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Windows 7: Backup and Restore

The first step in any computer maintenance program is to have a  reliable and proven disaster recovery plan. This includes a process for making regular backups, and having a way to quickly and reliably recover from system failure or data loss. While there are third-party solutions available, this article focuses on built-in backup and recovery tools already available in Windows Vista and Windows 7.

Windows 7  come with a robust set of tools for creating and managing backups and quickly recovering from a computer failure, and they are hosted in the Windows Backup and Restore Center in the Control Panel.  Not all editions of Windows 7 have the same backup capabilities. For example, while all Windows 7 editions can create and restore Windows backups and system images, only the Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate editions allow a backup to be created to a network location. Full system backups, including incremental backups, can only be done in Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions.

Backup and Restore Center Features

Windows 7 takes a three-step approach to backing up your data and recovering from a system crash and restoring your data. All versions of Windows 7 provide the following features:

  • Backup – Backups can be scheduled or customized, and with the business versions of Windows 7, backups can be created in and restored from network locations.
  • System Image – A system image can be used to restore your computer to the time that the image was created. This can be very useful, in that it restores your operating system, programs and drivers, and your user profiles and any other data you had when the image was created. Unlike System Restore, a Windows System Image can be used to restore your computer and data onto a different hard drive, and can be accessed and managed through a Repair Disk, in case Windows will not boot properly.
  • Repair Disk – Should Windows 7 become corrupt or otherwise fail to boot, a repair disk can help you restore and repair Windows. A repair disk is a bootable DVD that contains drivers and tools specific to your system to help you repair your operating system should your computer become unstable or unbootable.

Getting Started:

To begin, we are going to need a few things. First, to make a repair disk, we are going to need a recordable CD or DVD and  a CD/DVD burner. If you are planning on storing a system image on DVD, you will need a stack of DVD’s depending on how much data is on the partition. You can also store the system image on an external or secondary hard drive.

We will also need an external hard drive or a secondary hard drive to store your backups. This drive needs to be large enough to store your backups and your system image. In setting up this guide, I used Windows 7 Ultimate on a 500 GB primary hard drive with about 60 GB of data, and another 150 GB of data stored on another drive.  The file size of both my backup and the system image came to 751 GB. I used a 2 TB secondary drive to store my system image and backups.

Windows performs two types of backups. The first time you run a backup in Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate editions, Windows does a full backup of the system files, user profiles, and data. This backup can take a while, but once finished, Windows changes to running scheduled incremental backups; backing up only data that has changed since the last backup. Periodically however, Windows will re-run a full-system backup.

Since full backups take a lot of system resources and time, it is not recommended that you store them over a network location.

To Access the Backup and Restore Center:

  • Start Menu->All Programs->Maintenance->Backup and Restore
  • Start Menu->Control Panel ->System and Security->Backup and Restore
  • Start Menu->Search->Type backup and press Enter


Creating a Repair Disk

If you have not already created a system repair disk for your computer, I recommend you take a few minutes and do it now.

To create a repair disk, you will need a blank writable CD and a CD burner:

  1. Open the Backup and Restore Center in the Control Panel.
  2. In the left-hand column, select ‘Create a system repair disc‘.
  3. Put a blank Disk in your CD/DVD drive.
  4. Select the drive to use to create the repair disk, and select Create disc.
  5. When the repair disk creation is complete, label and store the disk in a safe location.

Creating a System Image

A System Image is a copy of the current stat of your computer’s primary hard drive. This includes the Windows operating system, software, drivers, system settings, and user profiles and data. While Windows automatically creates a system image the first time you use Windows to create a full backup, you can always manually create a system image when ever you feel the need.

    To Create a System Image:

  1. Open the Backup and Restore Center in the Control Panel.
  2. In the left-hand column, select ‘Create a system image
  3. Windows will scan your system looking for suitable drives to store the image.

