A new Windows 11 backup and recovery paradigm?


A lot has changed regarding built-in backup and recovery tools in Windows 11. Enough so, in fact, that it’s not an exaggeration to talk about a new approach to handling system backup and restore, as well as system repair and recovery.

That’s why the title for this article uses the “P-word” (paradigm). This a term much-beloved in the USA in the 1970s and ’80s, plucked from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1972) to explain how and why radical changes happen in science.

Indeed, a list of what’s new in Windows 11 by way of backup and recovery helps set the stage for considering a veritable paradigm shift inside this latest desktop OS version:

  • The Windows Backup app, which replaces the obsolete “Backup and Restore (Windows 7) utility,” still present in Windows 10 but absent in Windows 11
  • A revamped approach inside Settings > System > Recovery, which now includes both “Fix problems using Windows Update” and “Reset this PC” options to attempt repairs to an existing OS or reinstall Windows 11 from scratch, respectively

If these elements are combined with proper use of OneDrive, they can cover the gamut of Windows backup, restore, repair, and recovery tasks. Remarkable!

Defining key R-words: Repair, Restore, Recovery, and Reset

Before we dig into the details, it’s important to define these “R-words” so that what Microsoft is doing with Windows 11 backup and recovery options makes sense.

  • Repair: Various methods for fixing Windows problems or issues that arise from a working but misbehaving OS or PC. For what it’s worth, this term encompasses the “Fix problems without resetting your PC” button in Settings > System > Recovery shown in Figure 1; it calls the native, built-in Windows 11 Get Help facility.

Figure 1: Although it’s labeled Recovery, this Windows 11 Settings pane shows Reset explicitly and Repair implicitly.

Ed Tittel / IDG

  • Restore: This is usually defined as putting things back the way they were when a particular backup was made. It is NOT shown in Figure 1, though you can get to a set of Windows Backup data that provides restore information through Advanced startup and through other means.
  • Recovery: Though it has a general meaning, Microsoft tends to view Recovery as a set of operations that enables access to a non-booting Windows PC, either to replace its boot/system image (“Reset this PC” in Figure 1 — see next item) or to boot to alternate media or the Windows Recovery environment, a.k.a. WinRE (“Advanced startup” in Figure 1) to attempt less drastic repairs: reboot from external media, attempt boot or partition repairs, replace corrupted system files, and a great deal more.
  • Reset: Remove the current disk structure on the system/boot drive with a new structure and a fresh, new Windows 11 install, keeping or discarding personal files (but not applications) as you choose.

All of the preceding R-words are intertwined. And Restore is closely related to Backup — that is, one must first perform a backup so that one has something to restore later on.

Introducing Windows Backup

If you type “Windows Backup” into the Windows 11 Start menu’s search box for versions 23H2 or later (publicly released October 31, 2023), you should see something like Figure 2 pop up:

Figure 2: Introducing Windows Backup in Windows 11 23H2.

Ed Tittel / IDG

This simply shows the Start menu entry for the Windows Backup app, which I’ll abbreviate as WB (with apologies to Warner Brothers). Interestingly enough, WB is not packaged as an app with an MSIX file, nor is it available through the Windows Store. Its setup options when launched tell you most of what you need to know, shown in Figure 3. The rest becomes clear as you drill down into its various subheadings, as I’ll explain soon.

Figure 3: The various Windows Backup options/selections let you protect/copy folders, apps, settings, and credentials. That’s about everything!

Ed Tittel / IDG

By default, here’s how things shake out in WB:

  • Folders covers the Desktop, Documents, Pictures, Videos, and Music items (a.k.a. “Library folders”) from the logged-in user’s file hierarchy. On first run, you may use a toggle to turn backup on or off. (Note: a valid Microsoft Account, or MSA, with sufficient available OneDrive storage is required to make use of WB.)
  • Apps covers both old-style .exe apps and newer MSIX apps (like those from the Microsoft Store). It will also capture and record app preferences, settings, and set-up information. This is extremely important, because it provides a way to get back apps and applications, and related configuration data, if you perform a “Reset this PC” operation on the Recovery pane shown in Figure 1 above.
  • Settings covers a bunch of stuff. That’s no surprise, given the depth and breadth of what falls under Settings’ purview in Windows, including: accessibility, personalization, language preferences and dictionary, and other Windows settings.
  • Credentials covers user account info, Wi-Fi info (SSIDs, passwords, etc.), and passwords. This handles all the keys needed to get into apps, services, websites, and so forth should you ever perform a restore operation.

