Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Making regular backups is critical, but once you've got that set up, how do you know what you have will in fact work when you need it? I'll look at a couple of approaches.

Is there any way I can check out my system image to see if it will be able to be restored before I use it do my spring cleaning and reformat my hard drive?

Windows backup always gives me an error and does not complete. I tried to use it to make a system image and save everything Windows chooses to backup. But at about 90% it stops and says, "Windows backup did not complete successfully." The image worked, but I checked the error code and it said that 'Files may be in use by Windows,' but I had nothing opened and I cannot do Windows backup in safe mode.

Making regular backups is critical.

But once you've got that set up, how do you know what you have will in fact work?

In this audio segment from an Ask Leo! webinar, I'll discuss the approaches to doing so that will be presented in detail in my forthcoming book.

Download the mp3 (10M)


Is there any way I can check out my system image to see if it will be able to be restored before I use it do my spring cleaning and reformat my hard drive?

So, you are basically prescient; I think I am actually working on the last couple of chapters for my maintaining Windows 7 book and those chapters are - by popular request of all things - on testing your backups. Making sure that the backups will work when you get them, when you need them.

A couple of months ago, I think I polled readers what of the newsletter, what would they like to make sure that I cover in the book and that was a topic that took me by surprise. But it was overwhelmingly popular. So I'll give you a little bit of a preview into exactly what that is going to be. The short answer is there is no complete, absolute 'Yes, it will work' test other than doing a full restore, which is kind of beside the point.

I mean, unless you have a spare hard drive that you can restore to, doing a full restore is kind of destructive in the sense that it will override your system and if it turns out that it's not going to work, well then, you're kinda out of luck. So, there are couple of things you can do.

One of the things I strongly suggest you do is once you've created your rescue media with whatever backup software you're using, then make sure to boot from that media and then not restore. But you should be able to – with most common backup programs – you should be able to browser the contents of your backup. You should be able to see the files in your backup; you should be able to locate the backup drive obviously in order to do that.

Those are important things. Those are the kinds of things that you want to know early rather than late. I mentioned even seeing your backup drive because on occasion, the problem that people will run into is that for whatever reason, the rescue media that they've created for their favorite backup program doesn't necessarily see all possible external USB drives or network connections or whatever.

So, the thing to do there is like I said; boot from the rescue media; make sure that you can see your backup drive. You can see your backup images and then you can then browse the backup images or the backup files for their contents. You can see that those three things will get you like about a 95% confidence that the backup is going to work when you need it.

You can without booting from the rescue media, you can in fact go ahead and in most cases browse the backups; browse the contents of the backups and that's a nice way to just validate that the backups contain what you think they do. In a case like that, whenever I say, 'browse the backup,' I typically mean that I think I want you to look for two separate things. I think you want to go out and look for specific files that you've backed up; some of your data files, perhaps so that you know that the data files you care about are there but then also go ahead and browse and make sure some of Windows own system files are present.

Just look for C:\Windows and make sure it's there; make sure it's got some files in it; make sure system 32 is there; that kind of thing. That will again, give you some level of confidence that the backup you've got has both the system and your files in it. That coupled with the rescue media check that I mentioned a moment ago, I think is pretty much the best you can do without starting to invest additional hardware like a separate drive to test the backup to for real.

But like I said, that gives you like the 95% confidence level. And even if at that point, you verified that the backup contains your data files. That's the most important stuff. Even if for whatever reason the restore fails completely still after that, then you can at least know that, great, you may have to go to another machine or rebuild your machine from scratch, but your data files are still there; your data files at least are on that backup that you can recover those.

But that's the approach that I tend to suggest and the approach that I'll actually be covering in somewhat more detail along with examples of walking through those kinds of things in both Windows backup and Macrium Reflect in Maintaining Windows 7 backing up book that I'm in the process of completing.

I will say that I expect to run into a couple of issues with Windows backup. Windows backup is better than I thought it was, but it's still not what I would want a true backup program to be. In general, I still end up recommending to people if they want to use a 'real' backup program like Macrium Reflect because they tend to be much more flexible and make things like this easier to do.

So, I'm still kind of discovery mode on how will I do what I just told you to do using Windows backup and hopefully, you can. Obviously but hopefully, I'll be able to elaborate on that in the book and get some very specific step-by-step details to make sure that when you've got a backup, when you're using a backup with Windows backup, you can in fact restore to it or from it, I should say.

Windows backup always gives me an error and does not complete. I tried to use it to make a system image and save everything Windows chooses to backup. But at about 90%, it stops and says, 'Windows backup did not complete successfully'. The image worked but I checked the error code and it said that 'files may be in use by Windows' but I had nothing opened and I cannot do Windows backup in safe mode.

It kinda dovetails on what I was just saying about Windows backup. Windows backup I find much better than the preceding versions of Windows backup.

By the way, I'm assuming that this is Windows 7. If this is not Windows 7, if this is a prior version of Windows - Vista or XP - the backup program on those versions of Windows basically shouldn't be used. You should go out and get a real program. The backup program with Windows 7 is greatly improved. It finally falls into the category of being acceptable to the 'better than nothing' category which the other programs, believe it or not, did not.

So errors like this, unfortunately, I don't have a really good answer for you. It said that the file may be in use; Windows backup should be interacting with the system in such a way that it shouldn't matter if a file is in use. If the file that it's attempting to read (to backup) is in use, the backup program should be able to access those files anyway in order to specifically to back them up. That's support is supposed to be there in the operating system.

