Backing up your e-mails (and other stuff)

from the June 2007 Actrix Online Informer

There's nothing worse than that sinking feeling when you realise that you've just deleted an important e-mail, or saved the wrong version of a file over another file that you've spent weeks working on. "If only I'd made a back-up!" you scream. "If only I could turn back time!"

Backups are something we really only think about when it's too late. They're something we always plan to get around to sorting, but somehow, most of us never do. Perhaps this article, and material to come in later Online Informers will prompt you to take some action before you have that inevitable melt-down at the worst possible time.

There are several back up options available ranging from automated online backup services, to third party programs to a little known back up program that comes as part of Windows XP. This month we'll have a look at a manual way to back your stuff up, as well as the automated back up/restore wizard that comes as part of XP. In subsequent months we'll include some short reviews of other programs and services you could also consider.

Doing it manually

Fortunately, Outlook Express, which most of us use, stores all your e-mails and address book as files on your computer, and you can find them easily enough so that they can be copied onto a floppy, flash drive, portable hard drive or DVD/CD manually. While you're there you can also grab copies of any important files in My Documents (or anywhere else) and also copy them to your back up.

The first thing to think about is what to put your backed up files on, and what to do with them once you've done that. I'd recommend either a portable USB flash drive or a USB portable hard drive. Both can be easily plugged into and out of your USB ports and are reasonably cheap compared with the cost of lost data. Prices for various sizes of flash drive (suitable for smaller backups) are available from Actrix Hardware here. If you have lots of data to save, a portable hard drive will have a lot more room. Prices and choices are available here.

Other options include writing to a CD or DVD, but these involve slightly more hassle.

Once you have your data backed up onto something, you need to think about what to do with it. Keeping it in a nearby drawer will mean your data is recoverable if your computer fails, but that might not be much help if your house burns down, or you have a significant theft. It's best to get the data to another location. You could take it to work (or home if you're backing up stuff at work) or give it to a friend to keep, for example.

Best of all, use a remote service where you can upload your backups to someone else's secure servers, but we'll get to that later.

Finding your files

This can be the fun part. Outlook Express saves your email in what are known as .dbx files. When you find these on your hard drive, there will be a .dbx file for each of the mail folders you have created in Outlook Express. These are kept in a folder somewhere under your personal settings. If you want to look for them manually, use Windows Explorer to look under Documents and Settings, your user account name on your computer, then Local Settings/Application data/Identities/. Somewhere in there you should find a folder called Outlook Express that will house your .dbx files.

Windows can be set to hide important files, and you may not be able to find your Outlook Express files if this setting is on. To unhide your files, go to Control Panel/Folder options/ and select the View tab. Make sure the dot is in the "Show hidden files and folders" radio button.

If you can't find your .dbx files manually, you can set Windows to search for them, but your files must be unhidden, or Search won't find them. Right-click on your Start button and select Search. Put *.dbx in the "File or Folder Name" field (the * indicates we're looking for all .dbx files) and select My Computer in the "Look in" field. Click Search and Windows should grind away until it finds and displays the folder containing your .dbx files. Make a note of where they are so you can find them more easily next time.

To back these files up, simply right-click on each one and copy them to memory. Next, scroll down your folder list and right-click to paste them to you portable flash or hard drive. If you ever need to restore them, say after a crash, just reverse this process and copy them back from your portable drive to your .dbx folder.

You can use the same process for backing up other important documents. Simply use Windows Explorer to browse to your My Documents folder (or wherever else you put your important stuff) and copy and paste to your portable drive the documents you want to back up. If you're going to be doing this regularly, you may want to think about putting the target files in the same directory in My Documents so that you only have to copy and paste a single folder.

If you're a manual sort of person you could do this once per week, and it wouldn't take up too much time. However, there are automated ways to do it under Windows XP.

The Automatic XP way.

