How to use the Backup utility in Windows XP
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Windows XP comes with a Backup or Restore wizard. This wizard helps you to backup or restore files and settings in your computer. In the event of a disaster, this utility can save you from a lot of trouble and protect you from losing your documents. So get in the habit of always backing up your files so you can sleep peacefully at night.
I have read in the Internet some pundits recommending buying of special software for "more reliable" backup of your system, implying that the Backup Utility that comes built-in in Windows XP is not good enough. This may be true for extremely important computer systems like those used by NASA, or U.S. Defense Department, or the airlines companies, or banks etc. For ordinary home users like you and me, Windows built-in Backup Utility is good enough in my humble opinion. And anybody using more important and sensitive computer systems is not reading these tutorials, I am sure. So for the benefit of average home users, I shall discuss in this chapter how to use the Backup utility in Windows XP to backup your documents and settings.
I would like to clarify just one more point. You may ask, backup is basically making duplicate copies of your data so that if the original is lost, you can use the copy. So why does anybody need a special software or utility to make copies? One can manually make copies of the files. True, but for backup purposes we are making copies of hundreds or even thousands of files that are in our computer. To make copies of all these files manually, will take tremendous amount of time and work. And one may, by mistake, leave out a few files. The backup utility automates the process once it is told exactly which files and folders need to be backed up. And it makes copies of everything much faster than a human being can do manually. Furthermore, if restoration of the files becomes necessary, the wizard or the software can do it much faster and accurately, putting back every file where it belongs.
Now, let's begin. First plug-in a flash drive of fairly large capacity (say 32 GB) in one of the USB ports of your computer. (If you don't know what is a flash drive, see paragraphs 3, 4, and 5 after Figure 1). Now click Start, then All Programs, then Accessories, then System Tools, and then Backup. Unless you purchased and installed special hardware like backup tapes or external hard drive etc., you will most likely see the following message first.
Removable Storage Not Running message
Let me clarify an important point here. Unless you want to backup huge quatities of files etc. or you want to backup your whole system (everything in your computer) you do not really want to buy backup tapes or external hard drive etc. But if you do, it is a good idea to buy an external hard drive and attach it to your computer to backup your system. In the event you want to backup "everything", your external hard drive's capacity should be same as your computer's hard drive. In other word's, if your computer has a hard drive capacity of 500 GB, your external hard drive for the purpose of backing up should also be 500 GB.
That said, let me clarify another point. I have heard people saying, "I have partitioned my hard drive in two parts, C and D. I use the the second part (D) for backups." I don't understand this. The whole point of backing up is, in the event your computer (hard drive) crashes, you do not lose your files or documents. So if the hard drive crashes, how are you going to reach your drive D where you have backed up your files? Therefore, the only wise thing to do is to create and save the backup files in a removable drive and keep them at a separate place, outside your computer. These days, most computers come with CD/DVD drives. Both CD's and DVD's can hold large amount of data (DVD's can hold much more than CD's). So you can backup your files on either CD's or DVD's. These are much cheaper and less cumbersome alternatives to buying and installing external hard drives.
The other, and in my opinion most convenient, alternative is to use the USB flash drives to backup files. These are very easy to use, quite inexpensive, re-usable, reliable, small, does not scratch, easy to store and they can hold fairly large amount of data. Flash drives come in various capacities from 1 GB to about 64 GB (may be even more). These have actually replaced the old floppy disks which have now become almost obsolete. Flash drives (also known as thumb drives, jump drives, pen drives, key drives, tokens, or just USB drives) are these days product of choice for transporting data from one computer to another. I also use them for backing up my documents. What if my flash drive cannot hold all my backup files? Just insert another! Your Windows XP Backup Utility (Backup Wizard) will tell you if you need to insert another flash drive.
For those who have never used a flash drive before: It is a small thing, it looks like one of those cheap BIC cigarette lighters, and it plugs in one of the USB ports that all of today's computers have. See Figures 1A and 1B below.
