Computers can store a great deal of information, and over time your PC may hold a lot of important, private, irreplaceable data such as digital photogra phs and movies, financial documents, emails, passwords and login details.
It is of critical importance that you establish an appropriate method for regularly backing up this information, so that if your PC is stolen, damaged, or its data is corrupted or accidentally overwritten, that you do not lose all this valuable data permanently. Hence backing up is a vital and unavoidable part of sensible computing. In fact once you are sure that your system is completely free of malicious software, you should make at least one backup copy of all your important and irreplaceable documents before proceeding any further with this guide.
This chapter not only covers various backup strategies and tools, it also covers a range of useful data recovery methods you can use to regain valuable information which ha s been lost through forgetting passwords, accidental deletion of files, data corruption or damage to your Windows installation.
Backup and Restore Center.
Windows Vista's Backup and Restore Center allows you to either create backups of particular files, or create a complete backup image of your hard drive(s), as well as a means of restoring these backups at a later date.
To access the Backup and Restore Center, go to Start>All Programs>Accessories>System Tools, or to Start>Search Box and type "backup restore" (without quotes) and press Enter. The Backup and Restore Center dialog box will open, giving you two main options for backing up (or restoring) your data: either as a range of files, or as an entire image of your hard drive(s). Each option is covered below:
Backing Up Files..
This option backs up only particular files from your system. This takes up far less space than the 'Back Up Computer' option, and also allows you to selectively back up and restore certain file types. However it is still much less precise than a manual backup, typically including a lot of files you don't wish to back up. This is because Vista does not allow you to select the specific files and folders you want to back up, only files of a certain type. For example, if you want to back up all Pictures and Music and select these categories, then aside from any pictures and music you've created, saved or downloaded, it will also back up all image and music files from other folders such as those under the \Program Files directory (e.g. game music and image files). This can obviously take up a great deal of additional space to backup, so I only recommend using this
option if you prefer its automated nature and don't mind its lack of control. A manual backup is the preferred method of backing up specific files/folders in a more efficient manner (see further below).
When you select the 'Back Up Files' button, Vista first asks you where you wish to backup the files to, either a CD, DVD or hard drive. I recommend that you back up your files to a CD or DVD regularly, even if you also backup to another hard drive as well. I don't recommend only backing up the files to another partition on your main Vista drive for example, unless you also keep backups of the data elsewhere. This is because if your main Vista drive fails, all partitions on it will also be lost. So on balance another hard drive and/or CD/DVDs are recommended.
Once you've made your selection, you will be prompted as to which hard drive(s) you wish to backup files from. Your current Vista drive will be selected automatically and cannot be unselected; select other drives if you wish. The next screen shows the specific types of files you may want to back up. As noted, a major drawback is that Vista does not allow you to select specific directories or files to back up, merely the category of files. By clicking on the name of each file type here you can see the kinds of files which will be backed up from your chosen drive(s). Files which will not be backed up regardless of the categories you choose include:
System files - The files that Windows needs to run.
Program files - Mainly .EXE and .DLL files; other portions of program files will be backed up depending on their type.
Files stored on hard disks that are formatted using the FAT file system.
Web-based e-ma il that is not stored on your hard disk.
Files that are in the Recycle Bin.
User profile settings.
Files that have been encrypted using the Encrypting File System (EFS).
Once you've selected the file types you want to ba ck up, Vista will assume you want to automa tically do this on a regular basis, and asks you to schedule a regular time for automatic backups each day, week or month.
Note that scheduling automatic backups is not possible in Vista Home Basic, though it will periodically remind you to back up manually. To turn off automatic backups, or indeed alter any backup files settings, open the Backup and Restore Center, click the 'Change settings' link below the 'Back up files' button. Then you ca n click the 'Turn Off' button at the bottom of the next screen to disable automatic backups, and/or if you want to change the backup settings you can click the 'Change Backup Settings' option. Note, to get back to this configuration screen quickly at any time, you can type "backup status" (without quotes) in the Start>Search Box and press Enter. If you want to permanently disable scheduled backups altogether, see Task Scheduler under the Administrative Tools section of the Control Panel chapter.
Once done with the configuration, the 'Crea te a new, full backup' option should be ticked, now click the 'Save settings and start backup' button. You will be prompted to insert/format any disks required until the backup is completed. If you need to manually format a CD, DVD or hard drive at this point, open Windows Explorer, right click on the relevant optical drive letter or hard disk letter, select Format or 'Erase this Disk'.
If you attempt to create a backup which requires more disk space than you have available on your target drive (e.g. the backup requires 5 DVDs and you only have 4), then you can resume the backup process at a later date by running the 'Back up files' option and it will continue from where it left off. If an automatic backup fails due to lack of disk(s), it too can be resumed the sa me way.
The first time the Backup Files function runs, it automatically creates a full backup of all your selected file categories, this may time quite some time. Vista then starts keeping track of which of your selected file types across your chosen drive(s) have been modified or newly created, and in future when you return to the 'Back up files' option you will be given the option of creating another full backup, or simply creating an incremental backup of new/modified files only. You can also choose this by clicking on the 'Change settings' link, and either selecting 'Back Up Now' to find new/updated files to add to your backup, or 'Change backup settings' to alter the settings and/or create a new full backup. Using the incremental method makes backing up much faster and easier, so it is recommended.
