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Windows XP Backup Strategies For Home Users
Updated, 07 November, 2006
This article is intended to introduce the average home user to the various backup methods available and to provide a brief overview of these methods. By doing so I hope to show that backing up a computer is a quick and easy process. Backing up your Operating System and data is an essential step in computing. The number of users I have come across that have had to reinstall their OS losing all settings, or lost data such as documents, music, and pictures is truly sad. The reasons for this loss are varied but include viruses, hardware failure, and user error.
You can take the process of backing up as far as you want it to go. A successful and complete backup strategy should incorporate multiple backup methods and redundancies.
IMHO, the only complete backup method for an Operating System is to use a disk image. A disk image is an exact copy of a hard drive or partition. It can be stored on another hard drive or partition, on another computer, or on removable media like a DVD or CD. Time and time again I've seen other backup methods permanently fail. Not always, but enough so that I don't rely I them. Other backup methods are not without their uses and again, a successful and complete backup strategy should incorporate multiple backup methods and redundancies. Backups for your backups you might say.
Changes in this version:
-Updated Acronis True Image 9.0 to Acronis True Image Home 10.0 (many changes)
-Updated Norton Ghost 9.0 to Norton Ghost 10.0 (many changes)
-Updated Acronis Disk Director 9 to Acronis Disk Director 10 (procedures unchanged)
-Added Norton Save & Restore
-Added Nero 7
-Added Roxio Easy Media Creator 9 (or Backup MYPC 2006)
-misc. additions to page 1
These are the basic steps you should take to enable reliable, redundant backups:
1 - Partition your hard drives and/or add a second hard drive.
This allows for the next step.
2 - Separate your data from your operating system.
In this context, data refers to anything not part of XP itself. This may include; pictures, music, documents, downloaded programs. Separating your data from the operating system keeps your data safer, allows for varying backup methods, speeds up the backup/restore process, and can increase drive performance (by reducing fragmentation).
3 - Create at least one source outside of your computer to store data (2 is better).
This can be an external hard drive, CD/DVD's, or another computer.
4 - Choose a method or methods to backup your OS and data.
The methods are detailed below. It's up to you to choose which is best for you.
5 - Store the important stuff somewhere else.
If your data is truly important (finances?, documents?) or irreplaceable (pictures?, music?, video?), consider storing that data in a secure (and preferably fireproof) location that isn't in the same location as your computer. For instance you may want to store DVD's or an old hard drive with that data in a safety deposit box at a bank, or a safe at a relatives house.
6 - Check your backups periodically.
Nothing lasts forever folks. Hard drives die, DVD's and CD's may become unreadable over time.
Partitioning And Organizing Your Files
Separating your data from your Operating System is the best way to simplify the back process. A structured approach allows you to have a place for your OS, a place for your data, and a place for your backups.
As an example:
I helped a family setup their new Dell computer. It was a nice computer; 3.2GHz P4, 1GB DDR, 17" flat screen, CD/DVD Burner. It also had a 160GB SATA hard drive with a single partition. Can you imagine trying to backup this thing after Mom, Dad, and the kids start using this? Mom's pictures, Dad's documents, and the kids music and pictures would quickly make the task of backing up a long, arduous task (I won't even get in to drive maintenance).
How To Repartition Your OS Drive In Windows XP - Covers Acronis Disk Director 10.0 (and 9.0) and Norton Partition Magic 8.0
XP's Built-in Backup Methods
This method has been described by many geeks as an incomplete or ineffective backup method. I agree in part but I believe that much of the dissatisfaction with System Restore comes from a lack of understanding as to what it does. System Restore was never intended to be a complete backup method. Basically it backs up your registry and a few other essentials in order do get you back up and running quickly in case of a problem. It does not "uninstall" anything nor does it remove viruses or spyware. It can however overwrite some of the things that the aforementioned put in your system in the first place (for better or worse).
XP remembers the driver you previously used for a particular device. If you have problems after updating a driver try using Driver Rollback before anything else. When you install a new driver XP will create a System Restore point. The Driver Rollback option looks at your System Restore files to find previous drivers. This of course means that System Restore must be active.
XP has this left over backup program from previous NT based OS's. NTbackup is a live backup method. This method...well...Lets just say I've seen this method fail as much as I've seen it work. But, if you aren't using an imaging program this is about as good as anything else. I would only use this if I was in dire straits.
Why don't I like NTbackup? NTbackup copies files. Even if the file is copied perfectly and then copied back perfectly (cross your fingers) the copy is not placed back on the disk in its original location. This can not only lead to disk fragmentation but another problem as well. To put it simply, XP sometimes expects a file to be in exactly the same place on the disk every time. NTbackup can't do that.
Backup/Restore The Registry By Exporting/Importing
Another imperfect backup method. This should only really be used by experts. I've had people try to restore an entire registry with this method and wind up with a machine that wouldn't boot. This method is best used selectively by only exporting/importing small sections at a time.