On a hard disk: Select this option if you want to store the system image on a secondary internal hard drive or an external hard drive. Keep in mind that you need to have at least as much free space on the drive storing the image as you have data stored on the primary hard drive. If you don’t know how much space you will need to store the image, go to My Computer, and right-click on the local C:\ drive, and select properties. You should see a window that shows how much used space the drive has. This is how much free space you will need on the drive storing the system image.


  • On one or more DVD’s: Personally, I don’t recommend storing an image on DVD’s unless you have a large supply of DVD’s and plenty of time to create an image. On the other hand, storing a system image on DVD’s minimizes any data degradation if the image is to be stored for an extended period of time.
  • On a network location: This option will only be available in Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions. Before you choose this option, you should talk to your network administrator.
  1. Select the drives you want to include in the image. The C:\ drive will already be selected, but if you want to include other drives, you can indicate them here. Note: you cannot include the drive where the image is being stored.
  1. Confirm your backup settings, and click Start backup.

Scheduling Backups

By default, Windows does not automatically schedule backups. This is a feature that you have to turn on before you can use it. Backups are created in sets known as backup periods. To help maximize your disk space, Windows backs up all selected folders the first time it’s run and then it only backs up files that are new or have been modified since the last backup was made. Periodically, Windows creates a new, full backup. Each full backup is known as a backup period. When you view your file backups, you see all of the backup periods labeled with date ranges. If you decide to delete file backups, you should always keep the most recent file backup.

To Schedule Automatic Backups:

  1. From the Backup and Restore Center, select ‘Turn on schedule‘. You should now see ‘Next backup, Last backup, Contents, and Schedule’ information.
  2. Select ‘Change settings‘ to begin the scheduling wizard.
  3. Select where you want Windows to store your backups, and click Next:
  4. Next, select whether you want Windows to choose what gets backed up, or if you want to specify that get backed up on a regular schedule.
    • A system image is automatically created and maintained if you let Windows choose what get’s backed up. You can disable the option to create a system image if you manually select what is to be backed up, though it is highly recommended to include a system image in the regular backup schedule.
    • By default, Windows automatically saves as many system images as it has space for without taking up more than 30 percent of space on the backup disk. Once the disk starts running out of room, Windows deletes older system images.
    • You can set Windows to retain as many system images as it has space for on the backup disk or to only keep the most recent system image. You should always keep the most recent system image.
    • If you are saving your system image on a network location, you can only keep the most recent system image.
  1. When scheduling backups, it is best to schedule the day and time for when then computer is not likely going to be in use, such as after-hours or on the weekend.
  2. On the Select Where You Want To Save Your Backup page, use the options provided to specify a backup location on a local disk, a CD/DVD drive, a USB flash drive, or the network, and then click Next.
    • With CD/DVD drives, if the backup doesn’t fit on one disc, you need to be available to insert discs when prompted. Note: This can require many DVD’s.
  1. On the What Do You Want To Back Up page, do one of the following, and then click Next:
    • Select Let Windows Choose if you want to back up all personal data in user profile folders and libraries and also create a system image.
    • Select Let Me Choose if you want to select personal and system data to back up. If you selected Let Me Choose, use the options provided to select personal data to back up. You can expand the Data Files and Computer nodes and sub-nodes to select specific folders and libraries.
    • By default, the Include A System Image check box is selected to ensure that system image backups are created.
  1. After making your selections and clearing unwanted options, click Next.
  2. Review your scheduling and backup settings, and if everything is as you want it, select ‘Save settings and exit

 Managing Space:

Space for backups must be managed manually, but Windows can be set to manage the space used by system images.

Managing Backup Space:

  1. From the Backup and Restore Center, click Manage Space.
  2. Using the “View backups” link off this page, you can delete older  backups, freeing space for backups. Note: This will delete files contained in the backup period, but will not affect files in other backups.

Managing Image Space:

  1. Using the Change Settings link off this page, you can manage all the system images that have been created and stored. You are provided with two choices:
    • Let Windows manage the space used for backup history: Windows will store older system images up to 30% of the storage area.
    • Keep only the latest system image and minimize space used by backup: keep the latest and delete the older one. I recommend using this setting.



See Also: Restoring your Computer with a System Repair Disk

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