by Ed Tittel

How to use Windows 10 backup and recovery features

Feb 09, 2016
Backup and RecoverySmall and Medium BusinessWindows

Sooner or later, you’re going to experience a hard drive failure, usually when you least expect it. Don’t panic – there’s a good chance Windows 10 will let you restore all those seemingly lost documents and files.

Although it sometimes takes a little digging to find them, Windows 10 still includes useful backup and restore capabilities. So while there are many good third-party backup utilities that work with Windows 10, some free and some fee-based, you don’t necessarily need to investigate or turn to such options. While many buyers of such solutions have voted with their checkbooks (or endorsed with their installs, in the case of free options), they’ve mostly done so because they want the added convenience and additional features that such products bring – mostly notably, cloud-based backup that handles off-site storage automatically by virtue of its Internet-based storage.

A sense of (file) history

For many backup and recovery needs, what users really want is access to a file that’s become damaged, has gone missing, or might have been unintentionally deleted. To some extent, a built-in Windows 10 facility called “File History,” originally introduced as part of Windows 8 has this covered – but with limitations worth understanding. A good place to learn more about File History is in the TechNet Magazine article “Windows 8: File History Explained,” but File History backs up (and thus also, is able to restore) only copies of files in Libraries, Contacts, Favorites and on the Desktop. This might not sound like much, nor very open-ended, but here’s a snapshot of what falls under that umbrella on my production PC:

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Figure 1: More data stores show up in File History than first meet the eye, and are easy to extend.

What does file history capture? How often?

By default, even in Windows 10, available Libraries include the following: Desktop, Downloads, Documents and Pictures. Users and applications routinely add folders inside one or more of these containers (that’s where the folder items at the top of the screen cap “.gnubg” and “.oracle_jre_usage” come from). Installing cloud-based file access programs may create library entries (as Dropbox and OneDrive do), so their contents also go into File History. Pictures, photos, videos, music, searches and so forth also find their way into File History as well. And finally, the system defined Application Data folder – which stores information relevant to or used within Windows applications on a per-user basis – also makes its way into File History, too.

[Related: How to perform a clean install of Windows 10]

What this means is that Windows makes a concerted effort to identify and make repeated snapshots of (the default frequency is once every hour!) files associated with user accounts, user activity and user data, with a strong emphasis on media-related files for music, photos, movies and so forth. The only catch, if there is one, is that users will get the best use out of File History if they save and store files to default locations as suggested by the operating system or the applications that handle them.

To protect files stored outside the default hierarchy already described here, users must add them to one of their libraries, at which point they too will fall under the File History umbrella. There’s an outstanding tutorial on this subject at entitled “How to Include Folder to a Library in Windows 10” that explains all of the details involved.

Using file history

File History works like a service on your Windows 10 PC. But first, you must turn it on. When you visit the File History control panel item for the first time, you must click the “Turn on” button at the lower right of its primary window. Then, click the Select Drive entry at the left to identify a storage device where File History will keep its snapshots (I use large SDXC memory cards on tablets and laptops for this purpose, but use big hard disks on desktops, where storage is usually not so much at a premium). Finally, open the Advanced Settings window where you can manage how often snapshots are taken, and how long they are kept. The default is to make a copy every hour, and to keep saved versions forever. This can consume beaucoups storage, so I usually set mine to “Every 12 hours” and “3 months,” respectively, as shown in this screen capture:

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Figure 2: Advanced Settings determine how often snapshots happen, and how long they live.

Restoring stuff from file history

To get going, type “File History” into the Windows 10 start menu to set the OS searching for it. Choose the menu choice that reads “Restore your files with File History.” This produces the very window shown in Figure 1 earlier, which is actually the restore menu from my most recent file snapshot as I write this story. You can navigate inside this window by either selecting file entries, or expanding folders or other containers in the window, and ultimately picking one or more files, then clicking the white arrow button (whose tooltip help reads “Restore to original location”) to replace the current version(s) of the item(s) with the copy(ies) you just selected. It’s just that easy, and it works quite well. If you try it for yourself, you’ll understand immediately.

Beyond file copies, to image backup

File copies are all well and good, but they do nothing to assist repairs or restoration when a Windows installation gets damaged or becomes unusable or inaccessible. That’s when a different type of backup, called an image backup, comes into play. If you look at the menu selection at the lower left in the main File History window shown in Figure 3, you’ll see something labeled “System Image Backup.” This is the key tool for creating the kind of backups that can be used to repair or recreate entire Windows installations. Furthermore, the virtual hard disk files (with .vhd and .vhdx extensions) that this kind of backup creates can be mounted as virtual drives in Windows 10 (using the “Attach VHD” facility in the Disk Management facility aka diskmgmt.msc) to grab other files outside the defined File History scope.

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Figure 3: The System Image Backup item at lower left lets you snapshot a complete Windows image.

Image backups are essential when an existing Windows installation goes bye-bye, for whatever reason. To make use of such an image for restoration, however, you must boot your PC using a bootable Windows 10 installer or a system repair disk (an option for building such a disk appears in the Backup and Restore (Windows 7) utility that lurks behind the System Image Backup menu entry shown above). Either will ask if you want to Repair an existing Windows installation.

Among the various recovery options this presents is “Advanced Options/System Recovery,” which allows you to select an option entitled “Re-image your computer.” From its home window, you can pick the system image backup you wish to use to restore your system, and get things underway. Not coincidentally, this explains why it’s essential to keep all image backups on a separate drive (preferably, a fast USB-attached external drive) so you can discover and access its contents even when your PC isn’t running from (or on) its usual boot drive.

All in all, Windows 10 offers reasonable facilities for backup and restore, both on a file-by-file and a whole system basis. With a little time and effort to explore these facilities, and regular scheduled use of their snapshot (File History) and backup (System Image Backup) capabilities, you will be ready to restore what you need if and when the time comes that recovery is needed. Don’t worry about the storage consumed, either. The old saying “It’s better to have it and not need it, than not to have it and need it badly” could have been tailor-made to describe the comfort one can take from always having a good backup handy.