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Maintaining and Backing Up Your Computer and Files

Nobody likes it when their PC begins to misbehave or when they lose files, work, or can't even use the PC at all, but creating a robust system with backups of both your files and the operating system can appear daunting.

Maintaining Computer

Why is it important to maintain a healthy operating system and have backups in place? Surely, Windows 10 is the most reliable and robust version of the operating system that Microsoft has ever released. After all, it's the last major version of Windows, so why would Microsoft release a final desktop OS that's not completely perfect? Indeed Windows 10 comes with more tools for preventing, diagnosing, and mitigating problems than any version of Windows before it.

Windows becomes increasingly stable and reliable, the number of diagnostic and repair tools provided as part of the operating system also increases.

The simple fact remains, however, that your computer is still not a domestic appliance, and with the exception of Windows ARM-powered smartphones, which have the operating system embedded on a chip, every single file that makes up Windows can potentially be changed, deleted, or become corrupt quite easily.

What Causes Computers to Become Unstable

Here we talk about why computers become unstable, crash, and fail to boot. There are actually many causes for these problems, including the following:

  • Spikes, surges, and interruptions to the electricity supply can cause Windows files to become corrupt. You should always have your computer plugged into a surge protector (as well as an uninterruptable power supply if you live in an area with an unreliable electrical supply). The power lead coming loose in the computer and the dog leaning against the power button are also causes. (It is very amusing when he switches on the Xbox console and then can't figure out why the laminate floor seems to make a noise when he lies down.)
    Any interruption in the electrical supply can come at a time when a Windows file is being amended; it happens quite a bit. This problem can also cause the partition table-the database listing the physical location of each file on your hard disk-to become scrambled if the power is cut when it's being written to.
  • Poorly written software and drivers are a very common cause of Windows failures. Don't assume for a moment that drivers delivered through Windows Update always gives you trouble-free operation; We have seen many a Blue Screen of Death happen this way. The problem here is that there is no way to predict or accommodate for the truly limitless variations in hardware and software on a specific machine. Also, graphics drivers and anti-malware software are both embedded deeply into the Windows OS, and as such they can cause utter havoc when their code includes an error or incompatibility.
    This is one of the reasons why Apple computers are reliable. As the manufacturer of both their operating system and all their hardware, they have complete and very tight control over the quality of drivers for the platform, and those drivers don't have to be compatible with practically every combination of hardware and software on the planet. It is the same with the App Store. Don't think that these app stores are just money-making schemes for Apple or Microsoft-they are, in fact, ways to ensure that the correct development tools are used and that apps are tested for stability, which encourages apps to be written in the right way.
    With the 64-bit (x64) versions of Windows 10, Microsoft has a strict signed-driver model in which all hardware drivers must be tested and signed off as stable using Microsoft certification tools. At the moment, it is recommended but isn't mandatory, and because it can be expensive, many hardware manufacturers choose not to pay for it. The 64-bit version of Windows 10 is installed by default on almost all new PCs with the almost sole exception of cheap, low-power tablets.
  • Malware and viruses sneak onto the computer by taking advantage of the user. These malicious programs can cause all manner of havoc on a machine before you even know what's happened.
  • Installing too many programs and the creation of temporary files causes a computer to fail over time. The more you try to do with your computer, the greater the risk that something will go wrong; and the more unnecessary files you have, the slower the computer will become over time. It used to be the case that Windows had a ceiling of about 30 installed programs it would happily accept. This hasn't been the case for some years, but the fact remains that you have no idea what effect the operating system, service and driver calls, and installed apps will have on your other installed apps or drivers.

How Is Windows 10 Mobile Different?

Windows smartphones run a modified version of the Windows 10 operating system-called Windows 10 Mobile-written onto a silicon chip instead of file-by-file onto a hard disk. This offers greater speed because operating system files can load as quickly as they can from the fastest solid-state drive (SSD) in a desktop or laptop PC, and it's far less likely that a sudden power surge will corrupt any files (and the fact that smartphones are much less likely to be in use when plugged into mains electricity).

You also cannot install win32 desktop software on Windows 10 Mobile handsets for use with Continuum. You can only download apps from the Windows Store. This reduces the chance of poorly written software causing problems. Also, desktop apps are incompatible with the different processor architecture of ARM chips.

Using the Windows 10 Security and Maintenance Center

Open the Control Panel (which is quickest from the Windows key+X menu) and in the System and Security category, you'll see a Security and Maintenance link. If you've used Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, you'll probably recognize what used to be called the Security and Maintenance Center that you would open by clicking the white flag icon on the taskbar; genuinely, the irony of finding out about Windows problems by clicking a white flag of surrender always made chuckle.

