File Backup in Windows Vista FAQ

File Backup in Windows Vista FAQ

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[Last updated 4/26/07] 

On Windows Vista, how can I restore a .bkf backup made using NTBackup in Windows XP?
Use the NT Backup Restore Utility located on the Microsoft Download Center.

The new File Backup is too simple. Why didn’t you add more features, such as location-based backup?
The file backup feature in Windows Vista is targeted at the core consumer audience. To savvy users, it will appear quite simple, probably too simple for you to use. For most consumers, however, it will hopefully be the right balance of complexity and functionality to get them backing up their files, which is something virtually none of them did in Windows XP, no matter how capable the tool was. For core consumers, we wanted to eliminate the confusion caused by selecting individual folders and files from a long tree of checkboxes, trying to find or guess where other users kept their files, predicting where files would be stored in the future, etc. These choices added too much complexity to the backup process and discouraged users from using NTBackup.

How are core consumers expected to benefit from File Backup?
File Backup creates an experience where you configure it once and it will keep user files on that computer on a safe location from that point on. The backup is updated incrementally on a regular basis chosen by the user when File Backup is configured. Having a scheduled backup eliminates the need of performing adhoc backups (which is supported by using “backup now” option) at regular intervals. Without a way to schedule backups, a lot of users would simply not run File Backup at all, and not remember to run it regularly (until data is lost at least).

Why did you use .ZIP files for backups?
We intentionally chose "industry standard" ZIP files for the file backup and restore feature to ensure that our customers would be able to restore their backups on a non-Windows Vista PC (or even a Mac or Linux box). That was a major shortcoming (according to our customers) of NTBackup's proprietary BKF format. And by using separate files, vs. one monolithic file, we're able to span across multiple media (CDs and DVDs), while still being resilient to any one of the media failing.

The Complete PC Backup and Restore feature users the VHD (virtual hard disk) format from the Virtual PC and Virtual Server team.

BKF is not a standard because it is not published nor supported. There are numerous other issues with BKF, but fundamentally, it's not easy to work with, and was designed for backup solutions 20 years ago. ZIP and VHD are nice robust standards and help the Windows Vista solutions "play nice" with other platforms.

Why doesn’t Windows Vista give you the option of assigning a password to your .ZIP file? Without a password, the .ZIP file is insecure.
There is a lot of debate in the industry about the value of encrypting backups for consumers. People tend to forget passwords more often than their computer dies, and it is hard to do key escrow for consumers (where there is no domain controller or IT department, etc.). All you need is one case of someone losing their key or forgetting their password, and being unable to restore a backup after a disaster, to realize that it is a very dangerous proposition. We point out in our help content that your backups are only as secure if the media is kept physically secure (specifically, it says "Always keep removable storage or media used for backups... in a secure place to prevent unauthorized people from having access to your files."). The same goes if you are backing up to a file share, although we do "ACL-down" the share to try to block regular users from traversing the backups in an unauthorized manner.

Why did you cut tape backup?
We wanted the Windows Vista backup and restore features to be accessible and easy-to-use by our core consumer audience. Tape is not a viable backup media in that market and is a foreign concept to most users. When we rebuilt the backup features from the ground up, we prioritized around common consumer media – CDs, DVDs, hard disks, and file servers / NAS devices. This choice allows us to drive the best quality solution with the most useful features, and ultimately result in more people backing up their files and systems.

Why does running File Backup require administrator privileges?
File Backup requires administrator privileges because it backs up all users’ files, not just the files that belong to the person running Backup. Backing up a single user’s files is challenging—how do you determine which files belong to that user? It’s impossible to guess the past, present, or future intent of the file creator/user. Do we assume that all files in your profile directories are your files? (And all files not in those directories are someone else’s?) What about files in the public or common folders? Or files on an external hard disk with wide-open ACLs? For these reasons, we back up all users’ files.

My external hard disk was turned off when the backup was supposed to occur, leading to a backup failure. I expected a notification of this but didn’t receive one. Why not?
If you're in front of the computer when the backup fails, you will see a brief notification that backup failed. However, this message does not stay up forever, so you might not see it. Another notification will be triggered when you unlock the computer, log in, or wake the computer from sleep.

I want to choose a folder where the backup will be stored. However, my only choice is the root of the drive. Why?
File Backup controls the folder structure where the backup is stored. The location is computername\Backup Set Date\. File Backup uses its own folder structure to have a predictable place for the backups, both for the users to look at and for File Backup when performing a restore from a foreign computer. You can use the same drive (or network share) for backing up several computers.

