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Create Idiot-Proof Backups With Windows' Built-In Tools

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When Apple released its Time Machine backup tool in Mac OS X 10.5 last year, many hailed its convenience and simplicity. But your Windows PC comes with all of Time Machine's slick backup tricks built-in.

The backup utility built into Vista and XP doesn't have a catchy name (it's called Backup Status and Configuration), but it's a powerful tool that gets far less attention than it deserves--and it costs nothing extra. Perhaps it should have a name like "Super-Better Backup," or "Burger, Fries, and a Milk Shake Backup."

Apple's Time Machine makes backups on an automated schedule and allows incremental updates. So does Windows' backup app. Your PC can even match Time Machine's most interesting feature, rolling back any given file to an earlier version. I'll explain how to use all of these tools, and I'll provide tips along the way to protect your data from disaster.

Pick the Destination
The most secure backup solution is one that stores your data far, far away from your PC--like, across town in a bank safe. Second best: an Internet-based storage service. Third: a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device.

An external, USB-, FireWire-, or eSATA-connected backup drive such one of the models on our Top 10 External Hard Drives chart is a good choice, especially if you store it somewhere other than on top of the PC it's backing up. As our lab tests have shown, eSATA and FireWire 800 drives are faster than USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 drives (though few PCs come standard with the faster interfaces).

Try to set up a routine of taking the drive with you when you go to work, and bring it home once a week for the backup operation. An even better strategy: Use two external drives, making two sets of backups. With this alternating pattern, you can keep one of the drives at work, or in a fireproof safe, a bank deposit box, a friend's house, or other off-site location to protect your data from a home-office catastrophe.

A network backup offers a great way to store files, and the LaCie Ethernet Disk Mini Home Edition is a good option for the home office, especially if you have more than one PC to back up. But network-attached storage drives are substantially slower than drives that use eSATA, FireWire, or USB connections, and because they're often shared among multiple PCs, they usually stay in once place, greatly diminishing their disaster protection.

Online storage protects you from a fire or other catastrophe, and it allows retrieval from anywhere. Internet backups move slowly, however, because they are limited by your broadband provider's maximum upload rate. Because of the pace, such backups are usually best for saving just individual documents or small folders, not for backing up an entire system. (See "Online Storage Options" for more on this alternative.)

If your PC has only a single hard drive and you can't (or don't want to) find an external solution, you can use Windows to make a second partition, and save the backup data there. Your PC will treat the second partition as a second drive, which can protect it from some simple types of data corruption. But if the drive mechanism physically fails, you'll lose access to the backup too, of course.

To set up a second partition, in Windows Vista, click Control Panel, System and Maintenance, and under Administrative Tools,choose Create and format hard disk partitions to open the Disk Management utility. Right-click your current disk, and pick Shrink Volume. Enter how much space you want to recover. When the action is complete, right-click the Unallocated space, and click New Simple Volume.

Note: Windows XP won't repartition a disk that's in use, so you'll need to employ a utility like the free Partition Logic instead.

Because the Windows backup tools have changed quite a bit with the release of Vista, the next step in creating your backup plan depends on which version of Windows you're running.
Schedule Automated Backups in XP Windows XP includes built-in, automated backup tools that can save a copy of all your data. From Programs, Accessories, System Tools, choose Backup. Click Advanced Mode to skip the wizard. Click the Backup tab at the top of the window.

Navigate below My Computer to check the drive you want to back up, or highlight the drive name in the left pane and click specific check boxes in the right pane to select items � la carte. Click the Browse button at the bottom of the screen to choose a place on the destination drive to store the data. Click Start Backup.

If you want a long list of redundant backups, leave the radio button set to append data. That way, you can go back to recover files in different states, if necessary. But if you're backing up most of the system, that'll use a lot of space. Choose the second option, Replace the data, if you'd rather conserve drive space when making consecutive backups. That option will provide you with only one version of each file.