Once you’ve made your folder selections and turned everything on, Windows Backup is ready to go. All you need to do is hit the Back up button at the bottom right in Figure 3, and your first backup will be underway. The first backup may take some time to complete, but when it’s finished you’ll see status info at the top of the Windows Backup info in Settings > Accounts > Windows backup, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Status information for WB appears under Settings > Accounts > Windows backup (credentials do get backed up but are not called out).

Ed Tittel / IDG

Please note again that all backed up files and information go to OneDrive. Thus, internet and OneDrive access are absolutely necessary for Windows Backup to make backup snapshots and for you to be able to access them for a restore (or new install) when they’re needed. This has some interesting wrinkles, as I’ll explain next.

The Microsoft support page “Getting the most out of your PC backup” explains Windows Backup as follows:

Your Microsoft account ties everything together, no matter where you are or what PC you’re using. This means your personalized settings will be remembered with your account, and your files are accessible from any device. You can unlock premium features like more cloud storage, ongoing technical support, and more, by purchasing a Microsoft 365 subscription for your account.

That same document also cites numerous benefits, including:

  • easy, secure access to files and data anywhere via OneDrive
  • simple transfer to a new PC as and when desired
  • protection “if anything happens to your PC” without losing precious files

This is why Windows Backup and the other tools offer a new backup paradigm in Windows 11. Used together through a specific MSA, you can move to a new PC when you want to, or get your old one back when you need to.

The restore process, WB-style

Microsoft has a support note that explains and describes WB, including initial setup, regular use, and how to restore. This last topic, entitled “How do I restore the backup?” is not just the raison d’être for backup, it’s also well worth reading closely (perhaps more than once).

Let me paraphrase and comment on that document’s contents. Backup makes itself available whenever you work on a new PC, or when you need to reinstall Windows, as you are setting it up. Once you log in with the same MSA to which the backup belongs, it will recognize that backups for the account are available to you, and the tool will interject itself into the install process to ask if there’s a backup you would like to restore. This dialog is depicted in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Once logged into an MSA, the Windows installer will offer to restore backup it keeps for that account to the current target PC.

Ed Tittel / IDG

For users with multiple PCs (and backups) the More options link at center bottom takes you to a list of options, from which you can choose the one you want. Once you’ve selected a backup, the Windows installer works with WB to copy its contents into the install presently underway. As Microsoft puts it, “When you get to your desktop everything will be right there waiting for you.”

I chose a modestly complex backup from which to restore my test virtual machine; it took less than 2 minutes to complete. That’s actually faster than my go-to third-party backup software, Macrium Reflect — but it occurs in the context of overall Windows 11 installation, so the overall time period required is on par (around 7 minutes, or 9 minutes including initial post login setup).

WB comes with a catch, however…

You’d think that capturing all the app info would mean that apps and applications would show up after a restore, ready to run. Not so. Look at Figure 6, which shows the Start menu entries for CrystalDiskInfo (a utility I install as a matter of course on my test and production PCs to measure local disk performance).

Figure 6: Instead of a pointer to the actual CrystalDiskInfo apps (32- & 64-bits), there’s an “Install” pointer!

Ed Tittel / IDG

Notice the Install link underneath the 32- and 64-bit versions. And indeed, I checked all added apps and applications I had installed on the backup source inside the restored version and found the same thing.

Here’s the thing: Windows Backup makes it easy to bring apps and applications back, but it does take some time and effort. You must work through the Start menu, downloading and installing each app, to return them to working order. That’s not exactly what I think a restore operation should be. IMO, a true restore brings everything back the way it was, ready to run and use as it was when the backup was made.

WB and the OneDrive limitation

There’s another potential catch when using WB for backup and restore. It won’t affect most users. But those who, like me, use a single MSA on multiple test and production machines must consider what adding WB into the mix means.

OneDrive shares MSA-related files across multiple PCs by design and default. WB saves backups on a per-PC basis. Thus, you must think and use the More options link in Figure 5 when performing a WB restore to select the latest snapshot from a specific Windows PC. If you’re restoring the same PC to itself, so to speak, click Restore from this PC (Figure 5, lower right) instead.

Overall, Windows Backup is a great concept and does make it easy to maintain system snapshots. The restore operation is incomplete, however, as I just explained. Now, let’s move onto Windows Repair, via the “Reinstall now” option shown in Figure 1 (repeated below in Figure 7).

More about “Reset this PC” and Windows repair

Looking back at Figure 1 (or below to Figure 7) you can see that “Reset this PC” is labeled as a Recovery option, along with other recovery options called “Fix problems…” above. The idea is that Reset this PC is an option of last resort, because it wipes out the existing disk image and replace it with a fresh, clean, new one. WB then permits admins or power users to draw from a WB backup for a specific PC in the cloud to restore some existing Windows setup — or not, perhaps to clean up the PC for handoff to another user or when preparing it for surplus sell-off or donation.

