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Backing up your computer

Backing up

Do I need to backup my computer ?

Yes - if you have a Laptop, performing a regular backup (to another machine) is vital. If you have configured your computer with a RAID Mirror, backups are still needed (to allow you to recover from system corruption / virus infection or accidental data deletion).

See also Migrating my System to a new hard drive

Where do I copy my backups to ?

To a separate hard drive, ideally on another computer. If you have a home network, plainly you should back-up to your Server / NAS. Otherwise you need to add an additional internal hard-drive.


What software should I use ?


ToDo BackUp Free v6.5 (and NOT any of the less functional later versions !!)

Typically, you just need to do this 'once' - for example when migrating your system to a larger drive or RAID Mirror.
Plug in your new hard drive, make sure it can be 'seen' and then run the ToDo BackUp Free v6.5 installer (opt out of the 'customer experience program') and let it 'launch' immediately it finishes installing (no reboot is required).
You can now 'clone' your system partition to the new drive (and even change the 'destination' partition size i.e. move to a bigger disk), job done

For more on backing up, read on below

Why should I avoid external USB hard drives ?

These are often sold on the promise of 'keeping your files secure' but are simply accidents waiting to happen.

The sad fact is that external drives are even LESS reliable than even a laptop internal hard drive.
The (single) drive is typically housed in a poorly ventilated (and fan-less) case (so it constantly over-heats) and the cables (USB & power) are removed often and at random intervals (typically just as the directory is being updated) = so 'unknown format' and 'unreadable drive' is what you will get after the first few months use.
Finally, they always sit upright, right on the edge of your desk, just waiting for the slightest excuse to 'leap off' and perform a head crashing 'bounce' off your nice hard office-like wooden floor :-)

If your only computer is a Laptop, and an external USB hard drive is all you can afford, well it's better than nothing. Even so, you had better go find one of the many free or Open Source hard drive recovery tools (as well as reading all about recovering files from a broken BKF repository) NOW.

Can I manually backup My Documents to DVD +/-R ?

Yes - use 'advanced' Search to find files by date you have modified since the last back-up. That way, if all else fails, you can always access your files from another PC.

WARNING if you are using Microsoft's 'drag & drop' CD/DVD writing software for back-ups, you MUST 'close the session' each time (you do not need to 'close the disk' - if you do, that disk can not have anything else added) - if you fail to 'close the session' the DVD will be unreadable on another PC ..

What's the first step in backing up ?

Making a System Restore Point. You should always make Restore Point prior to installing any (commercial) software, however it's also a very good idea to make one IMMEDIATELY you have the system running to your satisfaction (and then make your first 'full' (disk image) backup).

What software should I use to perform a System backup ?

MS Backup will 'do the job' BUT it creates proprietary '.bkf' files which are amazingly easy to corrupt. I thus recommend using MS Backup ONLY for 'System' backup. To backup your data (My Documents etc) you should make COPIES of the files.

I can't find MS Backup on my "XP Home" system ?

Since XP Home users plainly never have anything worth saving (or so Microsoft believes), Windows XP Home does not install Windows Backup by default. You have to go get it from your XP Operating System Distribution CD (it's in the VALUEADD\MSFT\NTBACKUP folder, just double-click ntbackup.msi to install NTBackup).

What's the difference between a 'full' and an 'incremental' backup ?

A full backup will make copies of everything on your hard disk. An 'incremental' backup will make copies ONLY of files that have been changed since the last backup.

Incremental backups are a lot faster, however to perform a restore you have to first restore the last full backup and then add each of the increments, one at a time. This can be a tedious process and (of cousre) rquires your system be 'runnning' at least well enough for the 'restore' utility to work. The most common reason for wanting to do a 'full' restore is is not to recover a file or two but to recover from a total system failure ...

If you want to restore just one or two files ...

So, we took a full backup, so they must be 'avaqilable' in the Microsoft BKF file, but how can we restore only those files ?

You can't = Microsoft provides no easy way to 'look inside' the .BKF and dig out what you need.
Thus, as with all things Microsoft, it's an all or nothing deal - you can 'restore' the entire .bkf or none of it .. and if the BKF file is in any way corrupt, Microsoft will indeed have none of it.
Plus, of course, since both Vista & Windows 7 are unable to open Windows XP/2000 2000 BKF you can't revover your XP data to a 'new' PC either (once again Microsoft's attitude toward user data retention is revealed)
As far as MS is concerned, a 'full' .bkf file is can only ever be restored to newly formatted PC with nothing on it but the basic XP Operating System. If if your PC totally fails, whatever new one you purchase must be 'identical' ..

