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
What You’ll Need
- A Hard Drive. Grab a secondary hard drive of equal or greater capacity to the machine you want to back up. Preferrably, this should be an external drive, or an external network SAN drive such as Western Digital’s very affordable “My World Book” SAN drive.
- Software. You can use one of the programs Microsoft ships with its operating system, or you can use one of the apps listed below.
However, you should consider your backup strategy carefully across the upgrade. Not all XP or Vista backup utilities can be used to restore files on Windows 7; and a number of important file locations change between XP and Windows 7, which can make it difficult to get the files restored to the appropriate new location in Windows 7.
The Easy Solution: Windows Easy Transfer
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.
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.
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.
Using Windows XP’s Built-In Option
If you use Windows XP Professional, Ntbackup.exe, Microsoft’s cryptically-named backup utility should already be installed. If you’re using XP Home Edition, you’ll need to grab your original install CD.
There’s a serious catch though. The File-Restore utilities in Windows 7 can’t restore files that were backed up with the XP version of NTBACKUP.EXE. (The following step has NOT been confirmed to work, but worked with previous versions of windows. Please delete this if you can confirm that it works). So copy the XP version of NTBACKUP.EXE onto your external drive. Once you are ready to restore, you can use the saved XP copy of NTBACKUP.EXE to restore the files.
To back up and restore the files, follow these steps.
- On the following page you’ll be asked what you want to back up. For most people, backing up the “My Documents” folder should be the minimum. If you have multiple users, you’ll want to select the “Everyone” option.
Using Windows Vista’s Built-in Options
For Vista users, the process is very similar to XP, but there are two different backup programs available depending on the version of Vista you’re using. Automatic File Backup is available in almost all editions of Windows Vista. It’s not in Vista Starter Edition, and it has only basic functionality in Vista Home Basic.
Windows Complete PC Backup is available in the Business, Ultimate and Enterprise editions of Vista, and it performs a complete, image-based backup of the entire computer. Note that neither of Vista’s offerings support tape drives, so make sure you have a hard drive handy.
Using Windows 7′s Built-in Options
Windows 7 is brand new, but that’s no excuse to not have a strong backup plan in place already.
If you have advice or experience using Windows 7′s built-in backup software, please contribute to this article by adding your tips here.
Other Software Options
SyncBackSE features some fine-grained controls, and it can even back up to an FTP server with compressed files. It also lets you set commands to run before and after backups, and it will e-mail you in the event of a backup failure.
In the Future
There are also websites which offer to backup your data to their servers, e.g. , , , . Several of them were .
There are some advantages to using online services — it is easier to set up, because you don’t have to buy the hard drive and connect it to your computer. Also it removes inclination to store more data on the new hard drive instead of using it for backups. It is also possible to find free services, if you need to back up only small part of your data.
There also disadvantages. The data is stored on servers belonging to other companies, so you have to trust them not to peek into your data or not care if they do peek. They can also be more expensive in the long term, as you need to pay an annual fee for most services. And it’s often not clear exactly which files get backed up, and which don’t. Imagine how discerting it would be to find out that your backups didn’t included any files with .cpp or .cs extensions (Programmer’s source files, for those who don’t know), because your backup provider didn’t consider them to be “user files”. Another problem is restoring data after a crash: Downloading your data back through internet could take days.