Windows 8 Tip: Picking a Backup Strategy

With Windows 8, users have a much wider range of choices when it comes to file and system backups than they did with Windows 7. Which solution you choose depends on your needs, but understanding why Microsoft so dramatically changed backup in Windows 8 also requires an understanding of how this version of the OS has evolved.

Paul Thurrott

October 4, 2012

7 Min Read
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With Windows 8, users have a much wider range of choices when it comes to file and system backups than they did with Windows 7. Which solution you choose depends on your needs, but understanding why Microsoft so dramatically changed backup in Windows 8 also requires an understanding of how this version of the OS has evolved.

In Windows 7, the backup regimen was simple: Via the Windows Backup control panel, you could establish a backup schedule, determine the destination location for backups (a second physical hard drive or network location), and then pretty much leave it alone: Windows Backup would create a full system image backup, from which your PC could be recovered, and then incremental backups to handle whatever changed occurred since the initial backup. If you were disconnected from the backup destination too long, you’d be flagged by Action Center.

(I wrote about Windows Backup in Windows 7 Feature Focus: Backup and Restore.)

Windows 7 also included a file history backup utility called Previous Versions. Unlike Windows Backup, which was promoted to the user through an Action Center pop-up, Previous Versions was a mystery to most users and it was rarely used. That said, being able to recover previous versions of important documents and other files is obviously very useful, and Previous Versions was one of Windows 7’s great features.

Windows 8 mixes things up quite a bit. And while you can in fact still use Windows Backup and its full system image backups as with Windows 7, this functionality is considered deprecated and is largely included in Windows 8 only for backwards compatibility. That is, Windows Backup can be used to access the contents of backups you created previously in Windows 7. And if you upgrade a Windows 7 PC that has an established Windows Backup regimen to Windows 8, Windows Backup will continue to run as before.

So what’s changed?

A lot. Remember that Windows 8 is really a brand new mobile OS and not an evolution from previous versions of Windows. As such, Windows 8 is architected with a device, rather than PC, mentality. It is designed to boot very quickly, in under 10 seconds on most PCs, compared to 20-45 second for Windows 7. It jumps out of sleep instantaneously, shuts down quickly, and generally behaves more like an iPad than a clunky, traditional PC. It can even be recovered very quickly.

Using a collection of features called Push Button Reset, it is possible to completely obliterate your existing install of Windows 8 and return it to its factory fresh state in as little as 6 minutes. Or you can “refresh” your PC—completely reinstalling the OS but also retaining all of your personal data, settings, and Metro style apps (but not classic desktop applications)—in as little as 8 or 9 minutes.

(It’s a bit out of date, but check out Windows 8 Consumer Preview: Push Button Reset for more information about this functionality. I’ll be updating this article soon.)

Thinking back to Windows 7 and its image-based backup utility, the obvious point of this scheme was to provide users to return the PC to a previously known-good state in the event of a system crash or other issue. This image included everything on the PC: The OS, the applications, your data, and your settings.

But a system image backup also contains the bad with the good. If there is a virus in there, a mis-configured application or system utility, or whatever, those bad bits will be recovered along with the good stuff. Also, system image backups can be huge, and ponderous to maintain. And recovery time can be slow.

Let’s compare that to what’s possible with Windows 8.

If you’re signing in with a Microsoft account as I recommend, Windows 8 is already syncing important user settings with SkyDrive, and that includes both desktop and Metro settings. So that bit is covered. (You can find out more in Windows 8 Tip: Syncing Settings and Files with Multiple PCs.)

Using the SkyDrive application for Windows, you can virtualize all or parts of your libraries—Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos—providing you with a way to replicate your important documents and other data files to the cloud, to other PCs and, in the event of a PC disaster, back to the affected PC after recovery. (Check out Windows 8 Tip: Use SkyDrive to Sync Your Documents and Pictures for more information.)

Using Push Button Reset, you can quickly blow away your Windows 8 install—the good and bad—and be back up and running with just the good bits in minutes. If you choose PC Refresh option instead of PC Reset, you will keep all of your settings, documents and other data files, and your Metro style apps. Only desktop applications will need to be reinstalled, but since we’re starting down a path in which desktop applications will be replaced by new Metro style apps over time, this will involve less and less time and effort as we move forward. And since even desktop applications are increasingly installed from online sources (Microsoft Office 2013, Visual Studio Express, Google Chrome, and so on), reinstalling is not as disruptive as it used to be when we had to hunt around for install discs.

I’ll even argue that Windows 8’s ease of recovery is such a leap over what we did with Windows 7, that more people will be able to reset Windows now, and more frequently, because it’s so quick and easy. And that means that even those who think they’re suffering from “PC performance rot”—a problem that is more imaginary than real today—can get their PCs where they want more easily than ever before.

Windows 8 also includes an evolutionary update to Previous Versions called File History. Like its predecessor, File History isn’t on by default, and it works best with a second drive or network share. But it provides the same document and data file versioning functionality as did Previous Versions. Turn it on as instructed in Windows 8 Tip: Enable File History. (And learn more about this feature in Windows 8 Feature Focus: File History.)

If you’re not sold on the futuristic backup and recovery features that are native to Windows 8—or perhaps you’ve just upgraded or are using a traditional PC—you can continue using the Windows 7-style Windows Backup utility and create system image backups. Microsoft really hides this interface, but here’s a trick for finding it. Using Start Search, search for recovery and then choose Windows 7 File Recovery from the Settings results list. Look familiar? It should.

Yes, old school Windows Backup is still available in Windows 8 

(Note that you cannot use both Windows Backup and File History together, according to Microsoft.)

Whichever method you use, be sure to create a System repair disc (Windows 7 style) or a Recovery disk. You create the former from the Windows 7 File Recovery window. To create the latter, use the Recovery control panel. (You can also use the Windows 8 Setup disc, or access these tools from the Windows 8 boot menu by visiting PC Settings, General and then clicking the Restart now button under Advanced startup.) I explain this in more detail in Windows 8 Tip: Create Recovery Media.

One missing bit, perhaps, is cloud-based backup, though of course those syncing important documents and other files to SkyDrive are getting some of this functionality already. But you may have a large music or video collection, or want another offsite backup for your photos, documents, and other files. Oddly, there is an integrated Microsoft Online Backup utility in Windows Server 2012 but not Windows 8; that service utilizes Windows Azure on the back end and is likely not consumer friendly from a pricing or usage perspective. So you’ll need to look to third parties. I use and recommend CrashPlan, which is very inexpensive.

Note, too, that some Microsoft server solutions offer centralized PC backup solutions that are a superset of what’s available on the client. These include Windows Home Server, Windows Home Server 2011, Windows Small Business Server Essentials 2011 and Windows Server 2011 Essentials, though only the latter is fully compatible with Windows 8, however.

In my own environment, I’m using SkyDrive to sync important files between PCs and the cloud, Microsoft account-based settings sync in Windows 8, File History for document versioning, Server Backup in Windows Server 2012 Essentials for local backups, and CrashPlan for cloud-based backups. But it’s not super important which option you choose. Just be sure to implement some form of backup solution, preferably some mix of backup solutions.

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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