Uppacking the BKF file

Fortunately, MS Backup utility fiels can be copied onto a Vista/Ein 7 PC and run froim there to 'restore' the XP .BKF files onto 'another location'

1) Create a folder on a hard drive with sufficient space for all the files and call it, say, "XPbackup"
2) If ypour new PC is VISTA or Win7, find and copy in the following** XP files :-
ntbackup.exe, vssapi.dll, ntmsapi.dll (if you want 'help', copy ntbackup.chm and ntbackup.hlp
** these files can be found in the 'root' of your XP System Install (they will be compacted as 'ntbackup.ex_' & will have to be 'expanded' for use)
3) Launch ntbackup.exe, select the 'Restore' tab
4) Select Tools/Catalog then select and restore your files "to an alternate location" (using the drop-down box in the lower-left corner of the app. to specify where)

What if MS Backup refuses to 'open' the BKF ?

BKF files are amazingly easy to corrupt = indeed the file format seems designed to fail !

Apparently the file format is based on something called MTF (Microsoft Tape Format) which you can read all about here, or download the MTF pdf from here. Further information (and a .BKF (MTF) reader) can be found here.

It also seems that MS has made changes to the .bkf format over the years and that newer versions of msbackup would refuse to 'open' older format files (for sure Vista & Win7 refuse to open XP .BKF's & I have had problems opening w2000 .BKF's on XP ...).

Let me stress once again, DO NOT rely on MS Backup to save your data !

non-Microsoft backup solutions

Whilst there are many commercial backup solutions that are 'much better' than the Microsoft's NTBackup, almost all** have one MASSIVE DRAWBACK in common - the licensed software must be installed on a working computer before you can 'restore' a system backup !

**System backup software that uses a 'Drive Imaging' approach does not require a running system in order to 'restore' (you use a 'special' bootable CD that lets you 'write' the saved 'image' back onto a new / empty hard drive).

So most commercial 'backup solutions' suffer from a 'classic catch 22' .. to restore the system from back-up the PC must be fully working ... but if the PC is fully working, why would you need to restore the system ? ... and if it's NOT working, then you CAN'T restore !

If a system (or hard disk) crash forces you to start with a newly formatted hard disk, after re-installing Windows you then have to locate the original commercial back-up software CD.
Having (eventually) found the original CD, you will then need to reinstall the software ... and that's when you will get the usual 'your Licence is invalid or has already been registered' Error.
So be warned - using commercial software to create a system backup only 'works' so long as your system never has to be restored :-)

Further, when it comes to data backup, all commercial solutions will generate some sort of 'compressed archive'. Like MS Backup, you will have the choice of 'full' or 'incremental' - and, like MS, the only way to restore an 'incremental' is to restore the last full and all the intermediate increments first. Further, since commercial vendors compete to create the 'fastest & smallest' archive, each will have their own 'special' (i.e. non-standard) compression format.

Although I have no doubt all the commercial compression formats will be based on existing standards (like ZIP etc), each will add hidden 'tweaks' and 'special headers' in order to guarantee that their compressed archives can never be accessed by any other software.

All this is, of cousre, designed to ensure you are 'tied' to that vendor's software if you ever want to access anything from one of 'their' old backups.

Unless you like being 'locked in' to a specific vendors solution, you should choose one of the many free or Open Source backup offerings

How I backup my computers

Every so often - about once or twice a year - I make a 'disk image' = this is my 'full' backup since it can be 'burnt' to a brand-new replacement hard drive to create a complete 'duplicate' of my system (no system / software discs or 'registration' keys required).

Each month I make a SYSTEM backup. Each day I 'manually' make COPIES of my data files. I make a 'Restore Point' before installing anything.

