If you’ve been computing for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced that frisson of panic when you realise your data is gone—perhaps you overwrite a file or maybe your hard drive dies. If your data is well and truly gone and no amount of tinkering or workarounds can resurrect it, your only hope is to have a recent backup.

Backing up your data is preparation for the blow that will strike. With a recent backup in hand, even a distressing event such as a hard disk failure may prove to be no more than a blip in your routine.

Windows 7 comes with an impressive array of backup tools. It not only lets you back up files and folders, it also gives you the power to restore previous versions of files, roll back your system to an earlier state, and create a backup of your entire PC—operating system, applications, settings, documents and all. You can perform backups manually or, if you’re smart, set the system on auto-pilot and have Windows do the work for you.

It’s defence in depth: if one backup solution doesn’t rescue you from your predicament—whatever that may be—another one probably will.

Note: Although this article focuses on tools available in Windows 7, many of the basic practices and techniques apply to earlier versions of Windows and, in fact, to any computer system, be it Windows, Mac or Linux. If you’re using Windows Vista, you’ll find most of these tools are available to you although in some different form.

The first line of defence

If you’re using the Professional or Ultimate editions of Windows 7, you can perform backups to network drives.

If you’re using the Professional or Ultimate editions of Windows 7, you can perform backups to network drives.

Creating backups of your files is your first line of defence. It protects you on those occasions when a file becomes corrupted, when you accidentally delete or—usually worse—overwrite a file, or when you simply need to clear space on your working drive.

Windows 7 centralises most of its backup functions in the Backup and Restore Center and it’s there you’ll find the File Backup program. You’ll also find options to create a system image, to create a system repair disc, and to restore files from a previously created backup.

To perform the initial file backup, follow the steps detailed below in the step-by-step Creating a Backup. Once you’ve run one backup, Windows will automatically use the same settings to run future backups, or you can alter the settings via the same dialog box.

Unlike Vista, all versions of Windows 7 include the complete backup and restore options. However, if you wish to back up to a hard drive on a network, you’ll need to be running the Professional or Ultimate versions. You can’t back up across a network using Windows 7 Home Premium.

Tip: Back up externally

The best investment you can make to ensure the safety of your data is to buy an external hard drive. These drives are inexpensive, they provide plenty of room for multiple backups, and they are portable, making them safer, more secure and usable on more than one machine. Note that many of these drives also include their own backup software, which you may decide to use instead of Windows built-in backup program if you like.

Step-by-step: Creating a backup

The first time you use the Backup and Restore Center, you’ll need to configure the backup program. If you’re backing up your system to an external hard drive—by far the most efficient method—you should first plug in your drive, make sure it’s recognised by your system, and then follow these steps:

  1. Click Start, type backup in the search box and click Backup and Restore to open the Backup and Restore Center.
  2. Click the ‘Set up backup’ link. Windows will display a list of available backup locations. Click the drive where you want to place the backup and then click Next
  3. Select the type of backup you’d like to perform. You can either choose exactly which files and folders Windows backs up, or you can leave the choice to Windows. If you leave it up to Windows, files in all your libraries and the standard system folders will be backed up and, if there is enough space on the backup drive, Windows will also create a full system image. You can use the system image to restore your entire computer in the case of a total Windows wipeout. You’ll probably want to let Windows handle the backup unless you have a tendency to store files in out-of-the-way places. Once you’ve made your selection, click Next.
  4. The final dialog box provides a summary of your backup settings. You’ll see that Windows automatically selects a default backup schedule, so the backup will be run each week. If you need to change this or you don’t want backups performed on a schedule, click the Change Schedule link. If you do use an automatic schedule and you’re backing up to an external hard drive, you’ll need to make sure the drive is plugged in or the scheduled backup will not occur.
  5. Click ‘Save settings and run backup’ to run the backup. You’ll be able to follow the progress of the backup in the Backup and Restore Center. While the backup is in progress, you can continue to work although you may find your system a little more sluggish than usual.

The second line of defence

Between the extremes of losing a file and having your hard disk fail completely, there are a variety of medium-scale setbacks you may encounter. Two other Windows 7 tools, called Previous Versions and System Restore, come to your aid on these occasions.

Previous Versions lets you recover an earlier version of a file, invaluable when your latest editing attempt has caused more harm than good, or when you want to compare an original with the current version.

System Restore takes snapshots of your system at intervals and then lets you roll back your system to a previous state, restoring applications and the operating system to their former settings. This can get you out of a pickle if your system becomes unstable. If you used System Restore in Windows XP or Me and found it less than reliable, don’t be put off: System Restore in Windows 7 is a vastly improved animal; it’s more efficient and reliable and well worth using.

To revert a file to a previous version:

  1. Right-click the file and select Restore Previous Versions from the context menu.
  2. In the Properties dialog box you’ll see a list of all saved versions of the file. To determine which is the version you need, click one of the copies and then click Open.
  3. Once you locate the correct version, click it, click Restore, and click Restore once more at the warning prompt. The file you select will overwrite the current version.

If you want to keep both the current version of a file and recover a previous version, instead of clicking Restore in step 3, click Copy and select a location for the recovered file.

You can also right-click a folder and select Previous Versions from the pop-up menu to see a list of all files within that folder for which previous versions are available.

Messed up a file? Restore a previous version with a right-click.Previous Versions works hand in hand with System Restore, so make sure you have System Restore enabled—the default setting—to take advantage of this feature. Each time System Restore creates a snapshot of your system, known as a restore point, it creates shadow copies of your changed files.

