- Simple wizards
- Free with Vista Ultimate
- No driver conflicts
- Requires Vista install disk
- Many wizards confusing
- File "recovery" = copy & paste
by Greg Ross
While many previous versions of Windows include have some type of archival utility, Vista Backup & Restore Center is billed as the first Windows system restore tool that could replace aftermarket data retention software. Does this free utility have what it takes? Or is the Backup & Restore Center yet more bloatware from Redmond? We make the call inside.
Windows Vista's Backup & Restore Center is included with the operating system, so there is no explicit installation involved with this utility. However, the Backup & Restore Center comes in two flavors. Windows Vista Home Premium's version has the ability to backup only user files and folders, while Vista Business and Ultimate's version can also backup entire partitions and hard drives. (Don't you love Microsoft for gently pushing you towards purchasing Ultimate?)
During this review, we will be covering all of the features accessible from within Microsoft Vista Ultimate.
Users can access the Backup & Restore Center by clicking on the Start Menu and opening up the Control Panel. From there, clicking on the Backup & Restore Center icon causes the opening window, shown above, to pop up.
The interface itself is simple, compact, and quite informative. Backup and restoration operations can be easily executed by clicking on the appropriate buttons from within this screen. All of the options are self-explanatory. Unlike some tools reviewed in this series, the Backup & Restore Center only contains barebones information about backups. It does not include any kind of task log that indicates the status of previous backups, but simply what time the last backup was completed.
The Start Menu also has a well hidden link to the Backup Status and Configuration window, which also summarizes the status of backups on the computer. The tabbed interface breaks this up a little more for the user, which is somewhat unnecessary considering how few options available in the Backup & Restore Center. The first tab of this window, shown above, is dedicated solely to file and folder backups for users.
The status window also gives the user access to recovery options. Files and folders can be restored from archives created on this computer or created on another computer, but there really is no reason to present these recovery operations as two entirely different choices, is there? If this interface was not so broken up perhaps, Microsoft would not have to look for ways to fill out the window space with extra buttons.
Finally, the last tab reveals information about full computer backups, and provides quick access to the backup wizard.
Honestly, we see no need for the Backup Status and Configuration link in the Start Menu. Why not just provide a link to the full Backup & Restore Center? The interface practically doubles up on everything between these two windows, and it unnecessarily muddies the quality and user friendliness of the interface.
FILE AND FOLDER BACKUP AND RECOVERY
In order to begin the backup process that protects user data, open up the Backup & Restore Center and hit the Back Up Files button. A new wizard pops up that immediately inquires where the backup should be stored. Network locations or physical hard drives are the only allowable destinations, Vista does not allow users to backup files to a rewriteable CD/DVD or a USB memory key.
Once the backup destination is selected, Vista asks which partitions should be included in the backup. By default, the main system partition is selected and there is no choice to de-select it. While partition-level backups are certainly useful, it would be nice if there was a way to specifically choose files and folders to be backed up.
While choosing specific locations or files is not possible, Vista's Backup & Restore Center does allow users to choose what types of files are preserved in an archive. This does provide some versatility but Vista is not very clear as to what specific files are preserved. For instance, the window above provides no insight into whether selecting Music files will backup just WMV files, or other popular formats like MP3 or even Apple's M4A iTunes music files.
After selecting file types for backup, the actual backup operation has to be scheduled. Daily, weekly, and monthly schedules are available though Vista limits backup operations to once per week or once per month when the respective options are chosen. No other explicit actions like a system error or an application install can prompt a backup job outside this schedule.
When a backup job is complete, the destination hard drive will have a new folder named after the computer. Within that folder will be a series of additional folders that containing all of the preserved files, compressed and archived in their native formats. It might be a bit tedious, but by browsing through all the folders we can get a solid idea as to which files were backed up (or not).
When the backup runs on schedule, testing hinted that Vista only stores files that have changed since the last backup. This incremental backup routine definitely saves on hard drive space, though it does require that users never delete the data in these archives!
If any files need to be restored from the archives, selecting the Restore Files button starts up the recovery wizard, shown above. The most recent archive, one of the previous archives created, or an archive from a completely different machine (click on the 'Advanced restore' link to get this option) can be selected as the data source.
The Backup & Restore Center wizard then displays a summary window that provides a list of all the files that are to be recovered. If only a select few files need to be restored but their location is unknown, the wizard is capable of searching through the archive. Specific files and folders can also be chosen from within the interface. The wizard then asks if the files should be restored to their original location or to another destination.