Click the Advanced button, and set the Backup Type to Incremental. That setting will save only the files you've changed or added since the most recent backup. (You'll copy everything the first time.) Click OK. Click the Schedule button and save a copy of the settings when prompted. The Scheduled Job Options window will open. Click Properties, and use the Schedule Task pop-up menus to set the time and frequency of the backup. Note that your PC needs to be on to process the backup; but pick a time, such as late at night, when you won't be competing with the utility for system resources. For a primary machine, I like to run a backup every day, but you could be fine with weekly backups on a less frequently used system. Click OK. Choose Start Backup to begin the job the first time.

Schedule Automated Backups in Vista
Once you've decided where you'll save your backups, configure Windows Vista to automatically save new copies of your data. Open Control Panel, System and Maintenance, Backup and Restore Center, and click the Back up files button. Choose an external hard disk or a CD or DVD drive, or click the radio button to connect to a network location. Click Next.

Choose the types of files that you want to back up. I like to back up as much as I can, checking all of the boxes. (This isn't the same as backing up a complete disk image for a full PC restore, which I'll talk about at the end of this article.) Checking all the boxex basically saves everything that you create or add to a computer other than applications and their settings. The operating system and its settings won't be backed up. Click Next.

Choose a schedule by considering how much data you can afford to lose. If you use this PC for critical, daily work, schedule backups every night. If it's an occasionally used computer, consider backing it up every week. The first time you make a backup, the process may take a few hours, depending on how much you're saving. After that, the system will look for files that you've added or changed, copying only those items to save time and storage space.

Roll Back Individual Files
Certain editions of Windows Vista--Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate--let you browse backwards through a single file, recovering a specific version, not just the most recent copy. Microsoft calls this feature Shadow Copy, and it's enabled by default. Right-click a file or folder, and select Restore previous versions. Each system restore point or backup point that Windows creates initiates a new Shadow Copy. Browse through the different modification dates, and click Open to preview the file as it was. Click Restore to retrieve a copy from the backup for current work.

Thriftier versions of Windows Vista create Shadow Copies but don't allow you access to them. The free ShadowExplorer adds this retrieval feature. After installation, launch ShadowExplorer, and choose the restore date from the pop-up menu. Navigate through the file browser to locate an item. Right-click it, choose Export, and save it to any location you like.

Roll Back Windows to an Earlier State
Windows includes a couple of backup tools to revert your PC to a previous, working condition: Restore Points and device driver rollback. These are most helpful if your system becomes unstable and you need to reset it to an earlier point where it was reliable. Unlike Shadow Copy, these don't let you selectively browse back; they're essentially all-or-nothing switches.

Locate Vista's Restore Points by opening Control Panel, System and Maintenance, System. In the left side, click Advanced system settings. Choose the System Protection tab. Click System Restore.

Windows automatically creates a restore point each day, and before making significant changes to the system. You can also create a restore point manuallly by selecting a disk under the System Protection tab of the System Properties control panel and then clicking Create. If you want to revert to the most recent restore point, click Next; otherwise, click the Choose a different restore point radio button. Choose the date and time, and click Next. Click Finish to begin the process.

In Windows XP, open Accessories, System Tools, System Restore. You should see Restore my computer to an earlier time. Click Next, and pick a date to which the system will revert. Click Next twice to begin the process.

The Device Manager also allows you to undo a single software driver. In XP or Vista, double-click a hardware item, click the Driver tab, and choose Roll Back Driver to revert to an earlier state. This option is most useful if you have problems immediately after updating a driver.

Image a Disk
Once you have a new system working perfectly, consider saving a full copy of the drive as a disk image. That way, if you have to reinstall everything, the image file will already contain your applications and Windows updates--in other words, you can restore your OS and applications in one swoop, and then restore all of your documents from a recent backup.

Many backup and disk suites include imaging software. True Image Home 11 handles nearly any imaging need, with encryption options and even incremental images, so you can keep appending the image without starting over.

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