Need Advice: Best Way to Backup Files for New Windows Install

by Kevin on December 3, 2008

Today instead of coming to you with advise and commentary I’d like to reverse course and do the opposite. I recently spent some of my spendable money (I can do whatever I want with it) on some new software and hardware for our desktop computer.

Here’s what I bought:

  • Windows Vista Home Premium
  • 2 x 2GB of RAM
  • Left 4 Dead

I’m currently running Windows 2000 Professional. I never upgraded to XP because, well, 2000 Professional just worked. The only problem I have with it now is games are coming out that are only for XP/Vista. Previously games were still being published for 2000/XP/Vista. So it was time to upgrade.

The extra RAM will help Vista run smoothly and will bring my total RAM up to 6GB. Rock on.

I’ve got photos galore, games (primarily Valve/Steam games for those familiar), and your random personal documents all on the hard drive. The version of Vista I purchased from NewEgg is the OEM Systems Builder edition, meaning it isn’t an upgrade. Thus I am thinking I am wiping the drives clean when I install Vista.

I don’t want to lose all of this information. I have a Western Digital external hard drive and have used a backup utility in the past. But I want to make sure I get everything! And it would be great if I could find a way to not have to re-install all of the games, but I’m guessing that isn’t a possibility.

So for all of you technical folks out there your help is greatly appreciated. If you’re not technical if you could pass this on via social websites (StumbleUpon, Twitter, etc.) that would be great, too!


MoneyGrubbingLawyer December 3, 2008 at 11:15 am

If you’ve got to wipe your hard drive I don’t think there’s a reliable way to avoid having to reinstall your programs. However, with your external HD you should be able to manually back up everything to make sure nothing gets lost. There are a bunch of great backup programs available to do this for you if you don’t want to take the fully manual route- I actually prefer the classic NT Backup that comes standard, although you may have to play around a little to restore the backup in Vista. Check out for a little more info.

Kym December 3, 2008 at 12:44 pm

You do realize that Windows will only be able to see and therefore use 3 of your gigs of RAM, assuming it’s the 32-bit version? If you already had 4 gigs, you were fine. I would be more concerned with upgrading the graphics card in terms of making Vista run more smoothly.

As for backing things up, I always do it manually. I scour the non-program files folder, copy the contents over to another drive, and then delete the original folder so I don’t end up double-checking it. Then I go in and find any rogue files that I might need to keep from under program files, such as game data or downloads that were inadvertently never saved to a different folder than that of the program itself.

I would definitely recommend a clean install of Vista, which you are right in assuming is what will happen with a non-upgrade copy.

Kevin December 3, 2008 at 12:52 pm

@Kym: It is the 64-bit version specifically for that reason.

@MoneyGrubbing: I didn’t think it would be possible. Figured it was worth a shot.

Kym December 3, 2008 at 1:04 pm

Ah, good call then on the RAM 😀 I got a copy of Vista Business for free via a promotion shortly before it was released, and I really wanted the 64 bit version. Alas you can’t argue with a free 32 bit version.

Steve in Denmark December 3, 2008 at 1:37 pm

Chuck the whole lot away.

Buy a Mac.

Sit back. Relax.

Adam December 3, 2008 at 2:48 pm

KYM – Vista SP1 no longer has the 3GB limit on RAM

STEVE IN DENMARK – You are a moron. He games; therefore a mac is the worst possible investment.

KEVIN – Backup utilities are very plentiful. So are tutorials on using them. My coworkers and I do something a little bit different though. We use a free application called VMWare.

With VMWare we create an image of our current machine. Then we backup that image. Once the image is backed up, we wipe the machine and do a fresh install. After the fresh install we install VMWare.

The best part of this solution is that if you ever need to get something from your old computer you can.

You’d be suprised at what you will want to get off your old computer in a few months.

Zack December 3, 2008 at 3:08 pm

My girlfriend showed me your post, and having done this recently (and many times in the past), I thought I’d offer my advice.

First, Vista loves RAM. Put as much of it in as you have, up to the 3GB limit in 32-bit Vista or 8GB in 64-bit. Warning though: if you’re going to use 64-bit Vista, you *must* have a 64-bit capable processor, like a Core 2 Duo or an Athlon 64. Depending on the other hardware you have available, I’d put the 2x2GB sticks in and call it that. If you’ve got 64-bit hardware and Vista, then put as much in as you can!

As for your software – no. You should never copy installation directories over from one system to another. You should also never do an “in-place upgrade” of Windows (that is, using the Windows installer to upgrade an existing installation of Windows), as this leads to instability and general cruft. You can and should determine where your games and applications store settings and game saves and the like and back those up along with your personal files.

To avoid this problem, here’s what I do:

1) Backup email, application settings, game saves, documents, and personal files on to a separate hard drive. Make sure you look at absolutely every folder in your system drive and know what its contents should be and/or whether it has any files that you’d like to keep. I would *never* trust a utility to do this for me.

2) Unplug that separate hard drive to eliminate the possibility of accidentally formatting it during the installation process.

3) During installation, do not install Windows on a partition that is the size of your entire hard drive. If you have a second internal drive, this is less important. You want the end result to be one partition with the system installation and the program files directory (and other application-related files), and one or more partitions with your own personal files. Depending on how many applications you intend to install, the size of the system partition may vary. I usually try to stay below 60 GB total, allocating the remainder of the disk on which the system resides for an archival partition for storage of files I don’t really care about if the system disk explodes. I have a second internal disk that I use for storage of all of my personal files, and I take regular backups of it using SyncToy (a Microsoft tool for file backup).

