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Author Topic: Strategies for using user-data folders in Windows 7?  (Read 9860 times)
tranglos
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« on: January 19, 2010, 06:02:06 PM »

"My Documents" (now called "Documents" in Windows 7), My Music, My Videos, Downloads and all those special folders where user data is supposed to live: how do you use them? Do you use them? Ignore them? Remap them to other locations?

Starting from Win95, Microsoft have been gradually expanding the scope of these folders. In Win95 I basically ignored them completely. In XP I couldn't just ignore them anymore, because a lot of apps want to use them all the time for all kinds of data. Now Windows 7 adds more of those folders and includes them in the new "libraries". Together with the stricter permissions regime, this means it's harder than ever to avoid those folders or not use them at all.

As to why one would avoid them, here's one fine reason: data safety and your backup strategy. Every respectable backup guide these days will tell you that the most robust scenario, and one that will minimize the chance you will one day cry, is to keep your data well separated from the system and software. Good advice is, at minimum, to keep the OS and all software on your system partition, and keep all your data on a separate partition on the same disk. This is no good in case of a hardware failure, so to be safer, make it separate disk drives, not just separate partitions.

This is what I do. I feel this is the safest solution, barring a remote colo server to store backups at. It has also made it extremely quick and easy for me to go from XP to Windows 7 and back in two days, since I had exactly zero worry about my data.

(Okay, a slight exception: I also backup and restore some apps' configuration, such as Firefox bookmarks or EmEditor settings. This is a gray area somewhere between software and data, and typically you don't have much control over where it is stored, especially if it's the registry. But losing my syntax highlighting schemes wouldn't really make me cry, so let's omit that for the moment. Also, the appdata folders can be remapped, too, though I've never done that.)

Now, what does Microsoft do? Why, exactly the opposite! Microsoft creates all the specially designated folders where everyone is supposed to keep their data, and these folders are always on the same partition as the system! Who needs best practices anyway? Now nearly all applications use those folders, and meanwhile, all these years Windows has never once asked you where YOU want to keep your data. I could praise MS for improving how the folders are designed and organized, but instead I'm going to berate them: you are forced into a little pen, the pen is dangerous for you, and it takes much effort (or at least some orientation and tweaking) to escape it. With each new version of Windows, it's getting harder.

In XP I have My Documents remapped to my secondary drive, and it mostly works well - except for some rare applications where the path location is hard-coded. I've seen such apps, but I couldn't give an example right now, so I guess they're not even on my radar anymore. OTOH, I have never remapped "My music" or "My videos", and prefer to store these types of files where Windows doesn't know. Reason: any media player these days will want to continually scan and index these locations, and I don't want to have three or four or five such indexes on my system. Also, I have seen a media player that, upon first run, not only indexed mp3s, but started pulling online data and **updating tags in my files** with it, all before I had a chance to say no. (I had to restore a lot of files from backup, thanks a lot.) So I keep my media where these applications won't find them until I manually point them to the folders.

That has worked well for me in XP. But during my short-lived foray into 7, I began to wonder. Is remapping still a good idea? Do the new libraries make any difference? I thought they might make remapping obsolete, since you can just add your "real" personal folders to the default libraries instead. Yet having done that, apps would still write data to C:\users\username, and I'm not going to allow this.

So what do you do with regard to these folders? What did you do in XP or Vista, and are you doing anything different in 7? Or planning to? What's the smart thing to do?


« Last Edit: January 19, 2010, 06:25:16 PM by tranglos » Logged

JavaJones
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« Reply #1 on: January 19, 2010, 06:25:43 PM »

It's interesting you bring this up because I've found this to be a real mess, and getting messier despite apparent efforts to the contrary, with each new Windows version (as you also said). Quite honestly I'm sad to say my current approach is neither very clear nor very safe for my data. On my XP machines I did use the My Documents folder extensively, and never remapped it in any of my systems. I know I should have, especially now, but I never really wanted to deal with the pain of it, and preferred just to keep regular full backups (which I must honestly say I don't do properly and regularly enough anyway!).

Now with Win7 I have tried to get a bit more deliberate, I do have a lot of stuff stored in a completely separate external RAID array, which is good, but there are still a good amount of documents, videos, etc. in the default folders. I like the Libraries concept and basic functionality, but hate the remaining legacy of the "My Stuff" folders that are still pointed to by default.

In my opinion this is one of those things the Windows setup should ask you, along with time zone, keyboard layout, etc. e.g. "What is your preferred location for documents and other important user information?" Now granted that is going to be an added complexity for many, but they can always provide a good, easy default for most people, even if it is just the current behavior. As long as there is an option for others to *easily* do this *and* it is setup such that it automatically remaps other apps, old and new, that would want to use that folder. Sadly I doubt we'll see this any time soon.