Windows XP comes with its own backup program. It is installed automatically with XP Professional, but XP Home users (probably most of us) will have to install it from our Windows CD. If it's installed already you will find it under Start/All Programs/Accessories/System Tools/Backup. If it's not there, you'll need to follow the following procedure to install it:

  1. Insert your Windows XP CD into the drive and, if necessary, double-click the CD icon in My Computer.
  2. On the Welcome to Microsoft Windows XP screen, click Perform Additional Tasks.
  3. Click Browse this CD.
  4. In Windows Explorer, double-click the ValueAdd folder, then Msft, and then Ntbackup.
  5. Double-click Ntbackup.msi to install the Backup utility. 

Once installed, the Backup program should appear in the System Tools folder explained above, and you can click it to start the program.

Click Next to skip past the opening page, choose Back up files and settings from the second page, and then click Next. You should see the dialogue box shown below which will allow you to choose what to back up.

You might be tempted to click All information on this computer so that you can back up every bit of your data. Think twice before choosing this option, though, as your backup will probably add up to many gigabytes, and you'd probably be backing up a heap of unnecessary stuff.

For most people, the My documents and settings option is a better choice. This preserves your data files (including e-mail messages and address books) and the personal settings stored in the Windows Registry. If you have lots of stuff to back up (and you'll be surprised at how quickly it mounts up) this option may leave you with a back-up file that's too big for a flash drive, and if you want to take the backup off the computer, you may need to think about a portable hard drive.

If several people have user accounts on your computer, you could select Everyone's documents and settings. This option backs up personal files and preferences for every user with an account on the computer. Again, you're probably going to end up with a pretty big file.

If you know that you have data files stored outside your profile or you just want to back up a few important files, click Let me choose what to back up. This option takes you to the Items to Back Up page shown in the next image.

This option doesn't automatically find your e-mail files, so you will need to know where they are and browse to them yourself, but it does allow you to easily find other important documents such as those within your My Documents folder, and you can select individual files to include in your back up.

Select the My Documents check box to back up all the files in your personal profile, or you can double-click each item on the left to expand it, and then check the folders or files you want to save over on the right. This is advisable if you want to reduce the size of your backup file by not including stuff that isn't important to you.

Decide where to store your backup

After you've selected all the files you want to back up, click Next, and Windows will ask you to specify a backup location. Backup assumes you're going to save everything in a single file; you just have to choose a location for that file and give it a name.

By default, Backup proposes saving everything to your floppy drive (drive A). Although that might have made sense 10 years ago, it's hardly a rational choice today as you'd need a caseload of 1.44Mb diskettes for the average backup.

Instead, your best bet is to click Browse and choose any of the following locations:

After you've chosen a backup location, enter a name for the file, and click Next and then Finish to begin backing up immediately.

Setting an automatic backup schedule

If you think you're organised enough, you can repeat these steps once a week and perform regular backups when you're ready. If you're not sure you'll remember, you can set up an automatic backup schedule. To do this, don't click Finish as mentioned above. Instead, click the Advanced button. Leave the Backup type as Normal and click Next. Leave the How to Backup page as it is. Don't disable the Shadow copy box, for example, as this allows files to be backed up even if you're working on them.

Click Next until you come to the When to Back Up page. Choose Later, and then click Set Schedule to open the Schedule Job dialogue box shown in the figure right.

This example shows the settings for a weekly backup on Friday afternoon at 5:30 (just about the time you're pouring your first gin and tonic). You can set almost any schedule you want by poking around in the extensive set of options available in this dialog box. After you click OK to save your changes, Windows XP runs the backup automatically at the specified time. Just remember to leave your computer turned on!

Of course, should you ever find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having to restore something from back up, open the XP Backup program and choose Restore files and settings rather than Backup files and settings. This will allow you to browse to your most recent back up, and restore things to the way that were at that time.

Next month we'll have a look at an online backup service or two. These allow you to download programs that will automatically connect to remote servers and back your stuff up off site. It costs, but it sure is handy!

For this article I acknowledge the Windows XP Backup Made Easy tutorial by Ed Bott, from which some of what is included here has been adapted.