Note: This article is adapted from Windows 7 Secrets Chapter 24, Keeping Your Data Safe. –Paul

With Windows 7, Microsoft expands on the pervasive and reliable backup and restore solutions for both data files and the entire computer that it introduced in Windows Vista. Key among this functionality is Backup and Restore, which can be ued to copy your important files and folders to a safe location or create a system image that can be used later to restore a broken PC. You may never need to turn to a third-party backup and restore utility again.

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Backup and Restore supports the following types of backups:

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 supports 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.

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.

In addition to these capabilities, Window 7 also offers a way to access previous versions of data files (called Previous Versions) and a way to return to a previous state in time, or restore point (called System Restore). These features are not part of Backup and Restore, but when you add it all up, 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.

Secret: OK, 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 called peer-to-peer (P2P) synchronization. With a such a solution you could, among other things, make sure that all of the files in your home PC’s Documents library were always duplicated, automatically, with the Documents library on your laptop; any time 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. They’re called Windows Live Sync and Live Mesh, respectively.

The second type of backup is online backup, where you backup 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 Backup and Restore, to backup files or system images from your PC to the Internet. Maybe in Windows Live Wave 4. Or in Windows 8.

Available Backup Capabilities in Various Windows 7 Product Editions

The 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 systems?s best data and PC reliability features. Fortunately, this is no longer the case in Windows 7: Now, all Windows 7 product editions get Backup and Restore (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, the following table outlines the Backup and Restore technologies that are available in each mainstream Windows 7 product edition. You can find the complete list of Windows 7 features in my article, Windows 7 Product Editions: A Comparison.

Starter     Home Premium     Professional     Enterprise & Ultimate
Windows Backup     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
System image     Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes
Backup to network                 Yes     Yes

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 the following figure, 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.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
It?s a one-stop shop for all your data protection needs.

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

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 the data and system backup and restore features discussed here.

Tip: 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.

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 here:

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
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 autoselects the local storage offering the most free space, but you can change this selection, of course.

Tip: 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, you have two choices: Let Windows choose (recommended) and Let me choose. If you choose the former, Windows Backup will automatically backup data files saved in libraries, on the desktop, and in any folders founder 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.)

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
Here, it really is best to let Windows choose.

If you choose Let me choose, Windows Backup will present an expandable view of your file system. From this interface, you can pick and choose exactly what to backup. You can also optionally cause a system image to be made with this type of backup.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
If you have specific backup needs, you can micro-manage Windows Backup as well.

In the next step, review what you’ve chosen. 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 pm.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
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.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
You can monitor the backup progress or get on with other work.

Tip: 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 below: A backup is in progress. This message will occur in the future, when Windows Backup runs in the background.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
Backups trigger a change in the Action Center notification icon.

Tip: 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.

Managing Data Backups

Once you have created your first data backup, a few things change. First, Backup and Restore indicates that you?ve configured a backup location and notes when the last and next backups occur. You can also change the automatic backup settings and restore all of the files for the current user.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
Backup and Restore reflects the recent backup.

You can also manage the disk space used on your backup device. When you click the Manage space link in Backup and Restore, the Manage Windows Backup disk space window will occur, displaying information about the currently selected backup device. As you can see in the figure below, you can browse the file system of the backup location, view backups stored on that device, and change settings associated with system image backups.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
From this simple interface, you can manage details associated with your backup device and the backups stored on it.

If you do click View backups, you can’t actually navigate around inside of the backups you have made so far. Instead, you’re provided with the window shown below. From here, you can view the backups and delete them, but not get into them in any meaningful way.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
Only the simplest of backup management choices are available.

Tip: Want to see what’s in a backup? You can do it, but not from this interface. Instead, go back to the previous window and click Browse. This will open Windows Explorer, pointing at the location of your backup. At this location, you will see a special folder with a Windows Backup icon and the name of your PC. If you try to double-click this folder, a Windows Backup window will appear. Instead, right-click the folder and choose Open. Then, click Continue in the permission folder that appears. You’ll be presented with a folder structure representing your various backups. Inside of each of these folders? A number of standard ZIP files (shown below). Worse comes to worse and you lose everything, at least these files will always be accessible.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
Windows Backup uses regular ZIP files under the covers to backup your data.
Restoring Files

Backup and Restore can also be used to restore files you have previously backed up. There are three general file restore methods.

Restore my files. Restore your own files and folders.

Restore all users’ files. Restore your own files and folders as well as those of other users.

Select another backup to restore files from. Perform more advanced restoration tasks, such as restoring files from a different PC.

These all work similarly. You can follow these steps to trigger a restore of your own data:

1. Open Backup and Restore and click the Restore my files button.

2. The Restore Files window appears.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
Restore Files lets you find the files you’d like to restore.

From here, you have three options:

Search. If you know exactly what you’re looking for, and only need one or a handful of files, you can use the Search button to Search your existing backup sets.

Browse for files. If you’d like to manually browse around the backup set to find a file or any number of individual files, click Browse for files. You’ll be presented with a modified File Open dialog, from which you can browse the various backups you’ve created, diving into the full backup or just the files in your user account.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
With either Browse for files or Browser for folders, you can dig in and route around inside the backup set.

Browse for folders. To recover entire folders full of files (and other folders).

Whichever method you choose, you can mark files and folder for restoration as you go and then continue looking for more.

3. When you’re ready to go, click the Next button in the Restore Files window. Windows Backup will prompt you to decide where you want to restore the files to; either to their original locations or to a different location.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
While you will often want to simply restore to the original location, sometimes it’s a good idea to see what’s in the backup before overwriting your files.

Choose one and then click Restore. Windows Backup will begin restoring your files. If there any of the backup files will overwrite an existing file, you’ll see the normal File Copy window shown below, which offers you a chance to overwrite, copy but keep both files, or don’t copy.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
Make sure you don’t wipe out anything important while restoring files.

