Win10 blends the best parts of Win7’s and Win8’s backup/restore tools to create a new hybrid that could well be the best archive-and-recover system ever.
When set up properly, Win10 gives you redundant, automatic, local, and remote backups of user files, making them effectively loss-proof.
Plus, there are three built-in ways to restore damaged system files — or to totally rebuild your system. They make it easy to clear up even the worst types of software trouble and malware infections.
Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t provide a simple, comprehensive explanation of how Win10’s backup components are supposed to work together. That’ll leave many former Vista and Win7 users needlessly baffled — and also leave those who’ve upgraded from Win8 wondering why some favorite backup features are now missing.
This article remedies that problem.
A mix of old and new features and functions
Because Win10’s backup and restore mechanisms build on those in Win7 and Win8, this article will focus mainly on the features, concepts, and techniques that are new or different.
For the features that haven’t changed from previous versions, I’ve provided links below to earlier articles and information sources.
Combined, this information will give you a complete understanding of what Win10 offers — and you’ll see why it truly might just be the best desktop backup-and-restore system ever.
And if you decide that Win10’s built-in systems aren’t for you, you’ll also find links to good third-party alternatives that work fine with Win10.
One way or another, by the end of this article, you’ll have the information you need to safeguard your Win10 files and system setup from just about any disaster.
A general overview of Win10’s backup and restore
The key to understanding Win10’s backup functions lies in recognizing that it has two different but interconnected sets of mechanisms to handle different types of files. They are:
- User-file backup and recovery: The built-in File History and OneDrive components are geared mostly toward the routine, day-in and day-out preservation and recovery of user-data files: documents, spreadsheets, photos, music, and so on.
Together, the two tools can automatically make both local and remote copies of important files, helping to ensure that you won’t lose any of your data, no matter what might happen to your PC or its hard drives.
- Operating system, apps, and settings backup and recovery: A separate set of built-in functions — two Reset options and a system-imaging option — are geared mostly to the preservation and recovery of your operating system files, applications, and settings.
These functions are intended mostly for emergencies — rebuilding all or part of your system after a serious software malfunction, malware effect, or human error.
As you’ll see, there’s some overlap between these two systems, but, for the most part, they operate independently. So we’ll look at each separately.
Local user-file backup and recovery
File History is Win10’s primary mechanism for providing local backups of all user data. It’s set from the start to automatically back up the default Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos, Desktop, and Favorites folders. But you can adjust what it backs up — and what it skips — via File History’s add and exclude options.
Once it’s fully configured, File History makes incremental, near-real-time backups of selected user files. It stores changed files off the main hard drive; backups are stored on USB-attached drives, network drives, and so forth. If a working file on your main hard drive is damaged or accidentally erased, it can be quickly and easily restored from the local File History backups.
A basic subset of File History’s functions is available via Start/Settings/Update & security/Backup. But the complete array of File History’s functions is accessed via Control Panel/System and Security/File History (Figure 1), just as with Win8.
Win10’s File History operates mostly like Win8’s, though with one huge improvement I’ll describe in a moment. But first, if you’re unfamiliar with File History, you can get up to speed with its basic concepts and operation via the following articles:
- “Understanding Windows 8’s File History” – July 11, 2013, Top Story
- “How File History creates reliable local backups” – a section in the Jan. 15 Top Story, “Mastering Windows 8’s backup/restore system”
- “Protecting user files with File History” – MSDN article
- “Windows 8: File History explained” – TechNet article
- “Set up a drive for File History” – MS how-to
- “Customize File History’s backups with ease” — Oct. 9, 2014, LangaList Plus (paid content)
Now to address that major change of Win10’s File History: Microsoft brought back — and enhanced — the convenient Restore Previous Versions (RPV) function from Win7. (RPV is MIA in Win8.)
To understand what RPV is and what it does, see the June 16, 2011, Top Story, “RPV: Win7’s least-known data-protection system.”
As with Win7’s RPV, the version in Win10 gives you almost instant access to the cached local backups automatically created by System Restore. But Win10 also lets you access the complete library of user files in File History’s long-term storage.
To do so, right-click any data file or folder whose contents have changed and select either Restore previous versions or Properties — both options open the selected file’s or folder’s Properties dialog box. You then click the Previous Version tab to see all available older versions of that file or folder. Figure 2 shows versions of a changed Word file, saved when File History or System Restore previously ran.
The RPV system lets you select a previous version, view its contents, and restore it either to its original location or to the alternate location of your choice.
If you prefer, you can still restore user files via the full File History interface at Control Panel/System and Security/File History — just select Restore personal files from the left side of the dialog box. Similarly, the normal System Restore interface also is available. Open Control Panel and enter Recovery into the search box; then select Recovery when it appears and click the Open System Restore link.
But as you can see, simply right-clicking a file or folder to access RPV is much more convenient.
Remote user-file backup and recovery
Although local backups are critical, they won’t provide true data security. A serious software error or a major physical problem (e.g., fire, flood, theft, electrical surge, etc.) might destroy both your main hard drive and your local backups.
The second leg of a complete backup-and-restore system is cloud storage, which maintains copies of your files on protected data servers, far removed from your PC.
All Win10 users have access to at least 15GB of free, private, cloud-based storage (with more space available at low cost) via Microsoft’s OneDrive (MS info) app/service. There are, of course, many other cloud-storage and backup services that will let you restore lost files, but OneDrive and File History can work cooperatively to provide automatic, local and remote backups of all important files.
