How to Back Up Your Hard Disk in Windows

Part 1

How to Back Up Your Hard Disk in Windows (Part 1)

A short while ago, a visitor to asked me how he could backup his computer so that it could restore everything in the event of a catastrophic hard disk failure and he had to buy a new hard disk. This article is the first in a series of tutorials describing some ways in which you can do this in Windows.

Preliminary Matters

  1. You Cannot Simply Copy All Your Files

    In the old days of MSDOS, backing up the system was simple. You formatted your backup disk and added the operating system track by using the old MSDOS "format /s" command, and copied everything else onto that disk.

    This is no longer possible in modern multi-tasking operating systems like Windows. Even when you are not doing anything on your computer, Windows may be accessing your hard disk behind your back, changing some files, and locking others, preventing them from being read, modified or deleted. That's not all, applications and operating systems using the newer file systems can also hide some information in something known as Alternate Data Streams, and some files you see on your computer are just links to the actual files (I'm not talking about desktop shortcuts here, but something known as hard links and symbolic links; yes modern systems are complicated beasts). Backing up your hard disk using Windows Explorer or the command prompt may leave you with a backup that is larger than the original hard disk while still missing some crucial files and data. Your backup will also not be internally consistent.

  2. Backing Up Your Data Files is Not Enough

    Although your data files are the most crucial part of your backup, if you only save a copy of your data to a backup drive somewhere, if your system crashes, you will have to devote many hours to get your computer up and running the way it was before.

    The problem is that very few people, if any, use a computer with only Windows installed. Very frequently, they will need some sort of office software (wordprocessor), antivirus program, and so on, installed. (Unless, of course, all they do is play Solitaire or Minesweeper.) As long as you have any sort of software installed, buying a new hard disk, reinstalling Windows from your Windows setup disk, updating it using Windows Update, reinstalling your software and reconfiguring everything is a very time consuming affair. It's much faster to simply restore everything from a backup and immediately have a system that is ready to use.

  3. Backups are Useful for Software Disasters Too

    Backups are not just useful for hardware disasters, like when you need to replace a failed hard disk. If your system becomes infected with a virus because you inadvertently opened an infected email attachment, or if you installed a program that made the whole computer unusable, you may want to restore your computer to the time before any of these things happened.

    While Windows ME, XP, Vista and Windows 7 come with a facility called System Restore to do such a thing, its restoration abilities are limited, and sometimes inadequate if your system is hopelessly compromised. Restoring your system from a backup, in such a case, is the only way you can be sure that you're getting back your computer's previous clean, working condition.

  4. You Need A Backup Drive

    If you only have one hard disk, you should invest in a USB hard disk that you can plug in and use to store your backups. It's best to dedicate that drive for backups, so that your backup files don't accidentally get deleted, corrupted or infected. That is, plug in the USB drive only when you make a backup or when you have to restore from that backup. Unplug the drive when you are using the computer normally.

    While some of the backup programs allow you to back up to DVD or CD, the process is torturous and unreliable at best. If you have a lot of things installed on your hard disk, you may end up needing hundreds of CDs just to backup your system. Since CD/DVD burning is slow, your backup may take hours to complete, during which you will be stuck in front of the computer swapping disks. And if one of those CDs or DVDs get corrupted, your entire backup set is no longer usable. It's really faster and cheaper to invest in a USB drive.

  5. A Backup is Only Good If It's Recent

    Since backup software can only restore your system to the state it was when you make your backup, it stands to reason that if you make substantial changes to your system, or store new vital files, you should make a new backup of the computer. This is another reason why a dedicated hard disk for backups is important. If your backing up process is excruciatingly tedious, as it will be when backing up to CDs or DVDs, it's unlikely that you will do it frequently enough.

    You cannot predict when a disaster will happen. As such, it's best to refresh your backup every now and then, to keep it up-to-date, so that when you have to restore, you won't lose too much work.

Hard Disk Image and Backup Programs

The type of software that does a complete backup of your system is often called a hard disk imaging program. This a picturesque way of saying that it captures a snapshot of your hard disk at the time you used it, so that you can restore your system to the exact state it was when you backed it up.

There are many such programs around, both commercial and free. The programs that I've personally used and relied upon are (in no particular order):

As mentioned earlier, there are many other free hard disk image and backup programs available. However, since I have not actually tried these on computers in actual use (as opposed to old computers that I install software to play with), it's difficult for me to say much about them, other than the comments I have already made on the Free Hard Disk Image Software page. Having said that, for the sake of those who cannot afford a commercial tool, I will give the procedure for using one of the free backup programs in a later chapter.

Note: if you are using Windows 7 (any version), you already have a built-in disk image program on your system, called "Backup and Restore". It's different from the commercial software mentioned above in at least a couple of ways: you can't really control many aspects of it (including deciding on the destination filenames, using multiple backup hard disks for different backups, etc), and it can be a bit confusing at first if you're accustomed to the flexibility and power of the commercial software. In addition, you can only restore to a hard disk that is identical in size (or perhaps larger) than your existing one, even if most of your hard disk is empty. Anyway, if you use this program, be sure to set it to do a complete system image (otherwise it'll just copy your data files), and remember to create a system repair disc (ie, a recovery disk).

The Correct Way to Test a Backup Program

Before you rely on any backup software, be it commercial or free, make sure you test it out on your computer. Unlike many other types of software, backup programs are heavily hardware-dependent. What works on one machine may not work on another.

Testing does not mean simply making a backup of your system. This part of the test usually succeeds. Depending on it as an indicator that the program works on your hardware is not wise. It's the next part that is crucial.

After backing up your system, boot from its recovery disk and restore the backup you just made. After restoring, reboot from that hard disk and see if the system works normally. That is, try out some of your usual operations like opening a document, surfing the Internet, rebooting and shutting down. (Shutting down is important too, because from experience, some problems only show when you try to shut down.)

Of course, the tricky bit about this test is that if the program fails to do a proper restoration, your working system is no longer usable. To avoid this, some people do the "test restore" on a separate empty hard disk which they swap with the real one. But this is probably too laborious (and perhaps also too technically difficult) for most people.

For me, since I have a number of backup programs lying around, for the initial testing of a new backup program, I normally do another backup with a disk image program that has been proven to work in the past. That is, I do two backups, one with the new program and another with a proven one. If the new program fails to restore correctly, I simply restore using my other backup software. Since it's likely that you don't have a fallback program that is known to work, just pick the trial of another commercial tool and use it as well. Hopefully, they will not both fail. Note that when using two different tools, you should not run them at the same time. Do a backup with one tool, and when it is done, quit it, and only then, run the second tool.

If you don't test the restore facility with your backup program, you may find out that it doesn't work on your system only on the day you need it. By then, it's too late.

Things to Come

In this chapter, I've provided some preliminary, albeit important, information about things needed in backing up your computer. The later chapters will provide step-by-step information on how to use individual backup programs.

You don't have to wait for my chapters, though. Once you've got a USB hard disk for your backups and chosen the software you want, you can just get started. The programs mentioned above are actually fairly easy to use and include "wizards" that take you through the procedure of backing it up.

Update: in case you're wondering why I have not written the later chapters yet. It's very tedious to write tutorials that merely regurgitate what you can read from the computer screen yourself. The backup programs are really very easy to use, and there's not much that I can add to what is already said by those programs in their display. All the important information about backup programs that I thought you should know is already given above.

Copyright © 2008-2014 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved. Get more "How To" guides and tutorials from

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