When using Windows backup features, backup files are saved in a special format on your target drive/disk, in the form Drive Letter:\
If at any time you want to restore or simply view any files and folders backed up via the 'Back up files' option, then you should go to the Backup and Restore Center and click the 'Restore Files' button. You can then select to restore the file(s) from the latest backup you made, or from an older backup. I recommend clicking the 'Advanced restore' link instead as this provides additional options, including the ability to restore a backup of files made on another PC. On the next screen, click the 'Advanced Restore' option. If your backups were made on another PC, select the 'Files from a backup made on a different computer' item; if you've made several backups of the files on this PC but you want to restore an older version of a file, select the 'Files from an older backup...' option. Finally the most common option is to restore the latest version of the files which you've backed up by selecting the 'Files from the latest backup...' item. Click Next when done.
On the next screen, if you chose to restore an older backup you can select the date of the backup made and insert the appropriate disk if required before proceeding. If the files were backed up on a different computer, connect or insert the disk(s) required and then continue. If you're using the latest backup, make sure you insert the appropriate disk(s) if required.
To restore particular files or folders, select the 'Add Files' or 'Add Folders' option as appropriate and browse to the 'Backup' folder in the file browser on the left side of the dialog box. You should see the backed up drive letter shown with a listing of the files and folders which have been backed up onto this particular hard drive/CD/DVD. Highlight each of the particular files/folders you want to restore and click the Add button at the bottom of the box. If you want to restore the entire backup, tick the 'Restore everything in this backup' box at the top of the screen instead. Once done, click the Next button and nominate a location to restore the file to. You can either have the backed up version of the file overwrite the current version on your Vista drive (not recommended), or you can restore it to another location to prevent it overwriting the existing version - this is the option I recommend just to play it safe, in case you restore the wrong backup or the backup itself is somehow corrupt or infected. Restore it to another location, delete your current versions to the Recycle Bin, then move the newly restored files to their original location and see if they are fine.
Backing Up The Entire Computer.
Backing up specific file types is a useful but not foolproof way of making sure you don't lose valuable documents in case of a hard drive failure or severe malware infestation. It prevents total data loss but it is still time consuming to have to reinstall Windows and reconfigure everything back to the way you want it after a major problem. Therefore Vista allows you to make a backup image of your entire computer, backing up every file and detail such that you can restore your PC to the exact same state at any time. Unfortunately this method does not allow you to selectively choose particular files or folders to backup or restore - you will be backing up/restoring your entire PC in every way. If you have a dual boot arrangement,this also includes
the other version of Windows you're using as well, which can take up quite a bit of space. Note tha t this function is not available in Vista Home Basic or Vista Home Premium.
To start the process click the 'Back up Computer' button in the Backup and Restore Center, and as recommended, select another hard drive/partition to back up to. If you don't have any other hard drives, you can select DVDs though this can obviously require quite a number of them. Regardless of where you choose, on the next screen you will be given a rough estimate of the amount of space required, the drive(s) to be backed up, and you can then commence the process by clicking 'Start Backup'. Depending on the size of your current Window installation(s) and all programs installed, this could take quite a while.
This method is only recommended in conjunction with other automatic or manual backups of your specific valuable files. This is because if you wish to restore your computer backup, it will completely overwrite your current Vista install, and if you have a dual boot, it will also completely overwrite your other version of Windows as well, with the version you backed up earlier. Clearly this is overkill just to restore a single lost file, and also may mean you lose other data which was created or modified after your previous entire computer backup. So on balance this method is recommended more for recovering from a catastrophic failure like a total drive failure/corruption, or a severe malware infestation, and also requires that you regularly maintain the entire computer backup to keep it up to date.
Restoring The Entire Computer.
If you want to restore an entire computer backup image, click the 'Restore Computer' button and you will be given the instructions on how to do this. Basically restoring a computer image cannot be done while you are already running Vista or another version of Windows, so it needs to be done prior to the OS starting up. It requires that you reboot and get into the recovery options and select the 'Windows Complete PC Restore' option. For full details of how to get to your recovery options and how to use them, see the System Recovery
section further below.
Remember, you cannot restore particular files or folders using this type of a backup, it only allows you to restore your entire computer setup to the state it was in when you last backed it up using the 'Back up computer' option.
All the hard drives you ma de a backup of will be completely reformatted, losing all existing data on them, and the backups are then restored over them. If you had a dual boot arrangement, this will be restored, however once again that means that any other operating system you were using along with Vista will also be deleted and returned to the state it was in when you last backed up your entire computer.
Clearly this method is only recommended if you either have no other ba ckups of important information, you have suffered a catastrophic failure such as hardware failure or total drive corruption, or a severe malware infestation which has compromised a great deal of your current data . If this not the case then I recommend attempting other forms of system repair or recovery first, as covered further below.