A flash drive
A flash drive plugged in an USB port of a computer
A flash drive is one of those Plug 'n Play devices, meaning this hardware does not need a software to use it. You can plug it in anytime in an USB port of your computer and your computer will automatically recognize its presence in a second or two. When it does, it will give a message right over the righthand side of the taskbar (near your computer's clock) that "USB Mass Storage Device on Drive (gives letter code of the drive) has been inserted and it is ready to be used." What could be simpler than this? The only thing to remember is when you are ready to remove the flash drive, you should first click on the "Safely Remove Hardware" icon  on the taskbar near your computer's clock. You will see a list of hardware that have been attached to the computer (most probably you will see only one - "Safely remove USB Mass Storage Device on Drive (gives letter code of the drive)". Click on that. (See Figure 1C below.) Then it will say that you can now safely remove that hardware. At this point, just pull out (unplug) the flash drive and keep it in a safe place.
Safely remove hardware options
The rest of the tutorial will walk you through the process of using the Windows XP Backup Utility (Backup Wizard) using a flash drive having suffiently large capacity (say, 32 GB or 64 GB).
Okay, please look at Figure 1 again. Since I don't plan to use tape drives, external hard drives etc. for backup, I don't want to see this message again. So I put a checkmark at the appropriate place (please see the Figure) and clicked OK. If you want to see this message everytime you open the Backup Utility, don't put the checkmark - just hit OK. You will see the next dialog box shown in Figure 2.
Backup or Restore Wizard first dialog box
Put a checkmark in the box before "Always start in wizard mode" (it is the default) and click Next. The next dialog box will appear as shown in Figure 3.
Backup or Restore Wizard second dialog box
Select "Backup files and settings" and click Next. The next dialog box will appear as shown in Figure 4.
Backup or Restore Wizard third dialog box
Here you have to decide what to backup. I always choose the first. If your computer is used by more than one person, you may want to choose the second option. The third option will require HUGE backup space. Choose the fourth option if you are fairly comfortable with computing and you know what you are doing.
Backup or Restore Wizard fourth dialog box
In the next dialog box (Figure 5) Windows shows the location where you have chosen to save the backup files and it wants you to type a name for this backup. You could put something like Backup or Stored Files or anything suggestive of what it is and it is a good idea to put the date when this backup was made.
Backup or Restore Wizard fifth dialog box
Next comes the confirmation of everything as shown in Figure 6. Read this carefully. This is your last chance to correct any mistake you may have made in the preceding steps or if you want to change your mind about anything shown in this dialog box. In case you want to make changes, you should hit the Back button and make the necessary changes. When everything is corrected (if anything), click on the Finish button. This will close the wizard and actual backing up will begin.
Window showing backup progress
Backup usually takes some time and the length of time obviously depends on what or how much you are backing up. The first backup takes more time. Subsequent backups usually takes less time unless you have added to the list of things to be backed up. If you use the same removable drive for subsequent backups, Windows will only re-write the files that have changed and leave those alone which have not changed. In my case, each backup takes about an hour. Yours may be quicker or longer. The good thing is Windows will show you the progress of the backup as shown in Figure 7. When the backup is complete, you will be notified as shown in Figure 8.
Backup complete notice
When you see the above backup complete notice, you may just close that window, and you are done. Congratulations! If you are curious like me, you can click on the Report button, and Windows will show you the details of the backup that you just performed (Figure 9).
Report showing the details of the backup
Note: The above screenshots were created on two different days. Hence there is discrepancy on backup file name (date) and also time taken to complete the backup. Don't worry about these. My purpose was to illustrate the different steps involved.
So how often should you backup? Depends on many things. How much do you use your computer? How sensitive or important are your data? How paranoid are you about computer crashes? And so on. I would say, for an average home user, backing up once a month sounds reasonable though many people do backup once a week. Businesses like banks, retailers etc. usually back up every night.
Luckily, backups can be automated. You just need to set it up once and leave your computer running on the days and time that you have chosen for the backup. Then you can relax. Windows will take care of the backup for you. A detailed primer on how to set up automatic backup can be found here.
If your computer crashes, the backups created by Windows XP Backup Wizard can be used to restore all your data in a repaired or new computer.
Learning is easy when lessons are mixed in with some jokes. So here is a joke for you to enjoy.