the files in a way that they could then be imported into your current machine.

You could actually see if Windows Live Mail will let you import those backed-up folders if you first restore them to somewhere else on your machine. For example, you might restore the entire AppData folder from the backup to some temporary location of your own and then see if Windows Live Mail will let you import the email folders that it might find there.

Import could be important because it’s likely not enough to just drop the data on Windows Live Mail. It may actually need to go through its own process of understanding where the mail is, building its indices and database, and so forth. That’s why Windows Live Mail may have to process the mail before it can do anything with it or even display it.

Ultimately, I’m not really seeing a clean way to get your email back into Windows Live Mail on your computer without actually restoring to the image.

With other email programs, I would have different answers for you. It really depends on the email program. This is one of those cases where Windows Live Mail, specifically, just isn’t going to be friendly to this type of restore.

Now, realize that you’ll always be able to get at the specific files and the folders in that Windows Live Mail backup and possibly extract individual emails. They may be text files; you could just fire them up in Notepad. They may be files that you may be able to import or drag and drop individually into your existing Windows Live Mail install. But it’s not going to be clean. This is one of those cases where the interaction of your email program and your backup strategy can cause some unintended complications.

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