You see that the Security and Maintenance Center is split into several collapsible panels, with additional controls available beneath them. If there are any alerts for you, they are displayed with a traffic-light color to highlight their significance. Amber alerts inform you of things that could cause your computer to not perform optimally, such as a hardware driver or Windows Update being available but not yet installed. Red alerts inform you of critical problems, such as your anti-malware software being out of date, or the firewall being disabled.

Each highlighted message includes a description and a link on how you can either fix the problem or get more information about it.

Next to each of the two main collapsible panels (Security and Maintenance) are expand icons you can click to see all the controls and get all the information available to you. The Security panel contains information on your firewall, anti-malware, spyware and unwanted software protection, user account control, SmartScreen web malware protection, and Microsoft account.

The Maintenance panel provides information on your PC's reliability history, its automatic maintenance schedule, HomeGroup settings (only in Home and Pro), and File History backup. Hard drive statuses and device driver updates. Here there are links to allow you to quickly open the settings for each item so that you can manage them and others of which we'll look at in this tutorial.

Beneath these sections are quick links for the Automated Troubleshooters, which can fix common problems across a wide-range of categories by resetting Windows components to their factory state, and a recovery feature to reinstall Windows without affecting your files or user account(s) should you encounter a more serious problem.

On the left side of the Security and Maintenance panel is a View archived messages link. If you believe you have missed an important notification or alert, or have dismissed something you perhaps shouldn't have, you can click this link to display a list of previously displayed security and maintenance messages and notifications.

Managing Security and Maintenance Center Messages

To customize the messages you receive in the Security and Maintenance Center, click Change Security and Maintenance Settings in the top of the left pane. This opens a settings window with check boxes that allow you to turn on or off messages for all the alerts in the Security and Maintenance Center.

Using the Automatic Maintenance System in Windows 10

Windows 10 includes an automatic maintenance system that helps keep your computer running happily and healthily. These settings are in the Maintenance section of the Security and Maintenance Center. Click Change maintenance settings, or search for maintenance in the Start menu.

The automatic maintenance includes deleting temporary and other unwanted files (such as those used by Windows Update), defragmenting your hard disks, and checking for and installing updates for the operating system.

You can configure how and when you want this tool to run by choosing the time of day you want it to run. The time of day selection is important because if you are using a laptop or a tablet, Windows 10 wakes from sleep to perform the maintenance. It doesn't wake the computer if it is switched off, however. The Automatic Maintenance tool cannot be disabled from this panel, but it is an extremely useful way to keep your PC running smoothly. Should you want to disable automatic maintenance, you can do so from the Troubleshooters settings options.

If you think your computer will be switched off at the time maintenance is due to be performed, you can choose the time that maintenance is performed.

You can run these tools independently as Disk Cleanup and Defragmenter, both of which are available by searching from the Start menu.

Using the Automated Troubleshooters

In the Security and Maintenance Center, you can run Windows 10's automated troubleshooters by clicking Troubleshooting. There are many troubleshooters for almost every aspect of Windows, including networking and drivers.

Note: The automated troubleshooters resets Windows components and drivers to their factory state. This is often enough to fix many problems, but if the issue is caused by a conflict with another driver or software package, the troubleshooters are unlikely to fix the problem.

The troubleshooters are wizard-based and give clear information. They can be run easily by users of any technical ability. They are split into handy categories covering Programs, Hardware and Sound, Network and Internet, and System and Security. Each troubleshooter is explained in plain language.

Tip: You can also access the automated troubleshooters by clicking Troubleshooting in the Control Panel.

You can change settings for the troubleshooters by clicking Change Settings in the left pane.

The Windows 10 Task Manager

The Windows Task Manager is often seen as the place from which you can terminate hung up and offending apps, but it's actually a supremely powerful and useful tool. By default, you see a list of running programs with an End Task button in the bottom right of the window. It can be used to forcibly close troublesome apps, but clicking the More Details button expands the window.

When you click the More Details button, the Task Manager expands to display not just more information but also a wealth of data about your running programs, apps, services, processes, hardware, and connections. The first thing you see is the Processes tab, which provides a heat-mapped display of the current processor, memory, disk, and network usage for all your running apps and desktop programs. This means that if something is hogging huge amounts of memory, for example, you can see it straightaway.

To close a program in the Task Manager, highlight the program and click the End Task button in the bottom right of the window.

