A First Look at Windows 7 Backup (Part 1)

by [Published on 28 May 2009 / Last Updated on 28 May 2009]

How Microsoft has designed the Windows 7 backup application to compensate for Vista’s shortcomings.

If you would like to read the next part of this article series please go to A First Look at Windows 7 Backup (Part 1).

Introduction

This article takes a frank look at why the backup application that comes with Windows Vista is such a disappointment. It then goes on to show how Microsoft has designed the Windows 7 backup application to compensate for Vista’s shortcomings.

I will never forget the first time that I ever installed a pre-beta build of Windows Vista. I knew that a lot was going to change by the time that Vista was completed, but experience had shown me that an early build could at least give me an idea of what to expect when the product was finally completed. The reason why this particular build sticks out in my mind is because even though it was a pre beta release, it was relatively stable, and pretty well polished. Until, that is, I started to experiment with Windows Backup. I distinctly remember assuming that for some reason the backup application must not be complete yet. As time went on though, it became apparent that Microsoft was going to stick us with a subpar backup application.

Do not get me wrong. There are some good reasons why Microsoft chose to implement Windows Backup the way that they did. Even so, I have to say that I have never been a big fan of Windows Backup.

When it comes to gripes about Vista, it always seems to be the compatibility issues that get all the attention. Internally though, Microsoft has received a tremendous amount of feedback from customers who were less than pleased with Vista’s backup application. I am happy to report that in Windows 7, Microsoft is building the backup application that should have been included with Vista.

I have been writing articles long enough to know that right now some of you are screaming “So why didn’t they”. From what I have been told, Microsoft purchased the code for NTBackup well over a decade ago for use with Windows NT. Since that time, NTBackup has been retrofitted each time a new version of Windows has been released. Because of its age, it was becoming difficult to adapt NTBackup to meet modern backup requirements. As such, Microsoft made the decision with Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 to rewrite the backup application from scratch. The end result was Windows Backup (Vista) and Windows Server Backup (Windows Server 2008).

I do not want to get off on a rant here, but if you have never tried Windows Backup, then you absolutely have to give it a try in order to appreciate what is coming in Windows 7. Features that are found in even the most low end backup applications simply do not exist in Windows Backup. For example, you do not have the ability to backup individual files or folders.

In all fairness, Windows Backup is not all bad (just almost). I like being able to mount backups as virtual hard drives, and being able to perform a bare metal restore to dissimilar hardware has been on my backup wish-list for years. Aside from these particular features though, Windows Backup is so limiting that using it tends to be really impractical.

I think that I have bashed Windows Backup enough, so let us talk about how things have improved in Windows 7.

Backing Up Files

When you opened Windows Backup in Vista, you were given a choice of either backing up files or the entire computer. While the Files option makes it sound as though you are going to be able to pick and choose what you want to back up, you are really only able to pick file categories, not individual files, as shown in Figure A. For example, you can back up Pictures or Music, but not just the .JPG or .MP3 files that are stored in a specific folder. Furthermore, if you needed to back up a file type that did not fit into the predefined categories, then you had no choice but to perform a full system backup.


Figure A - Vista’s backup application only allowed you to back up file categories, not individual files

Microsoft had to walk a fine line when they created Windows 7’s backup application. On one hand, they had to make the backup application easy enough to use that home users with little to no computer knowledge could back up their computers. At the same time though, they had to make the backup application flexible enough to satisfy those who are more computer savvy.

The way that Microsoft got around this issue was by asking a simple question… What do you want to back up? There are two possible answers to this question; Let Windows Choose (Recommended) or Let Me Choose. If you tell Windows to let you choose what you want to back up, then you will be taken to a screen that is similar to the one that’s shown in Figure B.


Figure B: Windows 7 allows you to choose what you want to back up

Initially, Windows 7 only offers to back up what it refers to as data files. What this really means is that Windows is initially only interested with the contents of a user’s profile. If you expand the Computer container though, you have full access to all of the files and folders on the entire system.

Backup Locations

Another one of my major gripes about Windows Vista’s backup application was that you were very limited in where you could write a backup to. If you were only backing up files, then you had some flexibility. You could write the backup to a hard drive, CD, DVD, or even to a network share. However, if you wanted to perform a full PC backup, then your options were a lot more limited. You could only back the system up to a hard drive or to a set of DVDs, as shown in Figure C. Furthermore, if you chose to use the hard drive option, then you had to dedicate an entire drive to the backup.


Figure C: Vista was very limited in where it let you write a backup to

Keep in mind that there are good reasons why Microsoft did things the way that they did. A full PC backup in Vista can only be used for a bare metal restore (OK, I am not sure why they imposed that particular limitation). That being the case, the limitations make sense. You may not have network connectivity during a bare metal restore situation, so it makes sense that Microsoft would keep you from writing a backup to a network drive. Requiring a dedicated hard drive also ensures that you are not going to end up having to restore data to the drive containing your backup, potentially running the drive out of space.

In Windows 7, you are allowed to write a full backup to a network share. As you can see in Figure D though, Windows simply warns you that it cannot protect the backup if it is on a network drive.


Figure D: Windows 7 allows you to back data up to the network

Conclusion

As you can see, there are some major improvements to Windows 7’s backup application. In Part 2, I will wrap things up by showing you even more of these improvements.

If you would like to read the next part of this article series please go to A First Look at Windows 7 Backup (Part 1).

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