My backups are larger than I expected. Doesn’t File Backup use VSS to make the incremental backups small, like in Complete PC Backup?
Complete PC and File Backup are very different in terms of how they make use of VSS. File Backup creates a shadow copy (also known as a snapshot) using VSS to make sure that all opened files are flushed from memory to the file system. Once this is done, File Backup reads the files from the snapshot and places them in a zip file. The zip file will contain complete files from both a full and incremental backups, so this is why the zip file is larger than you might expect.

File Backup does not make use of snapshots to store incremental block-level changes to files like Complete PC Backup does. For example, if you had a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation that was 10 MB, the first time you backed it up using File Backup, it would take up 10 MB. But if you then added some slides to it and it grew to 11 MB, your next incremental backup will include a complete new copy of it. On the other hand, with Complete PC Backup, the first time it will back up 10 MB, but the second time, it will only capture the block-level changes (within the file), which could be as little as 1 MB.”

I’m trying to back up to a NAS device, but it’s not working. How can I fix this?
First, make sure the share on the NAS device is configured correctly using our blog post on backing up to network shares. Even with the share set up correctly, there might be issues in the NAS device’s file sharing implementation that prevent Backup from using the device as a target, particularly if it is a Linux-based device running an older version of the SAMBA file sharing software. We made a number of code changes in Backup to work around these bugs in SAMBA, but we could not do this for every NAS device. We recommend contacting the device’s vendor to obtain an upgrade to Samba 3.x. This version works better with Windows Vista than previous versions. And you will not have any protocol-related problems backing up to a network share on a Windows Vista PC.

Why is Backup prompting me to do a new full backup?
Instead of performing incremental backups indefinitely, Backup will periodically prompt you to start a new full backup. The prompts are based on a number of factors, including how recent your last full backup is, how many files you are backing up, how many CDs or DVDs you have backed up to already, etc. You can see the sequence of checks that Backup performs before prompting you for a full backup in this flowchart.

How do I start a new full backup if I'm not prompted to do so?
In Backup and Restore Center, under the Backup Files button, click Change settings. Next, click Change backup settings. Go through the Backup Files wizard, changing settings if you want. On the last page of the wizard, click the check box called Create a new, full backup now in addition to saving settings. We are investigating ways to make this easier in future versions.


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  • Hey, great story. When I fist installed Vista and was setting a scheduled backup - at first I was amazed I could not choose the specific files and folders. Then I was kind of mad, since I just got Ultimate version, and I thought at least Ultimate should have every bell and whistle ...

    Then, when I watched the backup process and noticed that my Apache web folder in the root of the system was being backed up automatically - I knew immediately - these guys did it again! Freakin awesome!


    I'll feature this tonight or tomorrow on my site dedicated to Windows Vista ... I'd definitely like you checking it out ... I love Vista since I installed Longhorn Alpha looong time ago ;)

    All best,

    Petar Smilajkov and Owner/Founder

  • In case you haven't seen them, we've added two questions/answers to our Backup FAQ : I’m trying to back

  • Now that Windows Vista is out in the wild I'm sure some of you have played with the new and improved

  • Oh so you're dumbing down Windows even more and more and with each version it's going to be even less for power users...well then you've got it all wrong...I'm off to Mac OS X....if you wish to learn something then learn that ease of use should not sacrifice any form of featurefullness or functionality.

  • Having carefully set up my tape drive in my new PC and downloaded the Vista drivers for my SCSI card I'm disappointed to find that support for tape drives in the native backup software has been dropped. This is a very poor decision by Microsoft.

  • this is a waste.. SyncToy is better.. no option.. backup grows insane.. no option to delete previous/old backups.. what is this? what is the big problem of having an Advanced Button for power users.. this was MS's forte.. you can customize a lot of things.. now it seems it's going backwards..

  • I'm on-board with the desire to make the backup process more accessible to all end-users.  The new File Backup is a step in the right direction.  I agree that there will be tradeoffs, and that you can't satisfy everyone (of course, you'll be able to tweak/improve it over time).

    I gave it a try.  After using it for a few days, my only complaint is that File Backup is somewhat undocumented (from the perspective of an IT professional).

    Personally, I like to know what an application is doing, so that I can trust it and recommend it to my clients (trust is definitely important with respect to backups).

    I searched around but have not been able to find a whitepaper or equivalent that really gets into all the nuts-and-bolts of File Backup (the FAQ on this page is a good start though).  Some unaddressed details:

    - A detailed listing of file types (file extensions) and folders that are excluded from backup.  The built-in help has the "What file types are not included in my backups?" section, but it is much too vague in some areas.

    - Which file types are excluded when one unchecks each of the checkboxes in the "Which file types do you want to back up?" window.  The "Category details" provides some information, but it would be great to have additional information (in this FAQ, a KB article, or equivalent) with expert-level detail.

