Yes, I know it’s a subject no-one likes to think about, let alone do something about

Backup Button

If only it were as simple as a key press ….

I feel that I walk a narrow line with a lot of my computer support clients between nagging them and ignoring something that I know is important – backups.

It’s easy enough for Mac users. Just set up the Time Machine and you can more-or-less forget about it (except that Time Machine won’t protect you against ransomware. Yes, that’s right, Macs are now vulnerable to ransomware – see this article from Malwarebytes on ransomware). For PC users, however, there is no simple, obvious way to “set and forget” a backup routine. The “File History” option in recent versions of Windows is a start, but it’s simplistic and very much a work-in-progress for anyone whose data filing is any more complicated than using the predefined libraries (Documents, Pictures, Music etc).

My own backup system has always been rather ad hoc, with lots of redundancy built in. The word “redundancy” in this sense means that there are different ways of achieving the same end. Any one method can fail without stopping the other methods from working. In this sense, redundancy is very definitely a good thing. It can help to give you cover, for instance, against those occasions when you try to open a backup drive and discover it’s dead (not a nice experience if you are trying to access your only source of backups).

A few months ago, though, I decided that it’s time to go on the hunt once more for a solution that’s good enough that I would trust it – both for myself and for my clients. The difficulty with backup solutions is that there is a constant tension between ease-of-use and flexibility. The more you have of one, the less you tend to have of the other.

Cobian logo

Cobian backup software logo

Anyway, I came across a name that seemed familiar – Cobian. I remember that this was a backup solution that I used to use for myself and my clients in the past (5, 10, 15 year ago?) but, for some reason that escapes me, have stopped using. I do remember that it was a bit of a pig to set up. That’s probably why I didn’t use it for all my clients. On the other hand, I can also distinctly remember at least one occasion when it definitely did save a client’s data. I’d set it up for her and she’d just left the external drive connected and let it do its thing for, I don’t know, a year or two I think. And then she had a hard drive crash and her data (and my reputation) were on the line. Cobian had been working perfectly all the time. I installed a new drive, then Windows and her programs, and then restored all of her data from the Cobian backup on the external drive. No problem.

When I re-acquainted myself with Cobian last year I found that it’s now got a much simpler interface – but still with all the flexibility that’s needed. I set it up doing different routines on two different machines and it has worked flawlessly for about three months. It even flawlessly backs up files that are open at the time the backup takes place (eg Outlook data file and Evernote database).

It still has a complexity in setting up that some users might find daunting, but my experience of the last few months has given me the confidence now to recommend it for any Windows user looking for a solution that needs more flexibility than the inbuilt File History. I would be happy, of course, to set it up and configure it to your needs (probably half an hour or so).

Ransomware Screen

You do not want to see this on your screen

If you think that your data is safe from disasters because you use cloud services – and especially if you think you are safe from ransomware because it’s “all in Dropbox” or “all on OneDrive” – then you should be aware that files encrypted by ransomware can over-write your (unencrypted) cloud copies. If you use free versions of cloud services there is every chance that previous (unencrypted) copies of files will not be available in a crisis. Peronally, I wouldn’t risk it: one of the things that Cobian backs up for me locally is a copy of my OneDrive and Dropbox folders. Some of those backups are then held “offline” (ie the drives are only connected to my system at the time that Cobian is doing the backup). Ransomware can not encrypt files on drives that are not connected to your system at the time of the attack.

I’m not one for new year resolutions, but if you are thinking of making one this month then sorting out a backup system would be a good one.

Macs have long had a backup system (called “Time Machine”) that the user simply “sets and forgets”

I’ve often wondered why Microsoft can’t do something similar as the whole area of backups is one that a huge number of users find too complicated, too confusing and too tedious to engage with. All the advice I ever give about the importance of backups is probably ignored at least half of the time because it’s just too complicated a subject. Beyond Microsoft’s offerings, I’ve also been looking elsewhere for years for a simple, trustworthy backup system that manages to square the circle of combining simplicity with flexibility. I have yet to find such an animal but it seems that Microsoft may now provide an adequate solution built into Windows 8.

It is called “File History” and is available from the Control Panel.

File History Main Menu

The main menu is reasonably straightforward

It provides flexibility and ease of setting up by assuming that you will wish to back up all data found in your libraries plus the contents of your desktop, contacts, and favorites. If you always save your data in the recommended locations (eg in “My Documents” or “My Pictures”) then your data will be backed up without any further ado. If you keep data in folders that are not contained in libraries then you can add those folders to existing libraries or create a new library where you can place all of the extra folders that you wish to back up.

But – and it’s a very very big “but” – there are folders that could contain absolutely crucial data that would not be included in the backup unless you knew about them and dug deep to find them and add them to the backup schedule (by adding them to a library). The most obvious of these that comes to mind is the “pst” file if you use Outlook. Why on earth do Microsoft hide this most important of data files in a folder that is not only kept apart from other data files, folders, and libraries, but which is also hidden by default? The “pst” file contains all of your email messages, calendar, contacts, and task lists. As far as my own business is concerned, my Outlook PST file is the most important file I have (together with my Clients database). The same applies to other “email clients” from Microsoft. Outlook Express and Microsoft Mail also set up your data files, by default, in a hidden place that’s really tricky to find unless you know what you are doing.

Select a drive for File History

External drives, USB flash drives and network drives can be used for backups

File History is quite flexible in letting you choose where your backup is going to be made. You can not create the backup on your main “c:” drive (as a hard drive failure could lose you your backup as well as your normal files) but you can use USB flash drives, external hard drives, and even network drives. You could also back up onto a different partition of your main drive, but that’s risky, of course, in the event of a total hard drive failure. If the backup location isn’t available when the backup is made then the program caches the backup on the hard drive ready for when the backup drive is available. Personally, I don’t like this as it could lull you into a false sense of security about the state of your backups. I’d rather be told if a backup is not possible because the backup location is not available.

You can choose how long you wish to keep your backups (weeks, months, forever while there’s still disc space) but I need to do more digging to see if backups are automatically removed when they get to a certain age (very very bad) or removed when they reach a certain age provided that there are newer versions available (much better).

You can choose how often backups are taken, ranging from every 10 minutes to once a day. The backups then take place quietly in the background, without (apparently) causing any noticeable effect on the performance of your computer for whatever else you are doing.

Exclude from File History options

Folders and libraries can be excluded from backups as well as being added to them

From what I’ve found out so far, there are other weaknesses in File History. For instance, if you change the name of a file then that name change is not applied to backups: it’s as if you’ve created a new file. For now, though, I’m so pleased that Microsoft have, at last, built some kind of simple data backup system into Windows that I would encourage you to use it if you are not doing any other kind of backup. I could probably help you to set it up by remote control (using Teamviewer), but remember that it is only available in Windows 8 – not in either Vista or Windows 7.

File History Restore Menu

Restoring files just requires “stepping forward or backward” through time and then “drilling down” to select the files(s)

If you don’t take backups then it probably means that you’ve never had a serious data loss yet. And that’s the key word – YET. I’ve seen a few heart-breaking data losses over the years, but I know that it’s difficult for the average user to get their head around the subject. Looked at from that perspective, I think File History in Windows 8 is certainly better than nothing.

I’m going to be testing it in the coming weeks and months by running it side by side with my normal backup routines. I’ll come back to the subject if I find any fatal flaws or useful tweaks.

© 2011-2018 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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