Figure 7: Recovery options include two “Fix problems…” options and “Reset PC.”

Ed Tittel / IDG

As described earlier in this article, “Fix problems without resetting your PC” provides access to Windows 11’s built-in “Get Help” troubleshooters, while the “Reinstall now” option provides the focus for the next section. All this said, “Reset this PC” provides a fallback option when the current Windows install is not amenable to those other repair techniques.

Using Windows Update to perform a repair install

Earlier this year, Microsoft introduced a new button into its Settings > System > Recovery environment in Windows 11 23H2. As shown in Figure 7 above, that button is labeled “Reinstall now” and accompanies a header that reads “Fix problems using Windows Update.” It, too, comes with interesting implications. Indeed, it’s a giant step forward for Windows repair and recovery.

What makes the “Reinstall now” button so interesting is that is shows Microsoft building into Windows itself a standard OS repair technique that’s been practiced since Windows 10 came along in late July 2015: a “repair install” or “in-place upgrade install,” which overwrites the OS files while leaving user files, apps, and many settings and preferences in place.  (See my 2018 article “How to fix Windows 10 with an in-place upgrade install” for details on how the process works and the steps involved to run such an operation manually.)

But there’s more: Windows 11’s “Reinstall now” button matches the reinstall image to whatever Windows edition, version and build it finds running on the target PC when invoked. That means behind the scenes, Microsoft is doing the same work UUP dump does to create Windows ISOs for specific Windows builds. This is quite convenient, because Windows Recovery identifies what build to reinstall, and then creates and installs a matching Windows image.

Indeed, this process takes time, because it starts with the current base for some Windows feature release (e.g., 22H2 or 23H2), then performs all necessary image manipulations to fold in subsequent updates, patches, fixes and so on. For that reason, it can take up to an hour for such a reinstall to complete on a Windows 11 PC, whereas running “setup.exe” from a mounted ISO from the Download Windows 11 page often completes in 15 minutes or less. But then, of course, you’d have to run all outstanding updates to catch Windows up to where you want it to be. That’s why there’s a time differential.

Bottom line: the new “Reinstall now” button in Windows 23H2 makes performing an in-place upgrade repair install dead simple, saving users lots of foreknowledge, thought, and effort.

If everything works, the new paradigm is golden

WB used in conjunction with MSA and OneDrive is about as simple and potentially foolproof as backup and restore get.

Do I think this new paradigm of using WB along with OneDrive, installer changes, and so forth works to back up and restore Windows 11? Yes, I do — and probably most of the time. Am I ready to forgo other forms of backup and restore to rely on WB and its supporting cast alone? By no means! I find that third-party image backup software is accurate, reliable, and speedy when it comes to backing up and restoring Windows PCs, including running versions of all apps and applications.

In a recent test of the “Reinstall now” button from Settings > Recovery in Windows 11, it took 55 minutes for that process to complete for the then-current windows image. I also used WB to restore folders, apps, settings, and credentials. That took at least another 2-3 minutes, but left pointers to app and application installers, with additional effort needed to download and reinstall those items. (This takes about 1 hour for my usual grab-bag of software programs.)

Using my favorite image backup and recovery tool, Macrium Reflect, and booting from its Rescue Media boot USB flash drive, I found and restored the entire C: drive on a test PC in under 7 minutes. This let me pick a backup from any drive on the target PC (or my network), replaced all partitions on the system/boot disk (e.g., EFI, MSR, C:Windows, and WinRE), and left me with a complete working set of applications. I didn’t need internet access, an MSA, or OneDrive storage to run that restore, either.

Worth having, but not exclusively

Microsoft has made big and positive changes to its approach to backup and recovery. Likewise for repair, with the introduction of the “Reinstall now” button that gets all files from Windows Update. These capabilities are very much worth having, and worth using.

But these facilities rely on the Microsoft Windows installer to handle PC access and repair. They also proceed from an optimistic assumption that admins or power users can get machines working so that a successful MSA login drives the restore process from OneDrive in the cloud to proceed. When it works, that’s great.

But, given the very real possibility that access issues, networking problems, or other circumstances outside the installer’s control might present, I believe other backup and restore options remain necessary. As the saying goes, “You can never have too many backups.”

Thus, I’m happily using WB and ready to restore as the need presents. But I’m not abandoning Macrium Reflect with its bootable repair disk, backup file finder, boot repair capabilities, and so forth. That’s because I don’t see the WB approach as complete or always available.

You are free, of course, to decide otherwise (but I’d recommend against that). And most definitely the new WB approach, the new in-place repair facility, and “reset this PC” all have a place in the recovery and repair toolbox. Put them to work for you!

Backup and Recovery, Windows, Windows 11

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