    - How File Backup handles large files.

    - How File Backup analyzes and reacts to insufficient free space on external hard drives used for backup.

    And there are probably a few other areas.

    I wound up going into the folder tree created by the backup and looking in each .zip file; this gave me some assurance that all of my important files were being backed-up, but it was tedious.

    Within the Backup Files application itself, I understand the desire to "keep it simple" with respect to the help/details so that you don't overwhelm end-users with technical jargon.

    Thanks for putting together this Vista Backup FAQ page.  With a few more entries, it could have the depth that I'm searching for.

  • Have you used the backup facility in Windows Vista? What do you think about it? Did you prefer the way

  • Regardless of what is says in the documentation, it DOES backup Program Files and every other single unimportant file - I find it pretty useless. I thought that Ultimate version will be fine for a software developer that I am, but I find it rather more suitable for my granddad. I guess there must be Vista Developer edition somewhere there, but available only internally for Microsoft developers. Or they just use third-party software.

  • I noticed the following strange thing: I did a complete backup of my system drive (C) first on another partiton of the same hdd (D) and then on DVD. On D, the backup VHD file takes about 11 Gb, while the backup on DVDs took 1 full DVD (4.3 Gb) and 1.5 Gb on another one, which makes a total of 5.8 Gb. Why this big difference between the backup on DVD and the backup on the hard drive?

  • What a bunch of bs.

    There is no good reason for the removal of the tape backup support, especially with the luxury of so many years to work on a new windows.

    It's exactly like the defrag utility, with Vista you actually pay an upgrade for what is sometime/often a loss of feature or inferior software.

  • yeah, a advanced button option should have been implemented...but looks like the developers didn't have time, so didn't do it altogether.

    Would be nice to be able to back up other computers on the network also to the main computer with the storage.

  • The apparent lack of documentation for the most obvious of questions is very frustrating: for example, if I set up some Subversion or Visual SourceSafe repositories off the root of C: outside the C:\Users\ structure, there is no way to know if they are backed up or not without actually trying it and studying the result.  And even if they are backed up, will some of them be accidentally considered to be 'system files' and left out?  How can I be sure without manually differencing the content of the ZIP files after each backup?

    Another problem is EFS: although Vista provides a means for backing up EFS certificates, the online Help specifically states that EFS protected files are always excluded from backup.  This seems somewhat bizarre: what use is the certificate itself if all the files encrypted by it are lost "by design" through this wholly unanticipated "feature"?  If someone has not taken the time to read the online Help before starting, they will be horribly caught out by this one.

    I can also see backups being overly large for no good reason: for example, Windows Media Player causes ripped CDs to be marked as 'changed' even though they are not modified by the user: presumably a 'number of times played counter' or similar is doing this.  The mere act of playing your ripped CD collection can add hundreds of megabytes to each incremental backup and this cannot be safely excluded.  Of course, this is more an issue with Windows Media Player, not Windows Backup.  Hopefully this sort of problem is not happening with Windows Photo Gallery as well.

    I think ZIP files are an excellent idea: presumably this means you can use WinRAR or similar to check backup integrity, which is something that was never possible in the past with .BKF files.  This was especially terrifying with tape backups where one could never be certain if one of the many block errors routinely reported during a backup or restore was fatal or not.

    I suspect that most users will not miss tape backups: they seem to be the slowest, most inherently expensive and unreliable of all the options available, especially now that removable hard drives are larger and cheaper than ever before.  Domestic tape drives are now (in hindsight) a cruel joke only made possible by the lack of viable competing technologies at the time.

    Simple is good, but I think users need to know with absolute certainty that all of their files are being backed up.  For example, if user settings are not backed up, is a custom spelling dictionary a settings file or a document?  It would be a shame to rely on this tool and then discover down the track that some critical files were missing after disaster had struck.  

    Even if all the bases are indeed covered, the documentation does not give the user any assurance of the fact or confidence in the utility: using it is an act of blind faith by design.  If this could be addressed without compromising the simplicity, I think it would silence most critics.

    I would also like to express hope that future versions of this utility will include an automatic pruning feature (removing the oldest backups to make room for the newest as the disk fills).

    Finally, I should emphasise that the backup utility included with Windows has always been more important than 3rd party offerings because it has been (and still is, last time I checked) the only option available for home users which caters for all NTFS features.  All of the mainstream 3rd party utilities I have tested (and I have tested as many as I could find with Google) fail on one or more of the following features: junctions, hard links, Unicode file names).  I hope that Microsoft will continue to bear this in mind with future development.

  • Windows Server 2008 brings the successor to ye old NTBackup. The role that can be installed separately

  • Windows Server 2008 brings the successor to ye old NTBackup. The role that can be installed separately