How to Back Up Windows

The Complete Guide to PC Backup

One small accident, a virus, or hard drive failure can destroy all the important stuff you care most about on your computer.

Although there are many good backup programs you can install to protect your files, Windows already has easy to use, built-in tools to automatically save copies of your data to an external hard drive or a shared network location. Here's how to set it up.


The steps below will offer local backup for your data, which is great for having immediate access to your files in case your hard drive crashes or you accidentally overwrite a file, but remember that you'll also need offsite (e.g., online) backup.  

Local backups won't help in the common scenarios of your computer getting lost or stolen or damaged during a fire or natural disaster at your home.

Also, you'll want more than one type of backup because all storage media, such as external hard drives, are likely to die at some point. (The question isn’t whether a drive will fail, it’s when.)

Remember the 3-2-1
Rule of Backups


Have 3 copies of your important files (for example, your original on your computer, another copy on a USB hard drive, and a third copy backed up online)


Use 2 different types of media to back up the files (for example, backing up to both a hard drive and to optical media, like a DVD. This one is about not having all your eggs in one type of backup basket. However, since hard drives are much easier to automate and use, you might bend the rules and use the rule below as a different type of media.)


Store 1 copy offsite (for example, with Backblaze's online backup service)

About Windows’ Built-in Backup Tools

Let’s talk about backing up your Windows computer as the first part of your backup plan. The good news is that Windows' backup tools are quite easy to use and, like using online backup services, you only have to set it up once to get automatic and continuous backups of your files.

You can use either an external hard drive or a shared network folder (for example, a network attached storage device, a.k.a. NAS) for your backups. Ideally, the external hard drive or the network drive will have much more hard drive space than your hard drive on your computer, so you can save multiple copies or versions of your files. (I'd suggest getting at least twice the size of your computer's hard drive, but with hard drives very inexpensive these days, you could go to four or more times the size.)

Windows 7 has one backup utility called Backup and Restore. Windows 8 revamped the tool to split it into two parts: File History and a system image tool. We'll cover the steps for both below, but first we'll set up the backups for our personal files. It's pretty much a set-and-forget system for local backups:

How to Back Your Files to an External Hard Drive or Network Location Using Windows Backup

The steps below will back up the irreplaceable files you most care about, such as your documents, photos, videos, and browser favorites.


Open the backup utility

Search for "backup" in Windows to find the backup tool. In Windows 7, that means clicking the Start button, then typing in "backup" in the search box, and clicking on "Backup and Restore." In Windows 8, you can just start typing "backup" on the start screen and then choose "Save backup copies of your files with File History." Click the "Turn on" button in File History (Windows 8) or the "Set up backup" link in Backup and Restore (Windows 7) to start the setup process.


Select the location for your backups

The next step is to choose the drive or network location for your backups. Windows will automatically look for connected drives for you to select or you can choose a location on your network. (In Windows 8, click on the "Select drive" link in the menu at the left to choose a specific drive or location. In Windows 7, click the "Save on a network…" button.)


Choose the folders to back up

Windows 7's Backup and Restore tool asks you to either let Windows choose what to backup or select your own folders. If you let Windows choose, it will automatically save the files in your libraries, desktop, and default Windows folders, as well as create a system image for restoring your computer as a whole if it stops working. (Note that it will not back up Program Files, any files formatted in the FAT file system, deleted files in the Recycle Bin, or temp files with a size of 1GB or more.) If you choose what to back up yourself, you can select specific folders to include or exclude and can select the option to create an image of your drive.

Windows 8's File History chooses the folders for you and will automatically save files in your Desktop, Libraries (Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, Videos), Contacts, and OneDrive folders. You can exclude folders from your Libraries you don't want backed up, such as program-generated folders (e.g., that empty "Adobe PDF" folder) that will just get recreated if you have to reinstall the program.

Then simply hit the button to save your settings and run the backup and you're done. Congratulations! You've set up your first (and ongoing) backup! (Told you it was pretty easy.)


Optional: Tweak your settings

But wait. You might also want to adjust the backup settings for your needs. You can change how often the backup will run and other details. Backup schedule: In Windows 8, go into the advanced settings (by clicking on the "Advanced settings" link in the left menu after turning on File History) or, in Windows 7, click on the links to "Change schedule" to adjust how often you want the backup to run. By default, Windows 7's Backup and Restore runs once a month, while File History on Windows 8 runs every hour. You can make these more or less frequent if you like.

Other settings: Windows 8 also allows you to adjust how much disk space to use for the offline cache, which saves some of your file history on your local C: drive so you can access backups even if your external drive or network isn't connected (very useful for laptop users!). You can also adjust how long old versions of saved files are kept (by default, it's forever. If storage space is an issue, you can reduce this.)

