How Can I Backup My Surface? (Windows 8.1)

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Backup my SurfaceIf you’ve been using computers for any length of time and you have a Surface RT/2 or Surface Pro (1,2 or 3), you’ve probably already asked yourself “how can I backup my Surface?”.

If you haven’t you really should.

You need to protect your data in case something bad happens. This is especially true with tablet computers (like the Surface) and laptops since they are more likely to be dropped or stolen.

In this post, We’re going to be covering functionality built into the Surface you can use to make sure your files and operating system are recoverable if the worst happens.

Backup my Surface: A Two-Layered Approach

Microsoft built mechanisms into your Surface to make sure your operating system and your data can be recovered in the event something goes horribly wrong. In our approach to keeping your Surface backed up, we will protect your operating system and your data using different (but, built-in) tools.

This methodology will work with both Surface RT/2 and Surface Pro line of tablets so there’s no need to figure out which set of tools to use depending on which Surface model you have.

Here’s a quick overview of the tools we’ll use and what they’ll each be used to protect.

  • File History: We’ll use file history to protect files like your documents, music files, screenshots and Internet Explorer bookmarks. In other words, all the stuff you’ve created or saved on your Surface.
  • Make Recovery Partition: We’ll also make a copy of the recovery partition from your Surface so if something really bad happens to the data on your hard drive, you’ll be able to re-install Windows.

If you use the tools as described in this post, your operating system and data will be recoverable so long as the hardware is functional. This will pretty much protect you from anything that could go wrong short of your Surface catching on fire.

Sound good? Let’s get started….

Backup my Surface: File History

File History is built into Windows and can backup your files either manually or automatically depending on how you have it setup. It will, by default, get the files in the following locations:

  • Libraries (Documents, Pictures, Music, Videos, and Downloads)
  • Contacts
  • Internet Explorer Favorites
  • Desktop

If your files are lost, damaged, or deleted, you can simply restore them. You can also do what’s called a “point in time” restore where you can get a particular version of a file. This is especially handy if you accidentally changed a file but can’t remember exactly when it happened. You can just go back far enough to a day you’re sure it was correct.

To begin backing up and creating a history of your files, you’ll first need to set up a File History and select a save location. You have two choices for the save location: External Drive or Network.

The External drive option has the advantage of allowing you to take your backups with you anywhere whereas the Network drive option needs you to be somewhere where the designated network share can be opened.

Setup File History Backups (External USB Drive)

  • Plug a USB drive into your Surface (Something like this Kingston DataTraveler 101). If you do not have a drive plugged in, the rest of these steps will not work.
  • Swipe in from the right edge of the screen
  • Select Search
  • Enter “File History” in the search box
  • Tap the  File History option. NOT the File History Settings option (It’s the Modern version of the same app but, it doesn’t allow you to set all the needed settings)

backup my surface

  • Select the Advanced Settings option on the left of the window
  • Make the selections the same as shown here. If you don’t the file history will try to save too much data to your USB drive and fill it up very quickly

backup my surface

    • Tap Save changes to get back to the previous screen
    • You may need to tap the Select a different drive option if it doesn’t find it automatically. Once you have the proper drive selected, tap Turn On if it doesn’t automatically do so when it finds your drive.

backup my surface

It will automatically start backup up to the USB drive. There is some status text that will tell you when it’s done backing up. Simple, huh?

Anytime you want to backup your files, just go to the File History screen and tap Run Now with the backup USB drive plugged in.

Setup File History Backups (Network Drive)

This section is for a little more advanced users. If you’re not comfortable setting up file shares or joining home groups, you’ll probably want to stick to using a USB drive.

However, if you have the skill and desire use a network drive as your backup target, simply tap on Select Drive when the File History window appears.

backup my surface

Next, choose Add Network Location and browse to the shared drive you want to use as your backup target. Using the network drive as a target does have some advantages:

  • You don’t have to worry about losing your USB drive with your backups.
  • It will automatically do backups when it can see the network drive.

The downside is that you need to have a separate computer configured to serve out the file share.

You can also add multiple locations so that you could have backups on your USB drive and Network drive. This is a really good way to ensure maximum protection of your data. To setup multiple locations, simply tap Select Drive from the File History window and browse to the additional location.

Restore your files from File History

Knowing how to restore your files is just as important, if not more so, as backing them up. In this section, we’ll go over how to restore your files from a File History backup.

  • Plug the USB drive with your backups into your Surface (If you used a network share as your backup location, make sure you can connect to it)
  • Swipe in from the right edge of the screen
  • Select Search
  • Enter “File History” in the search box
  • Tap Settings and select File History

backup my surface

  • Choose Restore Personal Files from the left side of the window
  • Select the file(s) you wish to restore. You can select the date to restore from by swiping left and right or by using the arrows at the bottom of the screen. You can also use the search box if you can’t find the file by browsing.

backup my surface

  • Select what you want to restore to its original location, then tap the Restore button. If you want to restore your files to a different location than the original, press and hold the Restore button, tap Restore To, and then choose a different location.