1) I use MS Backup only to backup my System state - and I use it's scheduler to make a Full backup of the System each month to a 'backup' folder (share) on my home server / NAS, although I've never actually needed to use this backup
If you perform manual System backups, you should make them a HABIT you get into. A monthly backup could be combined with some other regular monthly activity (for example, pay a bill) - or choose a fixed date (eg 1st)).
2) To copy my data files, I use 'Synchronisation' software in 'append' mode. 10 years ago, when I started to maintain duplicate files, I would have to go back to an 'old copy' every month or two. Now it's perhaps once a year, however recently I did have to go back over 5 years to find the old versions of a set of files.
When I first started using backup, I used software that monitored my data folders and automatically mirrored any changes to backup folders (share) on my home server / NAS. However I very quickly discovered that the MAIN REASON for wanting to 'restore' a document was because I had actually 'deleted' it by mistake - and (of cousre) by the time I realised, the 'Synchronisation' mirror would have deleted the backup as well ! So I now manually run the software each night and use 'append' mode.

For further details, see my Data Preservation Server/NAS, Backup and Synchronisation page.

How to recover a 'deleted' file

Sooner or later you will manage to delete something that wasn't backed up (and doesn't appear in the 'Recycle Bin' - or can't be restored from the Bin). When this happens DON'T PANIC .. deleted files actually still exist on a hard disk but ONLY until Windows needs to re-use that space. So DON'T do anything that might 'overwrite' the deleted file = such as installing new 'file recovery ' software !!

To avoid 'overwriting' the deleted file, you must have already downloaded and installed your file recovery software - I suggest Microsoft's own file recovery software (since MS should know more about recovering files than anyone else). Get it and install it now.
If you haven't installed recovery software but still need to 'recover', DO NOT install anything (if you do, chances are you will overwrite the file you are trying to get back).
Even shutting down the computer normally can overwrite your deleted file - so if it's vital enough to risk having to do a complete reformat and complete system restore, pull the power plug - and then use another computer to go find one of the Open Source 'Live CD' data recovery tool kits.

What's my 'profile' and how do I recover it ?

Your 'user profile' is what Microsoft calls your Desktop. XP seems quite good at 'corrupting' your User Profile, which is held in C:\Documents and Settings\{your user account}.

If Windows 'detects' any sort of 'corruption' when you try to log-in it will give you an error message and and offer to create a 'temporary user profile'.
If you select 'OK', a new profile is created from the 'All Users' default profile with your name .. and log-in continues.
However, after logging in, you will discover that your Desktop settings & icons have all gone and the contents of your entire 'My Documents' folder tree has disappeared !

Fortunately, both your Desktop and Documents still exist and can be recovered relatively easily.

Chances are, what's happened is one of the numerous 'NTuser' (index) files that define your Desktop has become corrupted (because Windows insists on (over)writing them at every power-down = which is why you should never pull the plug after selecting 'Shut Down').
To recover your Desktop, you will have to create a new user account and 'copy' the 'corrupted' profile files from your original user account. When you do so, Windows will 'auto-repair' all the indexes.

The first step to recovering your Desktop is log-in as Administrator and dig out the passwords 'stored' by XP for your User account (that means all those stored by MSIE and your Outlook Express password etc) and then decrypt any 'encrypted' folders.

Why ? Because a new user account has a new 'SID' (Security ID), so it won't be able to access the existing accounts passwords or encrypted folders
You thus need to write down all the passwords etc since you will have to re-enter them

The next step is to create a new User account - then log-in as the new user in order to create a 'default' profile for the new user.

Then you log-out, log-in as Administrator again, right click My computer, select Properties, Advanced, and in the 'User Profiles' box, click 'Settings'.

This should open a window listing all the existing Profiles, including the 'broken' one

Highlight (click on) the 'broken' (old user) profile and click the 'Copy To' button (if the Copy To is 'greyed out' it means that the Profile is 'in use' i.e. used by a logged-in user - which will happen if you used 'Switch User' (rather than 'log out') to switch to Admin or if the Account is totally broken (go Google for a fix))).

Then 'Browse' to C:\Documents and Settings\{your new user account name}. Click OK The {old user} profile will usually 'copy' to the {new user} just fine. If not, then you will have to copy the files 'manually', whilst skipping the 3 files Ntuser.dat, Ntuser.dat.log & Ntuser.ini

Having completed the Profile copy, log-in as the 'new user' and if everything is found OK, you can 'delete' the old user account

See my Server/NAS, Data Preservation pages for setting up a 'Roving Profile' which should prevent any future profile corruption

The pages in this topic are :-

  + Deleting files

  + Migrating my System to a new hard drive == Latest changes (modified 29th May 2018 12:45.)

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