Normal, Incremental, Differential? Getting Backups Right

The Windows Backup utility supports a number of different backup types that help to make backups less time consuming, but its important to understand how they work. By using a combination of Normal and then Incremental or Differential backups, creating your own backup strategy will get data backed up both efficiently and effectively.

A Normal backup will back up all selected files and folders, and clear their archive attribute to mark them as having been backed up. An Incremental backup of the same selected files and folders will only back up those that have changed since the last Normal or Incremental backup (those that have their archive attribute set), and then clear the archive attribute. An Incremental backup will back up all selected files and folders that have changed since the last Normal or Differential backup, but will not change the archive attribute. Although the impact on the archive attribute seems trivial, it impacts how data is backed up.

A combination of Normal and Incremental or Differential backups can make backing up your files a breeze. For example, if you create a Normal backup on Monday, all selected files will be backed up. If you then performed a Differential backup Tuesday through Friday, each of these backups would include all files that have changed since Monday. As such, if you needed to restore data on Saturday, you would only need to restore the original Normal backup, and the last available Differential backup. If the same strategy started with a Normal backup on Monday and then Incremental backups every other day, a restore on Saturday would require the Normal backup and then each Incremental backup since to fully restore files. The moral of the story? Incremental backups take less time to create, but involve a longer restore process. The best bet for most users is Normal plus Differential – the backups take a tiny bit longer, but restoration is a simpler process.

Creating and Restoring a Manual Restore Point with System Restore

Travel back in time to previous configuration settings with the System Restore feature in Windows XP by following these steps:

Step 1: Click Start, select All Programs, select Accessories, select System Tools, and then click System Restore. At the Welcome to System Restore screen appears, click Create a restore point, and then click Next.

Step 2: In the Restore point description text box, type a name that will be used to identify the restore point. At the Restore Point Created screen, click the Home button to return to the Welcome screen.

Step 3: At the Welcome to System Restore screen, click the Restore my computer to a earlier time radio button, and then click Next.

Step 4: At the Select a Restore Point screen, click on the various bolded dates in the calendar to view the restore points available on your computer, as well as why they were created. Click on today’s date to select the restore point created in the previous steps, and then click Next.

Step 5: At the Confirm Restore Point Selection screen, read the information provided, and then click Next to perform the restore. The progress of the restore operation will be visible on the screen, and then Windows XP will reboot automatically.

Step 6: Once Windows XP has rebooted, the Restoration Complete window will appear. Click OK to return to Windows.

Tip: Create a new system restore point manually prior to installing any new software or drivers in order to ensure that your previous system settings are available should any problems occur.

Using Last Known Good Configuration Mode

If you’re running Windows 2000 or Windows XP, one additional quick-fix feature that you should be aware of is Last Known Good. Every time that Windows 2000 or XP completes the boot process, it makes a copy of the current Registry and stores it. So, if you make a change (like installing an incorrect driver) and want to attempt to reverse it with minimal effort, try rebooting the system using this option. To get to Last Known Good, press F8 at the operating system selection screen, and then choose this option from the menu.

If all goes well, you should boot into your system using the previous configuration settings, with no harm done. However, you should note that the backup is overwritten every time the boot process completes. So, if you were to install a bad driver, reboot completely, then notice the problem and attempt to reboot and use Last Known Good, you would unfortunately be out of luck. In this particular situation, your best bet might be to use the Driver Rollback feature if you’re running Windows XP, and then try a System Restore.

Creating and Restoring System Restore Points

As part of its normal operation, System Restore will create a restore point automatically every day (called a system checkpoint). Additionally, the feature will also create a restore point when a “triggered event” occurs, such as when you attempt to install an application that is System Restore-aware, when the AutoUpdate feature is used, during a restore operation, and when installing an unsigned driver. (known as an installation restore point) As the disk space allocated to storing System Restore data fills, older restore points will be overwritten with newer ones. If you want the ability to restore older system information, consider allocating most disk space to System Restore.

While the automatic restore point processes may ultimately meet all your needs, it’s generally a good idea to create a restore point manually any time that you are making a significant system change, such as installing an older application, or a new signed driver.. For example, consider creating a restore point called “New Video Driver” prior to installing an updated driver for your card. Restore points are created by accessing the System Restore program from the System Tools menu.

When you ultimately want to restore a previous restore point, you also use the System Restore program. The calendar feature will provide you with a list of restore points that are available, along with details of why the restore point was created, as shown below. For details on manually creating and restoring a restore point, see the Step-By-Step section below.

Enabling and Disabling System Restore

In most cases, you don’t need to do a whole lot of planning to run System Restore, since it runs automatically as long as your system has at least 200 MB of free space that the feature needs to operate. If you have less than 200 MB of free space available, System Restore will not function – it needs at least that much room to hold the backed up system data that would allow the restore process to return your system to a previous configuration.

On a Windows XP system, you have the option of selectively enabling or disabling System Restore on a system-wide or drive-by-drive basis as your needs require. For example, some users might choose to disable System Restore on all drives but drive C, especially if other drives are used for user data files only. This in turn will lead to better resource utilization. To disable system restore settings in XP, access the System Restore tab of the System program in Control Panel. To disable or configure System Restore settings for a selected drive, click the drive letter and then the Settings button. On a Windows ME system, System Restore can be disabled by accessing the Performance tab of the System program, clicking File System, and then checking Disable System Restore from the Troubleshooting tab.

Using the System Restore Feature in Windows

Originally introduced in Windows ME, System Restore is one feature that you definitely should be familiar with if you find yourself in the habit of constantly tinkering with your system. Also available in Windows XP, this feature allows you to restore your system to a previous configuration with a few simple mouse clicks. For example, let’s say that you’ve been running Windows XP for a while now, and one day decide to install what you think to be some great little utility. If the application is misbehaving, uninstalling it would be the logical first step, but sometimes even that doesn’t solve whatever problem you are experiencing.

With the System Restore feature, you could simply restore your system to the way it was before you installed the program, without the need to worry about what an uninstall might leave behind. In that way, this feature allows you to truly restore your operating system to a previous point in time.

It’s not just the programs that you install that may cause problems, however. Other potential culprits include installing incorrect drivers, using the Windows Update feature, or accidentally deleting a required .DLL file. In any of these cases, System Restore can get you back to where you originally started, as long as you’ve planned things correctly.

System Restore is used to bring your operating system back to a previous point in time, but not your user data. In fact, System Restore ignores your personal data files completely, so you don’t need to worry about losing new email messages or data files if you choose to restore your system to a previous point in time. To that end, you should be aware that System Restore will not allow you to restore one of your data files that you have accidentally deleted, so be sure to back up your data as necessary using the Backup utility.