Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Back Up Your Data on a Windows PC

Nothing you do with a computer will ever be as important as making a solid backup. Hard drives crash, and when yours does, unless you have a backup, you'll find yourself facing expensive data recovery services or worse: lost data.

Now that Windows 7 has been released, many Windows users will be looking to back up their documents and media before upgrading -- an absolutely critical step. Luckily, Windows users have many options, including a very nice built-in back up program that ships with both Windows XP and Vista. Regrettably, the program is somewhat buried, so many users aren't familiar with it.

Depending on your needs, the built-in option may be sufficient. If you'd like an option with some bells and whistles not found in Microsoft's program, numerous third-party apps have got you covered.
There are a number of serious challenges when transferring backups between old and new operating systems. Many backup solutions aren't yet avaiable on Windows 7, or don't work on Windows 7 (e.g. NTBACKUP.EXE), or don't work on Windows 7 and never will be (e.g. Live One Care). There are also complications with correct placement of user settings and user data on a Windows 7 system. Many standard directories have moved, or work differently, and many settings need special treatment when transferring.

Microsoft's Windows Easy Transfer utility provides a one-stop solution.

The Windows Easy Transfer utility provides a number of ways to transfer data from an old computer to a new computer; but it works equally well for transferring data from an old Windows operating system to a freshly installed version of Windows 7. Microsoft specifically recommends this path when upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7; but it also works when upgrading from Windows Vista 32-bit, to Windows 7 64-bit, or when upgrading to a clean install of Windows 7. Even if you are rolling the dice and performing an in-place Vista-32 to Windows 7-32 upgrade (which actually does work), you may want to consider using Windows Easy Transfer in order to provide a temporary backup of your user data.

Windows Easy Transfer allows you to back up all user files and settings for all users on the computer to an external or network drive. Once you have installed a clean copy of the operating system, you can restore user files and settings to the freshly installed operating system.

Versions of Windows Easy Transfer are available for download for 32-bit XP, 64-bit XP, and for32-bit and 64-bit Vista.

Download and run Windows Easy Tranfer for your platform. When prompted, select "An external hard drive or USB Flash Drive" as the method for transferring data from the old operating system to the new operating system. Later on in the UI sequence you will be asked where you want to store the resulting Easy Transfer file. Despite the title of the option, you can place the file on a secondary internal drive if you want. Just make sure you don't reformat the secondary drive, and lose the transfer file, while installing your shiny new copy of Windows 7.

It's not at all obvious what Windows Easy Transfer does transfer; but my experience has been that it tranfers pretty much everything except files in the Program Files and c:\windows directories. The very last item in the scan report is "Shared Items". And included in the "Shared Items" category are all files and folders that are not otherwise included in user profile directories. You can click on the Shared Item's "Customize" link and then the "Advanced" link to see the list of all files and folders that will be backed up for transfer. By default, pretty much everything was selected or backup on my system, including a few things that I could have done without, such as my "Recorded TV", c:\cygwin, and complete copies of a number of errant programs that had installed themselves outside of the c:\program files, and e:\program files directory.

There are also a number of quirks that I encountered that I would rather have known about before I ran it. When bringing up your clean copy of Windows 7, you need to create an account with the same name as the account you used to create the backup. If the account is different, then all user profile settings for the old account will be restored to the account you are currently using, renaming the account in the process. All other accounts in the backup are created and restored with correct names. Also, if you have multiple disks in the backup, but don't have matching drives when restoring, all folders will be merged onto the single disk when restoring. If there are folders with the same name on both drives on the source system, then they will be merged into the same folder when restoring. In my case, that's pretty much what I wanted, but I have no idea what would happen if there were collisions between data files.

The very nice thing about the Windows Easy Transfer process is that it provides a complete temporary backup while upgrading. If the upgrade fails, you can always restore your transfer to a fresh copy of XP, and be back where you started.

You can also selective restore files, in multiple passes when restoring the easy transfer. My complete recorded TV files for all of Battlestar Gallactica season 4, for example, took 14 hours to back up, when creating the inital transfer. When restoring, I was able to deselect these files, reducing the restore time to a bit over 1 1/2 hours. Now that the DVD set is out, I probably never will restore them, honestly.

Now that you have safely transferred your data, you can turn your attention to simpler challenges, such as reinstalling all your software (which doesn't get backed up by Easy Transfer by default); and finding a new backup program that actually works on Windows 7.

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