With a combination of File History and OneDrive, your files are automatically saved to three separate locations: your primary data drive, your external File History drive, and your secure OneDrive account — all in near-real time. This virtually guarantees that you’ll never lose an important file again!
Once set up properly, OneDrive automatically syncs files between your PC and the OneDrive servers. No special steps are needed either to store or retrieve your files. But if you wish, you also can visit OneDrive.com, sign in, and manually browse, view, and download your files.
(For more information, see Microsoft’s “OneDrive How-to” page and the section, “How OneDrive adds another layer of data security,” in the Jan. 15 Top Story, “Mastering Windows 8’s backup/restore system.”)
Note: If you have concerns about the privacy of cloud storage, you can use free and paid encryption tools to render your remotely stored files impervious to snoops. I currently use and recommend the free 7-Zip (site) to encrypt all sensitive files on my hard drive and in the cloud. For more information on this technique, see the May 15, 2014, Top Story, “Better data and boot security for Windows PCs.”
Some versions of OneDrive also have their own built-in encryption. See the April 16 LangaList Plus column, “Clarifying OneDrive’s two types of file security” (paid content).
OS, apps, and settings backup and recovery
Win10 provides three separate, built-in methods to back up and restore the operating system — with or without retaining your desktop apps and user files.
The first two methods are Win10 Resets; they’re fast and easy but have some major limitations:
Both resets are available by clicking Start/Settings/Update & security/Recovery. Then click the Get started button under the Reset this PC option. Next, choose either Keep my files or Remove everything (Figure 3), and then follow the on-screen prompts.
The Keep my files option lets you perform a kind of nondestructive reinstall of the operating system while leaving your user files alone. (This option was called Refresh in Win8.) However, most software that you added from sources other than the Windows store will not survive a Reset process; you’ll have to manually reinstall these apps. Fortunately, Win10 will tell you in advance what apps won’t survive; it also places a list of deleted apps on your desktop to facilitate manually reinstalling these files after the reset is finished.
Remove everything is essentially a “from-scratch” reinstall of the operating system. It deletes all user files and user-installed software and returns all system settings to their default state.
This method also has an option to wipe the hard drive, making all deleted files virtually unrecoverable. This can be a handy option when you sell or give away a PC — or if you need to send it in for service.
Win10’s third option for software backup and recovery is the classic system image, which retains everything: all apps, settings, and user files. Restoring an image returns your system and files to the exact condition they were in when the image was made.
Win10’s imaging system replaces the powerful-but-awkward, manual custom-recovery image feature available in Win8. (You have to use the Recimg command-line tool to manually create a special WIM [Microsoft Windows Imaging] file; see the Oct. 10, 2013, Top Story, “Creating customized recovery images for Win8.”)
(Note that Win10 uses a different kind of compressed WIM that’s incompatible with Win8’s WIMs. See the Windows Experience Blog post, “How Windows 10 achieves its compact footprint.” In fact, the Win8 Recimg tool isn’t present in Win10 at all.)
With Win10, Microsoft resurrected the tried-and-true, point-and-click, Win7-style of system imaging. It’s very easy to use: Click Control Panel/System and Security/Backup and Restore (Windows 7), as shown in Figure 4.
When the Backup and Restore window opens, select the Create a system image link in the left-hand column.
From there, the Win10 tool operates virtually identically to Win7’s system imaging. For more information, see “Step two: Create a full-system image” in the May 12, 2011, Top Story, “Build a complete Windows 7 safety net.”
Restoring a Win10 system image is easy:
- Boot your PC using any standard Win10 installation/recovery/rescue disk or flash drive (see the Sept. 17 Top Story, “Learn to use the Windows 10 Recovery Drive”).
- Select your language. If Repair my computer appears on the next screen, click it. Otherwise, click Troubleshoot/Advanced options/System Image Recovery.
- Choose the target operating system — i.e., the Win10 drive you’re restoring.
- In the Select a system image backup dialog box, navigate to and select the image you wish to restore.
- In most cases, you can skip the Choose additional restore options dialog box; just click Next and then Finish.
- Your PC will churn for a while, but when the process is finished, your system will be in exactly the condition it was in when the image was made.
- Restart your system.
- Bring your user files up to date. Make sure the secondary drive that holds your File History files is connected; in many instances, after a short delay, File History will automatically begin repopulating your main drive. If it doesn’t, reopen File History from the Control Panel and click the Restore personal files link in the left-hand column. Next, manually select the files you want to restore.
- Alternatively, use OneDrive to bring your user files up to date.
If needed: Many alternative backup systems
I think the Win10 backup and restore system is the best Microsoft has ever offered. I use File History and OneDrive to back up my user files, and I use the Win7-style system imaging to back up the OS, other apps, and my preferred settings.
But no one set of tools works for everyone. If you’d rather not use Win10’s tools, here’s a sampling of well-regarded, third-party tools that are Win10-compatible.
- Macrium Reflect – free and paid (with free trial) versions
- Paragon Backup & Recovery – 30-day demo and paid versions
- Acronis True Image – paid with 30-day free trial
- EaseUS Todo Backup – free and paid versions.
One excellent reason to try Win10’s backups
One way or another, as a Windows user and Microsoft customer, you’ve already paid for Win10’s built-in tools. So why not at least give them a try?
You just might find that Windows 10’s combination of Win7 and Win8 backup tools has everything you need to get your entire system fully backed up — more thoroughly, more reliably, and more automatically than ever before.
Best of breed: Win10’s hybrid backup system