The only other thing that I can think of in a case like that. Two things: one, potentially, it's not the file it's trying to backup, but the place it's trying to back up to that is 'in use' that for whatever reason it's unable to write a file to the destination. Potentially, because it's in use (and I say potentially because again, some programs are kind of, I hate to say stupid, but I guess they kinda are at times).

Sometimes, a program will try to write to a file. it will fail and the program will not look any deeper as to why it failed. It will simply assume that well, gosh, I couldn't open this file for writing. Therefore, the file must be in use. So, it's certainly possible that there's something else wrong. It could be the backup drive is full; it could be that there's some kind of corruption on there. I honestly don't know. It's almost impossible to diagnose in a case like this and certainly, remotely with me sitting here not really being able to access your machine.

So that's not very helpful. I realize it's not very helpful. That's one of those things that absolutely would make me very nervous about that viability of that backup. The only thing I can honestly, truly recommend in a situation like this is to unfortunately, grab yourself a real backup program. I currently recommend Macrium Reflect. There is a free version. It may do what you need. It will certainly do free image backups.

I actually recommend moving to the paid version of Macrium Reflect because that then also adds the ability to do incremental backups and I think scheduling is also part of the paid version. Incremental backups are a big speed and space saver when you're doing regular backups. So, like I said, that didn't sound, it feels like I wasn't particularly helpful on that one, but the short answer is I don't know.

Article C5401 - May 30, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

June 1, 2012 9:00 AM

feedback: I am getting a message "backup complete ; but some files skipped." I used Windows backup. My Os is Windows 7 Pro 64 bit.
The USB external HDD is a 2T seagate and backup is loaded with their software. Are the skipped files in use by the system ? Should I be using the Seagate backup program. I also have
Adobe Photoshop elements 10 and that has a backup program. I believe in backups, Esley

I'd be concerned that anything that came with Adobe Elements would backup only things like photos or that Elements deals with. I believe the Seagate program is typically a rebranded utility from another manufacturer. I recommend Macrium Reflect these days.

Ron Hirsch
June 1, 2012 10:51 AM

I have recently switched to Macrium Reflexct (paid version). Both it and True Image offer an option to "validate" the backup. I never bothered doing this for most of my years with TI. But I now do it all the time with MR on my main machine, and TI on my backup machine.

While errors could still occur, I feel that validating gives you a much better chance of not having a corrupted image. And the reason I quite TI was mainly because of just that problem.

When I attemtped to use a TI iamge, I would oftern get an error message that the TIF file was not usable.

June 1, 2012 11:02 AM

I believe the most foolproof way to ensure you have a reliable full system backup is to clone (image) your system to another hard drive then boot from the backup drive to determine that it works.

June 1, 2012 3:40 PM

Right now I'm part way through my weekend imaging ritual. I've been using Macrium Reflect for several years now, and have rarely had a complete failure (I think three images in all have failed to produce a successful recovery). I schedule the backups to run overnight, and test first thing in the morning. Testing is a straight forward matter of mounting the new image as a drive, then recovering a file (any file) to my desktop.

I have noticed that the current Macrium Reflect recovery environment has changed significantly. On one occasion, I imaged the drive of a laptop, intending to put the image on to a larger capacity drive. Earlier versions of Macrium's recovery environment would recognise the larger drive capacity, and offer to expand the image. The version I used for this job (downloaded and installed specifically for the task) did not offer me any such option. I ended up downloading Easus to expand the partition. Not a major problem, but I was surprised that Macrium seems to no longer offer the oprion to expand an image to fit a larger capacity drive.

Guessing here, but perhaps the resize option is only available in one or the other of their Linux-based or Windows-PE-based restore disks, and you had the other?
June 1, 2012 4:15 PM

Hi Leo. Thank you very much for your articals every week , I very much look forward to them.
In regard to win 7 backup , I did it on 3 different drives , without a problem, However when I tried to do it for the second time on the same drive , i also got an error. Change the backup name , and start a fresh , seems to do the trick.
John W

June 2, 2012 5:18 AM

I am also using Macrium Reflect and after about 50 restores on my own systems and friends systems I have never seen a failure.

If you want to make a test I suggest to create a small 2GB partition and use that for testing.

I have made a little tutorial that should aquaint you with Macrium. It also contains a tutorial from a friend that describes the recovery process. use the free Macrium version. It is sufficient.

I recommend to produce the WinPE recovery disc. If you want to avoid the 2 hour download of the WAIK, you can get the WinPE .iso which you can burn directly to CD with e.g. ImgBurn from here:

June 2, 2012 6:45 AM

I have a two-pronged approach. I use True Image to create partition images of my System and Data partitions onto a Backup partition. These I then copy to an external USB3 disk drive. I found if I wrote the image directly to the external drive it would frequently fail the True Image verify test. I am using XXCOPY to copy the images to the external drive as it has a verify option. However, even though XXCOPY doesn’t report any errors some images will still have errors when the True Image verify is run.

This shows the importance of checking the images. I check each one twice, once when it is on the backup partition and again when it is transferred to the external disk, and I keep on transferring and checking until it is OK.

John Butler
June 26, 2012 12:38 PM

Dear Leo
As a long time computer professional I say there is no way of testing your backup unless you have two drives. With twin SATA drives and Windows 7 SP 1 & Casper 7 you can back up daily.
This is something I ask all my clients to install.
You can test any time by rebooting and switching to the back up drive.

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