If you take a look at the list of previous versions available in a file’s Properties dialog box, you’ll see under Location that some are labelled ‘Restore Point’ and others ‘Backup’. Because Windows 7 automatically creates a system restore point each day, you’re likely to have more of the former than the latter. When you restore a file from a shadow copy, unlike a backup you do not need to have the backup disk available, because shadow copies are stored on the same drive as the original. So ensuring that System Restore is turned on is your best guarantee of being able to recover the version you want.

To do so:

  1. Click Start, right-click Computer and select Properties from the context menu.
  2. In the System Explorer, click ‘System protection’ in the tasks pane.
  3. In the Protection Settings section, click a drive and then click the Configure button.
  4. Click ‘Restore system settings and previous versions of files’ and then click OK twice to save your settings.

Tip: Backing up to a second internal drive

If you let Windows choose which files to back up, it will not back up any files stored on the drive on which you’re creating the backup. So if you have a second hard drive installed in your computer and you keep your documents stored on that drive, don’t try to create your backup on that drive.

The third line of defence

Sometimes things go south in a big way. You load your system to the gills with new software and everything gets out of whack. You suffer a spyware infestation. Your hard drive fails. A disk controller goes berserk and scrambles the file system.

When your system is a shambles, a system image can save your files and your sanity.

Tip: Create a system repair disc

Windows 7 lets you create a system repair disc to use if you can’t start Windows. The disc contains diagnostic and recovery tools and your system can be started (“booted”) directly from the disc. To create the system repair disc, you’ll need a blank, writeable CD or DVD disc. Insert the disc in the drive, then click Start, type system repair and click ‘Create a system repair disc’. Select the drive containing your CD or DVD and click Create Disc

A system image is an exact copy of your system drive, including the operating system itself; all installed applications, utilities, and drivers; all settings; and—provided your documents are stored on your system drive—all your data files as well. When disaster strikes, you can restore your computer from this image and return it to its pre-catastrophe state in short order.

You should use a system image in conjunction with making regular file backups. This two-pronged approach is important for three reasons:

  1. When you restore your system from a system image, it’s an all-or-nothing affair. You can’t pick and choose what gets restored, and everything still on your system drive is replaced—deleted!—by the backup image.
  2. Performing regular file backups ensures you have copies of the most recent versions of your data, including changes you may have made since the last system image was created.
  3. If you have a second internal hard drive on your system and you use that to store your documents, then those documents will not be included in a system image. You must use file backup to ensure you have copies.

Windows 7 automatically creates a system image when it backs up your files if you let it choose what to back up and if you have enough room on your backup drive.

To get the most benefit from having a system image, however, you should create an image when you first get your computer set up, so you have a completely clean, problem-free image of your system. First make sure you have installed your regularly used programs, downloaded and installed any updates, and adjusted Windows’ settings to suit your needs. Then perform the image backup. If possible, put this pristine image on a separate drive so it doesn’t get overwritten by later backups and is always available. You’ll then be able to return your computer to an “as new” state if disaster strikes.

To create a system image, open the Backup and Restore Center and click the ‘Create a system image’ link.

Restoring your system

If your system becomes completely unusable and you can no longer access Windows, you can restore it using a system image. You’ll need to use Windows 7’s System Recovery Options, accessible either by booting your computer from a Windows 7 setup disc or a system repair disc, or by rebooting and pressing F8 during the initial boot sequence before Windows loads.

To restore using your Windows 7 setup disc or a system repair disc:

  1. Make sure that you have the disk containing your backup image available.
  2. Insert the Windows 7 setup disc or system repair disc into the optical drive and restart your system.
  3. If prompted, press any key to boot from the CD/DVD disc.
  4. Choose your language settings, click Next and then click ‘Repair your computer’ (you won’t need to perform this step if you’re using a system repair disc).
  5. Select a recovery option and click Next.

In the absence of a Windows 7 installation disc or a system repair disc, try this:

  1. Reboot your computer and press F8 repeatedly, before the Windows logo appears, to display the Advanced Boot Options screen.
  2. On the Advanced Boot Options screen use the arrow keys to highlight Repair Your Computer and press Enter.
  3. Select your keyboard layout and click Next.
  4. Log on with your Administrator password.
  5. Click System Image Recovery on the System Recovery Options menu and follow the prompts.

Tip: Run a trial restore

There’s nothing more frustrating than having a backup and then finding you can’t use it during an emergency. Make sure when you create a backup, that you run a trial restore. For a file backup, use the Restore Files button in the Backup and Restore Center and try extracting a file or two from the backup set. To test a complete system image restore, follow through all the steps to ensure your system can recognize the backup, but do not click Finish unless you really do want to replace your existing system.

Backups from another PC

If you’re restoring files from a backup created on another computer, the files will be restored in a folder under the user name that was used to create the backup. If that is different from your current user name you’ll need to navigate to the folder to which the files are restored. For example, if your user name on the backup computer was David but your user name on the computer where the files will be restored is Dave, the restored files will be saved in a folder labelled David. To locate the restored files:

  1. Click Start -> Computer.
  2. Double-click the icon of the drive on which the files are saved, for example, C:\.
  3. Double-click the Users folder. You will see a folder for each log-on account.
  4. Double-click the folder with the logon name used to create the backup on the original computer (in our example, that’s David.) You’ll find the restored files within that folder.