Tip: If you are unsure about which programs and processes you can shut down, the Task Manager offers several ways to find out. If you right-click a process, you can select options to view its Properties or open its File Location. Both reveal information about the process. You can also search online for this process from the context menu, which provides even more detailed information about the process.

There is a great deal you can now do with the Task Manager in Windows 10. The Performance tab now provides live graphs similar to the Performance Monitor, but with general overviews of performance information rather than the extremely detailed metrics offered by its big brother.

The App History tab is a great way to determine if the apps you are using in Windows 10 are well written and fit for purpose. Let's say, for example, that you are finding that something is chewing through your mobile broadband (metered network) allowance. On the App History tab, you can see the total amount of data that your apps have used, even when those apps are not running.

The Task Manager also allows you to see the amount of data consumed by the Live Tile for an app. Probably less useful is the processor time taken by an app. This chart doesn't take into account how much you use one app compared to another. Metrics that are more relevant are gained through the Processes tab when an app is running or through the Performance Information and Tools page.

Tip: You can open the Task Manager by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Del on your keyboard and selecting Task Manager from the options, by right-clicking the taskbar, or from the Win+X administration menu.

The Details tab is more like the traditional Task Manager, if you prefer that look and usage. Here you see a complete list of every app and process running in Windows 10. It works the same way as the old Task Manager in that you can right-click a program to shut it down.

It is interesting that only through the Details tab can you shut all the dependencies for a program. This means that when you shut down the app, all the processes and other programs that rely on it are also shut down automatically.

Tip: You can shut down all the dependencies for an app under the Details tab by right-clicking the app or process and selecting End Process Tree from the options.

Customizing the Task Manager

When you click the Performance tab in the Task Manager, you are presented with a series of live graphs displaying the current status of your PC's processor (CPU), memory, hard disk(s), networking (Ethernet), and Wi-Fi, and other network connections, if applicable. This view can be customized in a great many ways.

You customize these views by right-clicking any of the graphs, both in the left pane and in the main view, and it's worth spending a few minutes playing with these views because they not only provide a great deal of valuable (and additional) information, but they can also become useful widgets for leaving on your screen if you are troubleshooting a problem and want to keep an eye on something like your network connection. These mini windows can also be resized to make them smaller (or larger), making them even easier to leave running on your desktop, though you can only have only one open at a time.

Managing Startup Apps

The Task Manager is where you manage the apps that run at Windows startup. Not only does it make this feature simpler for nontechnical users, but it also adds a very helpful Startup Impact column, which tells you-in simple low, medium, and high terms-how long the app slows down your computer when you start up.

You can disable apps by highlighting them and then clicking the Disable button in the bottom right of the window. You can also re-enable apps the same way because disabled programs are not removed from the list.

You only see win32 desktop software and not Store apps here because they can't be set to run at startup. Any Live Tiles are automatically enabled unless you disable them by right-clicking the tile and selecting Disable Live Tile from the context options that appear.

Using Windows Update

Windows Update in Windows 10 is managed through the Settings app, available from a quick link in the Start menu (or the All Apps view in Windows 10 Mobile) or the Notification Center. Windows Update keeps your PC up-to-date with the latest security and stability patches and updates, and also includes updates and improvements for both Windows and other Microsoft software that you have installed, such as the Windows Essentials Suite and Microsoft Office.

Note: If you are using Windows 10 Home, you cannot choose to not download and install Windows Updates as you could in previous Windows versions.

Managing Windows Update Settings in Windows 10

When you have launched Settings, navigate to the Update & Security section to find Windows Update. It is a very simple affair. Windows Update automatically installs all critical, important, and recommended updates for a computer. There's very little the user has to do. In many ways, especially with regard to safeguarding people's personal privacy and security, it's exactly what the average nontechnical computer user needs. More-technically savvy users, however, may prefer the added control that comes with the full Windows Update desktop settings, which are covered in the following section.

Note: If you've been used to hiding updates you don't want installed in Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, such as language packs or regional antitrust updates, this option is no longer available in Windows 10. This is because of Microsoft's aim to ensure that all PCs are fully patched and up-to-date all of the time. Having a PC base that's up-to-date reduces support costs for Microsoft, and makes it easier for software, hardware, and particularly anti-malware vendors to make sure that their software is fully compatible with PCs.