Password Reset Disk
XP comes with a wizard that allows you to save your password to a disk, A floppy drive is required.
SyncToy for Windows XP
"SyncToy is a free PowerToy for Microsoft Windows XP that provides is an easy to use, highly customizable program that helps users to do the heavy lifting involved with the copying, moving, and synchronization of different directories. Most common operations can be performed with just a few clicks of the mouse, and additional customization is available without added complexity. SyncToy can manage multiple sets of folders at the same time; it can combine files from two folders in one case, and mimic renames and deletes in another. Unlike other applications, SyncToy actually keeps track of renames to files and will make sure those changes get carried over to the synchronized folder."
I highly recommend this tool!
Download and Info: SyncToy for Windows XP
Microsoft Whitepaper: Synchronizing Images and Files in Windows XP Using Microsoft SyncToy
How To Schedule SyncToy - from the help file: (Open SyncToy > Go to Help > Learn How to Schedule SyncToy...)
3rd Party Backup Programs
Disk Image Programs
There is only 1 truly reliable way to backup XP and that is with a disk image. A disk image is a bit-by-bit exact copy of a hard drive or partition. All information is retained including the files placement/layout on the disk. A disk image is saved as an archive and as such may be accessed (mounted and explored) as if it were another drive. This means the data within the backup is always accessible.
How To Make A Disk Image In Windows XP - Covers Acronis True Image 10.0,Norton Ghost 10.0, and Norton Save & Restore.
Standard Backup Programs
Standard backup programs for XP are plentiful. These programs use a copy method for backups. Most include the ability to backup to a standard file, other computers, external drives, and removable media. They also include the ability to schedule backups.
Programs For Backing Up Data Files In Windows XP - Just shows you some of the options out there.
How To Move Your My Documents Folder
Why move the My Documents folder? - So that new files aren't lost when you restore the operating system from an image.
Right click on the My Documents folder > choose Properties > Click on the Move... button > Expand My Computer and choose the drive you want to move it to > click the Make New Folder button and name it anything you like > click Apply > a screen will pop-up, click yes.
How To Move And Save Your Email Clients Personal Folders
Why move these folders? - So that any new email and/or settings aren't lost when you restore the operating system from an image.
Microsoft Outlook - Microsoft Office Assistant, Move your Outlook data file to another location (covers Outlook 2000, 2002, 2003)
Microsoft Outlook Express - Microsoft Help and Support, How to back up and recover Outlook Express data
See also MozBackup:
MozBackup is a (FREE) simple utility for creating backups of Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, SeaMonkey, Mozilla Suite and Netscape profiles.
How To Backup And Restore Bookmarks and Favorites
Internet Explorer - Open Internet Explorer, in the menu at the top click on File > Import and Export. To save it just choose a backup location. To restore it navigate to that backup location.
Firefox - Open Firefox, in the menu at the top click on Bookmarks > Manage Bookmarks... > choose either Import or Export > navigate to the folder you are saving or restoring from.
About Backup Media
As mentioned earlier "Nothing lasts forever folks. Hard drives die, DVD's and CD's may become unreadable over time".
Hard drives fail all the time. I've seen them fail out of the box, I've got one that is 7 years old. Bottom line is it has moving parts and you never know when it'll die.
How long do they last? Seems nobody knows for sure. If you do a Google search you'll see no consensus on how long burnable media lasts. A couple of things seems to matter:
1 - Like everything else, you get what you pay for. Don't buy the cheap stuff.
2 - Burning at slower speeds allows for a deeper burn. This may allow the discs to remain readable longer.
3 - Storing away from heat and light helps slow the aging process.
How I Do It
You asked so here it is...
I use Acronis True Image to backup Windows XP. I use it constantly. Because I have lots of disk space I do not use incremental backups on my personal computer (I do on my other ones). Because I use TI so often I do not employ XP's System Restore on my personal computer (I do on my other ones).
1 - I separate my data from my OS. On my personal computer, Windows XP is on a drive by itself. On my other computers, I partition the drive to isolate XP on it's own partition. For partitioning I use Acronis Disk Director.
2 - I move My Documents folder, Thunderbird, and Outlook 2003 files to another drive/partition.
3 - For large backups (i.e my MP3's) I schedule it using Acronis True Image. For smaller backups I use SyncToy for Windows XP to backup data to another computer.
4 - I burn the data to DVD's.
5 - I use SyncToy for Windows XP to backup data to an external hard drive.
(well, OK, not at the moment. Seems I made the mistake of loaning it out to someone and I never saw it again. I need to get another one.)
6 - I have both DVD's and and old hard drive with all my important stuff stored in a safe at a location other than my house.
A special note of thanks goes to the folks at Symantec for supplying Partition Magic 8.0.
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