Note that you can’t create any other partitions than the system partition at this point in the installation. You’ll do that once you’ve got a working operating system.

4) Once Vista is installed on the first partition of the primary disk, DO NOT TURN OFF USER ACCOUNT CONTROL. Despite what many anti-Vista zealots will tell you, UAC is a terribly useful feature of Vista that allows you to control exactly which applications (including executables and scripts running in the context of your web browser) have access to your system drive. Turning it off gives anything you download and run, even unexpectedly, free reign of your computer. Sounds fun, right? Yes, it will annoy you to have to click “Allow” each time you use an installer during the initial setup process, but it’s a small price to pay for security, and you’ll only see it occasionally later on.

5) Now that the OS works, create your other partitions. You can do this by means of the Computer Management tool in Control Panel\Administrative Tools, under Disk Management. Be careful here – you only want to allocate unused disk space to new partitions – deleting system partitions will put you back at step 1 ;)!

6) Once your applications are installed, begin the process of moving your personal files from the external drive you used to back them up to the non-system partition you just created. Organize them however you like – you can change the organization later easily. There are more advanced ways to get the Music, Documents, and so on “directories” within your user profile to point to this drive, but that’s more information than you probably want to know at this point.

Your system should be ready to use. Now any time you need to reinstall Windows, all you should need to do is grab your profile directory (C:\Users\\) and copy it to your storage disk. You can then proceed with the reinstall. I usually still go through all of the various directories on the system drive to ensure that I’m not missing anything, but I rarely ever have to back anything up from them. Most software is intelligent enough to store its data in your profile now, and Vista provides some other neat features to make up for the ones that don’t. If you want to get adventurous, you can even look into moving your profile to a separate disk, so you don’t even have to spend the time copying all 2-4 gigs of it anywhere!

Zack December 3, 2008 at 3:13 pm


Not to spark a debate, but in my experience, doing this sort of thing on a Mac isn’t any friendlier than on a Windows box. Regardless of your OS, it takes careful planning to properly organize your files and ensure that you’ve backed everything up appropriately, and it’s just as easy to screw that up on a Mac as it is in Windows or even Linux (my OS of choice).

Kevin December 5, 2008 at 9:55 am

@Kym: Yea, can’t argue with free.

@Steve: You opened a can of worms here and most people have responded for me.

I don’t like Macs for three reasons:
1. I’ve used Windows my entire life and have really not had too many issues with crashes, etc. Has been stable for me. The people that say it doesn’t work don’t know how to make it work — they’re installing stuff they shouldn’t install.
2. Macs are, at minimum, twice as expensive as PCs for the same functionality. Apple is great at marketing, but I’m not in love with their products.
3. I’m a gamer and that simply does not go with owning Apple products.

@Adam: No need to call anyone a moron. 🙂 I’ll look into VMWare (I think the free version is called ESX?)

@Zack: Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I have a dual core processor. I’ll be up to 6GB because I’ve got the memory slots for it.

I’ve started working on the backup. I copied a bunch of folders over last night and let it run — of course there was an error with a filename and it stopped halfway through, so I had to re-start the process again this morning. Good idea on the game saves. And good idea about unplugging the external!

Do you know of any easy methods of checking for duplicates and deleting them? I’ve done a few backups on the external already and I know with this backup I am duplicating the work. I need to get everything organized better, just not doing a good job of it right now.

Kym December 5, 2008 at 12:23 pm

Adam – 3gb limit is a restriction of all 32-bit OSes, it can’t address anything higher than that. So I’d love to find out how Vista SP1 removed this problem.

Zack December 6, 2008 at 12:27 pm


It didn’t.

@Kevin: Right. The Mac vs. PC argument is all about experience. Lots of people don’t know the proper way to use a PC, and so when it doesn’t “just work”, they look to Macs as the solution that’s touted as “better.” Despite this, the trade-off is less power for more pretty and perceived ease-of-use, but I don’t need to google very far to find examples that would prove that it’s not so easy.

Also, the free version of VMWare is VMWare Server, not ESX or GSX.

And are you talking about duplicates of files in your backups? I don’t know of any off hand that will walk through directories and find dups for you, and it sounds like you have enough files that this would take a while. You might be better off sorting them out, then checking through them all. As you can tell, I’m a pretty strong believer in doing things thoroughly and by hand when it comes to the only copy of my data that I have, mostly at the cost of time :-p.

Once you’ve got your files sorted through, always follow the organization! Then try SyncToy for your backups, as it will diff every file and copy new and changed files over automatically.

Jason B December 8, 2008 at 11:35 pm

This isn’t really important, but just a little FYI…

32-bit OSes actually limit you to 4GB. However, hardware combined with software decreases that limit. Things like a video card and other hardware use “address space” which must come from the 4GB of memory address space. It varies depending on the motherboard and configuration.

My particular setup has a 512MB video card as well as an external sound card. The OS (Win XP 32-bit) sees about 3.4GB. Weird, eh?

As others have said, for an upgrade from 2000 x86 to Vista x64, a clean install is advisable. Game saves are hopefully transferable. I’m curious how you made out with this!

FAB January 6, 2009 at 10:43 pm

32bit OS’s can use only 3.2 gbs of addressed System memory, it is a physical impossibility due to the 32bit limit. Windows is able to “identify” up to 4gb but it can only physically use 3.2gb.

Start-Up January 8, 2009 at 3:28 pm

I’m computer handicapped. If you can’t cycle power to fix the problem, then I can’t fix it. How’s left 4 dead though? I love those zombie killing games. I heard it was pretty much only good if you played online with buddies. The solo mode wasn’t great. Any thoughts?

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