How to Restore Files from a Backup

Backups are only as good as your ability to restore them. Too often, people think they've got a good backup, but when they go to restore the files, they're devastated to find the restoration process fails. (This happened with Pixar, when the company almost accidentally deleted Toy Story 2 and found that all of their backups were no good--except for one copy the technical director had been keeping on her home computer.) This is also another reason to have multiple backups on external drives as well as on a reliable online backup service.

So whether you actually need to restore some files or not, it's a good idea to test your backups every now and then (about once a month) by restoring a file or two.


Open the Windows backup and restore tool

s before, search for "backup" to open the Backup and Restore tool (in Windows 7) or the File History tool (Windows 8). Then click on the "Restore personal files" link in the left pane in the File History window or the "Restore my files" button in the Backup and Restore window.


In the restore files window, select the files or folders you want to restore

In Windows 8, you can select the files or folders to restore by clicking the checkbox that appears next to the folder or filename when you hover over the item. By default, you'll see the latest versions of your folders, but you can click the back arrows to see earlier saved versions.

In Windows 7, you have three buttons: Search (to find files by name), Browse for Files (to restore individual files), or Browse for Folders (to restore an entire folder).


Choose what to do if there's a pre-existing copy of the file

Windows 8 will put the files back to their original location, but if you already have a file with the same name there, you'll be asked to either replace the file, skip it, or compare the files so you can make a decision.

Windows 7 lets you choose the location where you want to restore the files, as well as choose what to do if there's a filename conflict. After you make your decision, Windows will restore your files.


Confirm the backup settings and create a system repair disk

If everything looks good, click the "Start backup" button to create the system image. At the end of the backup process, Windows will ask you if you want to create a system repair disk on a CD or DVD. This will help you boot your computer and recover Windows from a serious error, so you should go ahead and say yes to creating the repair disk.

How to Create a Complete, Full-System Backup of Your Computer in Windows

The steps above protect the most common folders most people tend to care most about, such as photos and videos, but you might also want to create a system image of your computer. A system image is a "snapshot" or exact copy of everything on your hard drive, including Windows, your system settings, programs, and all other files. So if your hard drive or entire computer just stops working, you can restore everything back the way it was. Three things to know about system image backups:

  • Unlike the Windows backup tools mentioned above, you can't restore individual files from the system image--everything on your drive will be replaced during the restoration process with the system image contents. If you only want to be able to restore select folders, File History or the Backup and Restore tool will be better and also use up less disk space.
  • Also, you can only have one system image on a drive at a time; any previous system image on a drive will be overwritten. (You can, however, save an existing system image by copying the "WindowsImageBackup" folder to a new location before creating the new system image.)
  • Finally, the tool doesn’t let you schedule system images to be automatically created, but this makes sense because you wouldn't want to accidentally overwrite a good system image with one that doesn't work.

Here's how to create the system image in Windows 7 and Windows 8.


Open the system image tool

As with backing up individual folders, start by typing in "backup" in the search box in Windows 7 or on the start screen in Windows 8. In the left pane, click the link to create a system image. (This is called "Create a system image" in Windows 7 and "System Image Backup" in Windows 8.)


Choose where to save the system image

You can save the image to an external drive, one or more DVDs, or a network location. If you choose a network location, Windows will warn you that the backed up data "cannot be securely protected for a network target." That just means that other users who have access to the location could access your system image (so only save the image to a network location when you trust everyone who has access to it).


(Optional): Select additional drives to include in the system image

In the next screen, you can select additional hard drives you have attached to your computer to also back up, but these will add to the space needed.


Confirm the backup settings and create a system repair disk

If everything looks good, click the "Start backup" button to create the system image.

At the end of the backup process, Windows will ask you if you want to create a system repair disk on a CD or DVD. This will help you boot your computer and recover Windows from a serious error, so you should go ahead and say yes to creating the repair disk.

How to Restore Windows from a System Image Backup

Here are the steps if you want to recover your entire computer from a system image file. This will replace the contents of your PC's drive with the programs, settings, and files saved in the system image.


Open the recovery tool

In the Windows 8 start screen, type "PC settings" to search for and open the settings app. Next, click the "Update and recovery" link in the left pane and then the "Recovery" link.

In Windows 7, click the Start button, search for "recovery" in the search box, and then click "Recovery."


Open the advanced recovery option

To restore from a system image, you'll need to go to the advanced recovery settings. In Windows 8, click the "Restart now" button under Advanced startup. In Windows 7, click "Advanced recovery methods."


Start the system image recovery

Finally, in the Advanced options screen, click the "System Image Recovery" option (Windows 8) or the "Use a system image you created earlier to recover your computer" option (Windows 7) and follow the prompts to select the system image and do a full-system restore.