Backup my Surface: Create a Recovery Drive

It’s time to cover the second layer of our strategy, protecting your operating system files.

Microsoft included something called a recovery partition on your Surface. It contains the files needed to completely re-install your Surface from scratch. This is usually something you wouldn’t want to do but sometimes a virus or accident can make re-installing Windows the only way to get your Surface back up and running.

Windows also comes with a built-in tool to create a USB recovery drive. This drive contains a copy of the recovery partition and can be very valuable if the partition on your Surface is damaged or missing for some reason.

You will need an external USB flash drive with at least 4 GB of storage for Surface RT/2 and with at least 8 GB of storage for a Surface Pro tablet to make the recovery drive.

Note: Creating a recovery drive will erase anything already stored on your USB flash drive. Make sure to transfer any important data from your USB drive to another storage device before using it to create a Surface USB recovery drive.

  • Make sure your Surface is plugged in and connected to power. Don’t skip this step even if your battery is fully charged.
  • Plug an empty USB thumb drive into the USB port.
  • Swipe in from the right edge of the screen, and then tap Search.
  • Enter Recovery in the search box.
  • Tap Settings, then tap Create a recovery drive.
  • If you get a prompt for admin rights, tap Yes so the recovery drive tool will open.
  • When the recovery drive tool opens, make sure the box is checked next to “Copy the recovery partition from the PC to the recovery drive” then tap Next.

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  • In the Select a USB drive window, make sure the USB drive is selected and tap Next.

Free up space on Surface

  • Now you’ll see the “Create the Recovery Drive” window. Tap Create.

Free up space on Surface

  • The recovery image and recovery tools will be copied over. It will take up to 15 minutes if your battery dies, it could be a problem (which is why the first step was to plug your Surface into power.)

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  • When it’s done copying over the recovery tools, you’ll get the window below, tap Finish.

backup my surface

  • Eject your USB drive gracefully. You don’t want to risk corrupting your recovery drive at this point by being impatient.

That’s it! You now have a copy of the recovery system on your USB drive. Keep it safe and if you ever need to re-install the operating system on your Surface and the on-board recovery partition is missing or damaged you won’t be dead in the water.

I hope this helps you feel better about the safety of your data. Like we said earlier, If you’ve turned on File History and created a recovery drive, there’s not much short of your Surface catching fire that can’t be recovered.

As always, if you have any questions just let me know.

Tim


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is a professional geek with over 23 years of experience working in Information Technology and dealing with everything from large-scale storage to remote systems management and automation for organizations such as Texas Instruments, Mobil Oil, and the University of Michigan (where he was an Academic IT Director). He co-founded JTRTech along with Joanna to realize his long-time dream of working for himself.

25 COMMENTS

  1. How do you restore the files to a different Surface tablet (if original one was stolen or broken)? Is it as simple as going through the steps detailed in the Restoring sections of your post, or do you need to set something else up first?

    • Ivo,

      Sorry for the delay, we were on vacation without internet.

      Anyway,you should be able to do this. Just setup the other computer to do file history and choose the same recovery drive. When you do so, it should recognize the old files present.

      Hope this helps,
      Tim

  2. I have a quick question.

    My mum bought a second hand surface RT about a year ago now. All is well with the tablet except the previous owner is still log in as the administrator. So she is not able to up-date certain things or download apps from the store, without it asking her for the password (which she doesn’t know).

    She went back to the shop, but they said they couldn’t help her and she would need to take it to a PC shop for them to wipe it. Is their a cheaper way of wiping the PC instead of taking it to the shop, or is that the best option?

    • Hi Tian,
      You can reset the Surface back to factory default yourself. It’s easy but you will need to install all the Microsoft updates after you do it. Go to PC Settings under Recovery and chose Remove Everything and Reinstall Windows option.
      After it’s done, it will allow you to set everything up and will make the first account you create the new administrator.
      Good luck.
      Joanna

      • Thank you so much Joanna, I followed what you said, and it’s up and running now. Really appreciate it look forward to easing more of your posts. Happy new year. Tian

  3. Working on my Pro3 and thinking about braving the Windows 10 waters. That has me trying to do the backups I should already be doing.

    My problem is it doesn’t work…. I’ve attached an external drive with +500G free space and searched my way to File History and enabled it….. the backup now button un-grays and I press it… It says it is backing up my files but I don’t see anything going to the drive and if I look away and look back … it just says my files have not been backed up yet.

    Thoughts?

    Thanks,
    Al

    • Lee,

      The encryption shouldn’t be a problem so long as it’s Bitlocker and not a 3rd party app.

