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Backup and restore Windows

By , logo. Last updated: 2020-10-22

How and where to back up your files and drives in Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, 8.1 and 10

What if you lost all data on your Windows device right now? For example, your device's hard drive or SSD stops working? Or someone steals your computer? Are you able to recover your most important documents, photos, videos, or the whole system?

Previous Versions and File History in Windows Vista and newer

Windows Vista and 7 have something like document backup inbuilt. This is called Previous Versions and you can always try it for restoring a file or folder before using other software. But do not rely on Previous Versions too much - you still need to make a daily backup of your documents to an external hard disk to be sure that you can recover your files after your hard drive crashes or your computer is stolen. Files and folders recoverable with Previous Versions are kept on the same hard disk with Windows Vista or 7 - you have been warned! Wink

Windows 8/8.1 and 10 include the somewhat enhanced Previous Versions, renamed to File History. While you must now turn it on manually, it now keeps a larger portion of file version history on a different drive (secondary hard disk, a removable disk, or network drive) and only the latest ones on the system drive. Windows 8, 8.1, and 10 allow including and excluding specific folders from File History.

Another new data protection feature in Windows 8/8.1 and 10 is Storage Spaces - combining multiple hard drives or SSD-s into one fault-tolerant storage pool. If a drive fails, your files will remain intact and you can replace the failed drive. You can mix internal and external drives, drive enclosures, and drives with different interfaces (ATA, SATA, SAS, and USB). You can put your File History, backups, or just really important documents on Storage Spaces.

Windows Backup and Restore

Microsoft used to limit backup software in older versions of Windows - Windows XP Home has no backup program at all and Windows Vista Home Basic does not support System Image Backups. For Windows XP and Vista, there are some free alternatives, such as AOMEI Backupper Standard and EaseUS Todo Backup Free.

Backup and Restore in Windows 7, 8 (but not 8.1!) and 10 is much better compared to its predecessors, but you might end up in trouble when you're trying to restore a hardware-based RAID system, and your backups cannot be protected (encrypted or password-protected) on external disks unless you encrypt the whole target drive with BitLocker or a third-party tool (VeraCrypt, for example).

Windows 8 and 8.1 took a completely new approach to backups - the Refresh your PC feature does restore your computer to a working state, but by default, you will lose all installed Desktop programs and apps that were not installed from Windows/Microsoft Store. Your documents and most personalizations will remain untouched, though. With some command-line magic (recimg.exe) you are still able to Refresh your PC without losing installed Desktop programs.
The traditional Backup and Restore has been renamed to Windows 7 File Recovery in Windows 8.

Windows 8.1 completely removed the traditional backup and restore functionality: Microsoft wants you to rely on File History, OneDrive (aka SkyDrive), and Refresh your PC instead. You can still create a System Image Backup (full disk image) for complete recovery.
Please note that File History in Windows 8.1 does not back up the contents of your OneDrive folder unless you set the files and folders to be available offline!

Windows 10 brought the traditional backups back under the name of Backup and Restore (Windows 7). The Refresh your PC functionality has been replaced with the Reset your PC feature that asks whether you want to keep your documents and other personal files (no preserving of programs, apps, or settings!), or want to remove everything and run a clean install of Windows.

Choosing when and what to back up in Microsoft Windows

I recommend having or consolidating these three different backup types:

  • Daily backup of your documents, pictures, and other personal folders. This helps when you accidentally delete some files or folders you need and you cannot recover them from Recycle Bin or using Previous Versions in Windows Vista and 7 or File History in Windows 8/8.1 and 10.
  • Weekly disk image backup for restoring the whole computer in case of a hard drive/SSD failure or Windows not starting anymore.
  • At least one cloud-based backup of your most precious files and folders - Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, and Tresorit are fine examples of such services that offer some space for free. You can extend the amount of available cloud storage by getting a monthly or yearly subscription.

All programs listed above are capable of performing such backup types.

Choosing backup destinations in Microsoft Windows

This is a very important question - do not overlook this information!

The easiest way would be to back up your files and settings to the same drive where Windows is installed. But that would make your backups completely useless when your hard disk fails and nothing can be restored from it. You would be without your data and your backups then - and this kind of carelessness is prohibited with newer versions of Windows.

Backing up to a secondary hard drive (if you happen to have that) inside your computer sounds better, but that would also be useless in case your computer gets stolen. Also, power peaks and outages can break all hard disks and SSD-s.