While testing indicated that backing up files (subject to previously discussed limitations) and restoring them worked, we noticed a few quirks during the process. For one, restoring a folder does not actually restore folders to the condition they were in during the last backup. It merely copies the archive files to the destination. Any files that were created in the folder after the backup that were not overwritten will still be there, so Vista does not really recover entire folders, it just dumps old versions of data into them along with any more recent additions, for better or worse. That said, restoring individual files is easy and it works.
SYSTEM BACKUPS AND RECOVERY
Backing up an entire system starts with clicking the Back Up Computer button from within the Backup & Recovery Center. From there, the process basically runs the same way as file and folder backups. Select a destination drive, then select the partitions to backup, and then confirm the settings. However, once the settings are confirmed, the utility archives the entire hard drive as a type of virtual disc drive much like those used in virtual machines (VMware, Microsoft Virtual PC, etc).
The actual backup does not take more than a few minutes with the barebones Vista installation put in our test-bed system for purposes of this review. Other computers in the office did take up to 30-45 minutes to backup the system partition, but those computers needed to archive 40 to 80 gigabytes of files.
Restoring a complete system involves starting up the Restore Computer wizard and reading the heart-stopping warning shown above. Microsoft needs to be a little clearer about what data or partitions are going to be destroyed. At least the wizard tells you what you need to do next; hopefully you have a Windows Vista installation disc nearby, because the process won't work without one. There is no tool included with the OS to make any kind of recovery disc, which is a disappointment considering Microsoft knows a majority of computer owners probably do not have this disc. If you do not have a Windows Vista install disc, try to get a media replacement from Microsoft, beg your laptop manufacturer to mail you discs, or borrow a disc from a friend.
To start the system restore, insert the Vista install disc into the computer, reboot, and when prompted hit any key to boot to the CD. If you have not reinstalled Vista on any computer before, welcome to the Vista installation wizard. Be careful while you are in here, and pay attention to the options presented, to avoid doing something dangerous (like reformatting the hard drive that has your backup files on it).
Choose the language preferred, and then hit the option to Repair Your Computer. You will then be asked to confirm which Vista installation needs to be fixed. More likely than not, there will be only one choice to select.
A few diagnostic utilities are available from this page of the wizard, only one of which we care about right now. Select the option to restore the PC from a backup, and the wizard will automatically search for the appropriate backup file.
If the wizard selects the wrong one, or cannot find it, there will be an opportunity to manually choose a file. In our case, the restoration wizard instantly recognized the correct file.
A summary of the recovery operation as configured will be presented, and one final option will appear. Microsoft really needs to make this part of the wizard more explanatory, because we honestly had no clue which partitions on our test bed system would be obliterated during the restoration operation.
After a few minutes, the recovery operation was complete and the computer was ready to reboot. Vista booted up and started running without any issues, so we immediately checked on all the other partitions on the computer to make sure the recovery had only wiped out the target main system partition.
We selected the option to reformat the disc during recovery, and that reformat only affected the partition being restored. If that option was not chosen, would the recovery wizard merely have copied files over like it did with the file and folder wizard?
So we ran another recovery operation, and did not choose to reformat. Then Vista's boot CD asked to confirm that we understood the recovery would erase the partition.
Once again, we are left clueless with Microsoft's interface. But at least the recovery worked, which is more than one or two applications in our roundup can say.<-->
Microsoft Vista’s Backup & Recovery Center has most of the basic features needed in a backup utility, but the utility is a mixed bag at best. It can schedule file backups, but not operating system backups. Verifying user data backups is quick but not entirely easy, while verifying partition backups is not possible without maybe some third-party applications. The Backup & Restore Center can be configured to selectively choose types of files to backup, but the program does not inform the user exactly what file extensions are (or are not) included with those choices. The user interface was sometimes friendly, but often confusing when we were running recovery operations. During these operations, some of Microsoft’s prompts about reformatting scared us enough to take extra precautions to protect important files on our test bed system. Considering this utility is supposed to be reassuring, not alarming, these warnings did more harm than good.
In the end, Vista’s Backup & Recovery Center does work, but you have to fork out the cash for Vista Business or Ultimate to access half of the features of this utility. For those looking for a short-term stop-gap solution, on too tight of a budget to afford third party backup and recovery software, or only need a backup utility for one-time partition backups, then this utility will get you through. But if you are looking for more flexibility and a program that is open about what it is actually doing, look elsewhere.
- Simple wizards
- Free with Vista Ultimate
- No driver conflicts
- Requires Vista install disk
- Many wizards confusing
- File “recovery” = copy & paste