In recent issues, I’ve described Windows 7’s four levels of built-in data protection, each with differing capabilities for preserving your data.
Now I’ll tell you how to dig the data out of your backups, whether it’s a single file, a folder — or even your entire drive contents.
This extensive, multipart data protection is easily the best ever built into Windows — possibly any desktop operating system. Used properly, Win7’s tools can help you get closer to the Holy Grail of data management: the total prevention of data loss.
Stated more simply: Win7’s built-in, data-backup-and-recovery systems can ensure you might never again experience that awful “Oh, no!” feeling when you realize an important file has been incorrectly altered or deleted.
Here’s what we’ve covered so far:
- 1. If you need to recover a file that was very recently deleted — within hours or maybe days — you can probably retrieve it from the Windows Recycle Bin. Need a quick refresher? See the Microsoft article, “Recover files from the Recycle Bin.”
- 2. If the file was deleted or altered days or weeks ago, use the powerful but little-known Restore Previous Versions function. See the June 16 Top Story, “RPV: Win7’s least-known data-protection system.”
- 3. If the file is no longer in the Previous Versions system, you should be able to recover it from your automatic backups — assuming you let Windows make them for you. See the May 12 Top Story, “Build a complete Windows 7 safety net.”
- 4. If the file was deleted a long time ago and is not in your routine backups, you may be able to recover it from an old system image. (See that same May 12 Top Story.)
Almost all the coverage referenced above was focused on getting your data into Windows 7’s various protective systems. Now you have to know how to get your data back out of the backups when needed.
My sample file for this how-to is a simple Wordpad .rtf document called “Windows Secrets Test File” that I created on my desktop PC. I then deleted the file after it was stored as part of a normal, automatic Win7 backup. At the start of my recovery process, the test file is no longer on my desktop, nor is it in my Recycle Bin. The test file exists only in the Win7 backup system. Now I’ll walk you through the process of locating and restoring that specific file from my backups.
You can follow along on your own system, if you’d like — assuming you’ve made at least one backup using Win7’s built-in system. (See items 3 and 4 from the list above.) You can choose any file for your test restore.
There are several ways to start a restore operation. Using the Windows Control Panel, look for System and Security, then Back up your computer. But the easiest is to enter either backup or restore into the Win7 Start menu’s search box. Either word will invoke the Backup and Restore applet. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. The easiest way to invoke the Backup and Restore applet is to type backup into the Start menu’s search box.
The Backup and Restore applet will open, showing you something like what you see in Figure 2. Of course, the details will be different on your system, but the general layout will be about the same.
Figure 2. Win7’s Backup and Restore functions share a common interface, which makes for a busy dialog box. But the restoration steps are relatively simple.
When you’re restoring data, start by looking for Last backup and Contents, highlighted in Figure 3.
Figure 3. The Last backup date and the Contents description (upper red box) tell you when the selected backup was made and what it contains.
If the file you’re trying to recover isn’t likely to be in the currently selected backup set, click Select another backup to restore files from, highlighted by the lower red box in Figure 3.
You can also use this dialog later if the backup you select doesn’t turn out to contain the file you’re seeking. Just return to this dialog box, click Select another backup to restore files from again, and try a different backup.
Once you’ve selected a particular backup, click one of the two options shown within the red boxes in Figure 4. Most of the time, you’ll simply click Restore my files to go on to the next restoration step. But if you’re a system administrator and you wish to restore user files for other accounts, you can choose Restore all users’ files instead.
Figure 4. The Restore my files button starts the process of selecting your own files for recovery from the backups. The Restore all users’ files option lets administrators restore files for other user accounts as well.
Both restoration options work exactly the same way and bring up exactly the same dialog, as shown in Figure 5. The only difference is whether you’ll be shown just your own backed-up files or (if you’re an admin) everyone’s files. But either way, the next step is to drill down into the backup to locate the specific item(s) you need to recover.
If you’re trying to restore a specific file or files, click on Browse for files. If you seek to restore entire folders or folder trees, select Browse for folders. If you’re not sure where your target file is or what it’s named, use the Search option to locate the file within the selected backup’s contents.
Figure 5. Drill down to the file or folder you’re looking for by clicking one of these three options.
Feel free to explore all three search and browse buttons. Poking around inside your backups does no harm and is a great way to learn what’s in there. Nothing will get restored until you explicitly command it later on. If you get lost while exploring your backups, just Cancel your way out until you’re back on familiar turf and start over.
Because I was seeking my test file, I clicked Browse for files, which generated the dialog shown in Figure 6.
Figure 6. Using normal Windows file navigation, just click your way to your target file or files!
I knew my target Wordpad file, Windows Secrets Test File.rtf, used to reside on my Windows desktop. In other words, its full name and location was:
C:UsersFredDesktopWindows Secrets Test File.rtf
So, starting with Backup of C: (shown in Figure 6), I navigated down through the backup to Users, then Fred, and then Desktop. Figure 7 is the result. Of course, if I hadn’t remembered the file’s name or location, I could have used the Search option (shown in Figure 5) to find it.
Figure 7. Success! The file is in the backup, right where I thought it should be.
Once you’ve located the file(s) you wish to restore, click the Add files button, and you’ll see a dialog box similar to that shown in Figure 8.
Figure 8. Whether you’re restoring one file or many, this dialog lets you see what’s been selected for restoration (my “Windows Secrets Test File.rtf” for example).
When you’re done selecting files for restoration, click Next.
You can choose to restore files to their original location or to any other location you wish. (See Figure 9.)
Figure 9. In this case, I wanted to restore the file to its original place, so I just clicked the Restore button.
And with that, my test file was fully recovered and back in its original location on the Windows desktop, just as if it had never been deleted. When I clicked on the recovered file, it opened normally.
Note: If you try to restore a file that has the same name as a file that’s already in the selected location, Windows will alert you to the conflict and offer to rename the restored file to a non-conflicting variant of the name. In this way, you’re protected from accidentally overwriting a newer file with an older copy.
Other recovery and restoration options
The basic process you’ve just seen works to restore any of your data files and folders — or data files and folders for any user account on the PC. But you also can restore system files and settings or even restore your entire PC to an earlier condition. Those functions are accessed via the same dialog box shown in Figure 2. Note the Recover system settings or your computer option shown at the bottom of Figure 3, and highlighted in red in Figure 10.
Figure 10. Recover system settings or your computer lets you restore system settings or the entire PC.
The Recovery dialog, shown in Figure 11, offers the option of running System Restore or Advanced recovery methods.
Figure 11. Pressing Open System Restore lets you undo recent system changes.
You’re probably already familiar with System Restore, so I won’t describe it here. But if you need a quick refresher, consult Microsoft’s System Restore Help & How-to guide.
Choosing Advanced recovery methods will open the dialog shown in Figure 12.
Figure 12. Advanced recovery methods let you restore your system using a previously created Win7 system image. Or you can completely reinstall Windows from scratch.
Strangely, Microsoft doesn’t tell you about a better way to fully restore Windows 7 — a fast, nondestructive, in-place, total reinstall of Windows 7 that leaves intact your user accounts, data, installed programs, and system drivers.
Microsoft won’t tell you, but I did in my July 14 Top Story, “Win7’s no-reformat, nondestructive reinstall.”
And with that, you’ve now seen all the major elements of Win7’s backup and recovery subsystems. If you’ve followed along through all the referenced articles, you now have a rock-solid, highly automated backup system in operation. You now also know how to recover your files and folders — even your complete system setup — with minimal effort and hassle.
Relax! Your data is now superbly protected!
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Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987-91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991-97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.