Please use some form of external media for backing up your data. Depending on how much data you have, you can use USB flash drives (also called USB sticks) or external hard drives.
Old-timers might also use DVD-s or CD-s for backup media, but their capacity is limited and they are prone to scratches and quick aging (read - you lose the data on such media quickly).

If you are using an external hard disk, there is a chance that it is formatted using the FAT32 file system. This might mean errors and failures during backups because the FAT32 file system does not accept files larger than 4 gigabytes (GB). Please convert the file system to NTFS before backing up - instructions are available here.

Your most important documents can also be backed up to the cloud for free: Microsoft OneDrive (5 GB free) works in Windows 7 and newer, but there are also Google Drive (15 GB free) Dropbox (2 GB free), Mega (50 GB free), etc.
Of all free services, Tresorit (3 GB free) is probably the best bet for those who need a high level of security and privacy. The company handles data under very strict Swiss privacy regulations. No successful hacking attempts have been recorded since starting in 2011, despite the 50 000 USD prize for doing just that.

Determining how much capacity is needed for backing up documents and settings, and for creating system images

To find out approximate disk space needed on the external drive, open My Computer / Computer / This PC (you can use the keyboard shortcut Windows Key+E to open Windows/File Explorer).
Find and right-click the drive with "(C:)" in the end. This might be "Local Disk (C:)" if no label is specified for the drive, or it might be anything else with "(C:)".
In Windows Vista, 7, 8/8.1 and 10, it also has a four-color or a blue Windows icon in the left corner to indicate that Windows is installed on this hard drive.
Click Properties on the menu.
Windows XP, My Computer, Local Disk right-click menu. Click Properties to see disk space usage.

Disk Properties window opens. See what's written after Used space and remember the rightmost number. In the picture below, it's 18,0 GB (gigabytes). Your data needs could be much higher as this example is quite a bit outdated (2010 if I remember correctly).
Windows Vista, Local Disk Properties. To see how much disk space is already allocated, see Used space. Click OK or Cancel to close the window.

Click OK to close Disk Properties. If you have multiple hard disks or partitions to back up, open their Properties and add the numbers of used space to the total.
Now multiply the figure with at least two (18 x 2 = 36 GB in this case), add about 10% (36 + 3,6 = 39,6 GB) and then add another 10 gigabytes (50 GB) - that calculates roughly into space needed for at least two full backups. This formula gives you enough room for some growth and several full backups.

If the total size needed for at least two full backups is less than 16 gigabytes, it is cheaper for you to buy a USB flash drive. Modern USB flash disks can hold at least 8 GB of data and they go up to several terabytes (TB). But their prices also rise drastically when the capacity is more than 32 or 64 GB.
The advantage of flash disks is that they are small in size (you can put them in your pocket) and they can handle rough usage (do not throw them in water or beat them with a hammer, though!).
USB flash drives

For extra security, choose USB sticks with hardware AES-256 encryption and fingerprint scanner or Numpad. This will certainly cost quite a bit more, but your data will be safe even if you lose the thumb drive.
A cheaper alternative to data security is to encrypt the flash drives with BitLocker To Go, VeraCrypt, or something similar.

For larger capacity needs, it is cheaper to buy an external hard drive. Although they are very different in sizes and prices, the most important thing is to make sure that it meets your gigabytes or terabytes requirements.
It does not really matter whether you buy a 2,5" or 3,5" external drive. The smaller ones are based on laptop hard drives, meaning that they are smaller and slower, but usually more resistant to falling down. You can get the cheapest one, as long as its capacity is sufficient.
2,5" and 3,5" external USB hard disks

Please remember to dedicate your external media for backups only! Do not use it for anything else to prevent running out of disk space.

Again, there are hard drives and SSD-s with hardware AES-256 encryption and biometric measures. If you can handle the extra cost, and the security of your data is utmost to you, get one.
For others, please encrypt your backup drives with BitLocker, VeraCrypt, or something similar.

In the process of securing your external backups, please do not forget about your device's data security. Please see the NTFS permissions, Encrypting File System and Create and use VeraCrypt volumes tutorials for more on this.

Basic security of backups and backup drives

First of all, if your device contains sensitive information (classified documents, personal or financial data, revealing photos or videos, etc), you should encrypt both the sensitive data and the backup drive as soon as possible. Please see the section above for more information.

Second, due to the rise in ransomware infections, it is a must to keep your backup drive disconnected until you actually need it for backing up or restoring files. This prevents ransomware from making your backups inaccessible. Also, please turn off the automatic unlocking of encrypted drives.

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