When the restore is complete, Windows Backup will let you know that the files have been restored and give you an opportunity to view a list of restored files.
Backing Up the Entire PC: System Image

Backing up and restoring data files is important and should occur on a regular basis; but over the past few years, a new type of backup utility that backs up entire PC systems using system images has become quite popular. These types of backups protect against a hardware disaster: If your hard drive completely fails, for example, you can purchase a new drive and use the system image to restore the PC to its previous state.

System imaging utilities aren?t actually all that new; corporations have been using them for years. But now that consumer-oriented system-imaging utilities have gained in popularity, Microsoft has created its own version, which it includes with Windows 7.

Secret: The system image utility was called Windows Complete PC Backup in Windows Vista.

Secret: System imaging utilities typically compress the data on your hard drives so that the image file takes up a lot less space than the original installation. Various solutions use different compression schemes, but you may be interested to know that Windows 7 uses the tried-and-true Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) format that Microsoft also uses in Windows Virtual PC and its server-based Hyper-V virtualization solutions. That means system images created with Windows 7 will be supported for a long time to come.

Caution: System images contain complete PC environments. You can?t arbitrarily restore only parts of a system image, as you can with data backups. Instead, when you restore a system image, it restores the entire PC and overwrites any existing operating system you may already have on there. That means you should be careful before restoring a system image: Any data you have on the disk will be overwritten. Of course, you?re using automatic backups, too, right?

To create a system image, launch Backup and Restore and click the Create a system image link on the left. This launches the Create a system image wizard, shown below, which walks you through the steps needed to completely back up your PC system. You can save system images to hard disks or optical storage (such as recordable CDs or DVDs), as well as network locations (Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate only). However, network-based system images cannot be securely protected, as hard drive- and optical disc-based backups can.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
System image is one of the best features in Windows 7.

Secret: You can only write a system image to a hard disk that is formatted with the NTFS file system. That?s because system images often exceed the 4GB file size limit imposed by the older and less reliable FAT32 file system.

Click Next. The wizard will give you a chance to confirm the backup settings and remind you which partitions are being imaged. It will also provide an estimate of the amount of space needed to create a system image. The required storage space varies according to the size and usage of the hard disk on your PC.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
System image is ready to go.

Click Start backup to begin the system image process.

Secret: Two file system locations must be included in the system image?what Microsoft refers to as the boot partition and the system partition. The boot partition is always C:\, whereas the system partition is the drive with the Windows 7 Windows directory. This is typically C:, but if you installed Windows 7 in a dual-boot setup with a previous Windows version, the system partition might be in a different location. If you have other drives or partitions, you can optionally choose to include them in the system image as well.

As the image is created, Windows Backup will provide an ongoing progress indicator.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
Though complete PC backups are huge, they are compressed and therefore much smaller than the actual disk to which you are backing.

This process could take some time, especially on a heavily used PC. When it’s done, Windows Backup will prompt you to create a system repair disc. You should do so: While Windows 7 does install recovery files directly into the boot partition, in some cases, these files will not boot the PC. If that happens, you can use the system repair disc to boot your PC, a requirement for restoring the entire PC with the system image (as we’ll see in the next section).

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
If you don’t have one already, be sure to create a system repair disc.

Secret: You can use any writeable CD or DVD for a system repair disc.

Secret: If you have both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 on different PCs, you cannot use the same system repair disc for each. Instead, you must create separate system repair discs for 32-bit and 64-bit systems.

Restoring the Entire PC

If a catastrophic hardware or software failure has rendered your computer untenable, and you simply want to return to a known-good system backup, you can use one of the system images you’ve previously created to do so. Note, however, that you will typically need to boot your PC into the Windows Recovery Environment to make this happen, either using the boot files on your PC or the system repair disc that you previously created. Note, too, that restoring your PC in this fashion will wipe out all of the data and settings changes you’ve made since the last system image. So this should not be undertaken lightly.

Follow these steps to restore your entire PC using a system image:

1. Reboot the computer.

2. If you are using a system repair disc, boot the PC with that. Otherwise, after your PC has finished its BIOS sequence, hold down the F8 key. Choose Repair Your Computer from the Advanced Boot Options screen (below) and tap Enter.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
Choose the top option to restore your entire PC.

3. After the loading files screen, choose the correct language and keyboard input method and then click Next.

4. If you booted from the hard drive, you will need to choose System Image Recovery from the System Recovery Options window that appears. Otherwise, System Recovery will examine the hard drives attached to your PC and look for Windows installs. When it’s done, it will list the install(s) it found and give you the opportunity to use Windows 7’s built-in recovery tools to fix problems with Windows (which we cover in Chapter 24) or you can restore your PC to an earlier time using a system image. Choose that latter option and click Next.

5. The Re-image your computer wizard begins. In the first phase of this wizard, you choose the latest image available (the default) or you can select a different system image. When you’ve chosen, click Next.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore
This wizard will step you through the process of restoring your PC with a system image.

6. In the next step, you can choose to format the PC’s hard drive and repartition disks (as Windows 7 Setup would do) to match the layout of the system image. Generally speaking, you should enable this option. Click Next to continue.

7. In the final phase of the wizard, you can verify what you’re doing and click Finish to continue. Note that restoring an entire PC from a system image can be a time consuming process.
But wait, there’s more…

There’s much more going on with Windows 7’s data protection features, but you’ll have to check out Windows 7 Secrets for the rest, including the Windows Recovery Environment, Previous Versions, and System Restore. (We also cover Live Mesh and Windows Live SkyDrive, too.) The book is available now from Amazon.com and other booksellers. Click here to find out more about Windows 7 Secrets.