      As far as the target device, I don’t know. I’ve always just used NTFS on my target. If you only have FAT formatted target drives, Try it.

      If File Recovery doesn’t like it, it will let you know.

      Sorry I couldn’t be more help but, I’d rather be honest and tell you I don’t know then lead you in the wrong direction.

      Tim

  4. I want to backup my surface pro 3, since I just discovered that spotlite Windows app have been removed from Windows store.
    So if I do a backup with file history, does it also backup my Windows store app?
    Or do I have to do a recovery partition? and is a recovery partition possible to Network drive, instead of usb.

    And I also want to say thank you for such a good side. Your post have been a very appreciated help.

    • Sorry for the delay. Real life was catching up to me…

      Anyway, neither the File History or Recovery Drive options will do what you want.

      the intention of those two backup methods is to make sure your data is protected with the idea that you can always re-download/install apps. This tends to keep the backup sizes more manageable.

      To do what you want to do, you need to perform a System Image Backup.

      Basically, this type of backup dumps everything into a single file. the downsides are that the file can be huge and you can’t really just get one file back. It’s an all or nothing thing.

      To do a System Image Backup, go to Control Panel\System and Security\File History and look in the lower left corner where it says System Image Backup.

      You’ll need an external drive or network share that’s at least as big as the drive in your SP3 to make it work.

      All you have to do is follow the instructions on screen and be patient, it could take a while.

      If you ever need to restore a system image backup….

      – Navigate to PC Settings, Update and Recovery, Recovery and click the Restart Now button under Advanced Startup. Your Surface will restart.

      – At the Choose an Option screen, choose Troubleshoot then Advanced Options.

      – Next, choose System Image Recovery. Your Surface will restart again.

      – At the System Image Recovery screen, select your user name and then type your password when prompted. Finally, the Re-Image Your Computer wizard will start.

      From there just follow the wizard.

      Be aware, though, this will completely wipe all of the data on your Surface and restore it back to what the backup has recorded. This includes all of your local documents, pictures and the like and might even cause a conflict issue with OneDrive data.

      Tim

  5. Hi Tim,
    I just want to replace my sp2 128gb with a sp2 512gb.
    With the option System Image Backup and System Image Recovery, Did I get all the software that was installed on the 128Gb? I have sql server, oracle, visual studio, etc.

    Thanks
    Sergio

    • You can try it. I’ve had “iffy” results trying to migrate hardware using backups over the years. Sometimes it works, sometimes it results in weird issues.

      That said, it’s usually different chipsets/drivers/CPU’s/etc.. that cause those issues.

      Since you’re going from an SP2 to an SP2, you should be fine. Just make sure you don’t wipe the old SP2 until the new one is checked out. Also, you’ll want to make a recovery drive for the new one just in case you have to back out of it.

      Tim

  6. A few thoughts…
    1) For those who do significant amounts of computer work, it’s actually quite painful to reinstall and reconfigure all apps. This is particularly true when each app may have a license key, per-computer enabling, and extensive configuration information. Thus, the system image recovery can be hugely important.
    2) A caution about Bitlocker: the SP never warns that Bitlocker has encrypted a partition… it just does it silently. And, seemingly nicely, it also saves the recovery key out on the cloud. Problem? Well, if you take one of those backups to a new SP after your old one breaks, you just may discover it is unreadable because you didn’t know it was encrypted AND the recovery key has been replaced by the recovery key for your new hardware copy.

    This just bit me last week. Fortunately, while my old Surface had been turned in for the replacement, it had not yet been wiped (less than 18 hrs after the tradein) and still had 11 minutes of battery. Barely enough to get the old key. WHEW.

    • 1) Personally, I’d do something like disk mirroring in that case (because I’ve often had issues with system image restores in the past) but, you raise a good point.

      2) That is a good word of caution about Bitlocker. Maybe I’ll update the post to reflect it.

      Thanks for contributing this good info,
      Tim

  7. hi there
    firstly, thank u for ur great post
    secondly, according to ur instruction, I put a mini sd card in my surface 3 and use file history for back up. I didn’t remove it cause I supposed it’d be great if file history could back up from my files automatically. Now this is my question, keeping a sd card in the slot permanently won’t damage either device or the sd card?
    thirdly,is it sd card a safe way for back up?
    fourthly, if the sd card got full, what would be happened?
    I mean would new data overwrite the old one?
    tnx in advance

    • 1) Thanks
      2) It’s safe to keep the card in there, it won’t hurt it or the Surface.
      3) A Micro SD card is fine for backups.
      4) If the drive gets full, you’ll get an error until you free up space and there’s an option in File History to get rid of old versions of a file 9though it will keep the newest version so you have a viable backup)

      By default, new versions will not overwrite old versions but, there is a setting for how long to keep a version of a file. You can play with he settings to find a balance that works for you.

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