The factory options for Windows Update are for all updates to be downloaded, and the PC user to be notified that they're ready to install when the user chooses, at the next shutdown, or automatically after a few days. To get more control, click the Advanced Options link and you'll see a drop-down box offering several choices of how and when updates are installed. Additionally, a check box is available to install updates to other Microsoft products through Windows Update. This includes Microsoft Office, and it is recommended you check this option to maximize the security on your PCs.

If you are using Windows 10 Pro, you also see an option to Defer upgrades. You should only check this option if your PC runs critical apps for your business and cannot face any down-time. This option allows you to delay the automatic installation Windows Updates for up to eight months.

Note: Users of Windows 10 Enterprise running mission-critical PC system administrators have an additional option called Long Term Servicing, which only installs security and stability patches through Windows Update, and delays all feature updates for up to ten years.

Downloading Updates from Other PCs on Your Network

If you live in a rural area or somewhere else without a super-fast broadband connection, it can sometimes be difficult and frustrating to download large numbers of Windows Updates. The problem is compounded further when major updates to the operating system are released, and further still when you have multiple PCs in the home that are all trying to pull these updates down from the Internet. It's no easier in the workplace where even the fastest broadband connections can slow to a crawl with dozens, or even hundreds of PCs updating themselves simultaneously.

Fortunately, Windows 10 has a solution for this, and it's come from the most unlikely of places. You may be familiar with peer-to-peer networking, which is commonly associated with the illegal downloading of movies and music from the Internet. Clicking Choose how updates are delivered from the Windows Update Advanced Options enables you to choose between downloading all the updates for that PC from the Internet or only from other PCs on your local network.

Choosing the PCs on my local network option prevents that PC from downloading any updates from the Internet. Instead, it gets them from nearby PCs that have downloaded all, or even part of the updates. One of the best features of peer-to-peer networking is that a PC can share a file even it only has a part of it, with the remaining parts of the updates coming from other PCs.

In the workplace, there is a wired or a wireless network over which Windows 10 PCs can share updates. This ensures that every PC has all the updates it needs, without using unnecessary Internet bandwidth. In the home, if your PCs cannot see each other easily across the network (you can click Network in File Explorer to see if Network Discovery is turned off), you can set up a HomeGroup to share updates.

Viewing and Removing Installed Windows Updates

Sometimes you might want to uninstall a Windows Update, perhaps because it is known to cause problems, and installation has resulted in your PC or a device becoming unstable. In this case, you want to remove it and either install the correct driver manually, or wait for Microsoft to issue a fix before reinstalling it. You can see what updates have already been installed in the Windows Update Advanced Options by clicking the View your update history link. This shows you a list of all of your installed updates, what they were, when they were installed, and if they are still waiting for you to restart your PC to complete.

At the top of this page is an Uninstall updates link, which takes you to a Control Panel console, where you can uninstall an update by right-clicking it and selecting uninstall from the context menu that appears.

It's important to note here that because you cannot hide updates in Windows 10, you also cannot prevent your PC from reinstalling an update. This option, therefore, is really only for businesses running Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise, where updates are delayed, or the PCs are on Microsoft's Long Term Servicing branch, where an update has been installed accidentally.

Managing Hardware Drivers and Rolling Back Windows Update

Some updates, especially drivers, occasionally cause Windows to become unstable. If this happens to you, be aware that Windows 10 creates a System Restore Point on desktop and tablet PCs whenever it runs Windows Update, so you can roll back to the last restore point to undo the driver change.

To do this, open the Control Panel, which you can do from the desktop by pressing the Windows key+X and selecting it from the menu, or by searching for Control Panel in the Start menu. Next, change the View by option to large or small icons (either is good), and then click Recovery. In the Recovery panel, you have the option to Open System Restore.

You can now restore Windows to the way it was before the update was installed. When you run Windows Update again, you can hide the offending update so that it doesn't bother you.

When you click an available restore point in the list, you also have the option to click the Scan for affected programs button. This presents details of any apps that might be uninstalled or changed, perhaps because they were installed or updated after this restore point was created.

You can also check the Show more restore points box to show the full list of available System Restore points on your PC, if any exist. The standard view only shows the two or three most recently created.

Getting App Updates from the Windows Store

Updates for your purchased and downloaded apps don't come through Windows Update, even if you have Microsoft Update turned on and the apps are written by Microsoft. All updates for anything downloaded from the Windows Store come through the Windows Store.

When you install Windows 10, all apps from then on are automatically updated when new versions become available. You won't be notified. You can control this, however, and turn it off by clicking your Account icon in the Windows Store app, and then clicking the Settings option in the menu that appears. This displays the updates panel, which includes the update controls.