Anyway I'm afraid I don't have some great strategy to share with you. But I can say that my goal at this point is to move as much as possible away from using those folders and toward my own organizational scheme on my external RAID (which I intend to then backup to another external RAID eventually as full insurance - unfortunately off-site backup is not an option for me due to 1+TB of data). I don't however intend to try moving my User folders or anything. I'll back them up in full though, and leave it at that. It's a compromise unfortunately, and I wish it weren't necessary. Surely there's a better way...

- Oshyan
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nudone
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« Reply #2 on: January 20, 2010, 04:09:11 AM »

my solution: (on vista) i use MirrorFolder http://www.techsoftpl.com/backup/ and set it to do real-time mirrors of data and config files to another internal hard drive. all these "mirrored" files 'n' folders are then "backed-up" to yet another internal drive (which MirrorFolder also does for me).

it's not a freeware solution but i think the software is more than worth it ($39.00) for what it does. i know that my important stuff is always saved and duplicated - and i don't have to ever think about it as it's all done in realtime (except for the backup process).

i'll be using MirrorFolder when i start to use Windows 7. it makes the problem of file/folder locations trivial as it will mirror whichever you want to another hard drive (or even the same drive if you like).
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f0dder
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« Reply #3 on: January 20, 2010, 05:31:22 AM »

IMHO it would be wrong to ask about locations for this kind of thing at system install time, since 99% of the users aren't going to need it. Power users can tweak it after install, and it might even be possible to set the locations for unattended setups.

I've got mixed about tje "My Whatever" folders - I kind thing the spaces look ugly, but it has the advantage of grouping the folders together. The biggest mistake was placing them by default outside of the documents folder... requiring you to remap each one individually. OTOH it would've been nice if MS had added these folders much much sooner, so more apps would use them... instead of each app storing it's stuff pretty much "whereever".
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« Reply #4 on: January 20, 2010, 06:03:50 AM »

The my whatever folders were moved out of the (My) Documents root because too many company networks were having issues with backing up users music file collections.

I keep all of the (work related) user documents folders redirected to the server which has a RAID 5 array & is backed up (to tape) every night. With XP I have to either split out the music/movie/etc. folders to LM so they don't waste backup time/space. With Vista/7 this is already done...and that is precisely why it is done. I don't care if a user wants to store some or all of the contents of their MP3 player/or camera on their workstation. I just don't want to have to deal with the tape media requirements to backup all that crap on a nightly basis ... Because "the company" doesn't give a damn if somebody loses their music collection smiley

As an aside, most users tend to panic if they are faced with more than one of something. So for the universal (calm) simplicity of the common man... manufacturers put everything in one (drive) place. This keeps it nice and simple for clueless users & support people alike.

Think about it for a second. There are 26 letters in the alphabet. Johnny average gets to pick any letter he wants for a "data storage" partition. The box dies (as they sometimes do). Johnny hasn't a clue what a partition is...or what he chose to call it last year...

...Do you want to take that support call???   (I don't)

Some thing just have to be designed based on the lowest common denominator.
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cmpm
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« Reply #5 on: January 20, 2010, 09:30:04 AM »

Keeping an index for searching these folders is convenient.
Using windows indexing I can open the 'Owner' folder and search.
Even AppData files are in it, 'show hidden files' will reveal that.
This is in case I don't know where a file went.
Though sometimes the file is in the program files for the app.
Some kind of standard is needed, or set your own when clicking save.
But some things don't give a choice on location I think.

My Documents gets crowded as apps create their own folders in it.
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JavaJones
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« Reply #6 on: January 20, 2010, 02:37:45 PM »

Fair point, maybe an option on install wouldn't be great... then again I doubt 99% of users knew what to do with the networking prompts or perhaps some other ones on install of XP anyway, so perhaps installing the OS is, I dunno, an expert's thing to do in the first place? Wink After all 90% (yet another made up statistic, woo!) of end users (or more?) get their OS shipped pre-installed with their system.

Anyway I'll grant it's not an ideal solution. A better one would be an overhaul that eliminated the need for 2 partitions *on the same drive* just to separate data and applications. Partitions are not necessarily the best logical separation for these things, at least not as they're presently treated in Windows, e.g. showing as different drive letters. What about having a logical data "partition" accessible through drive manager and admin interfaces/tools, thus solving the data corruption and portability issue in the same way as current partitioning schemes, but still showing them as one drive for the lowest common denominator masses who, as Stoic Joker put it above, "...tend to panic if they are faced with more than one of something"

- Oshyan
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« Reply #7 on: January 20, 2010, 06:01:09 PM »

Personally, I like the direction they are going with them. They integrate well, generally that is, with third party apps and the data is always in an easy to find and easy to backup location. If you are unhappy with the default location in the users profile directory, just right click on the folder and move it using the location tab. Easy as pie. I have relocated my Downloads, Videos and Music folders to my WHS box, my Documents folder stays where it is and I have it synced nightly to a folder on the WHS box. I think its a good system they have built, by default it is well configured for the casual/new user, and the geek can do what they want.
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Stoic Joker
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« Reply #8 on: January 20, 2010, 06:19:46 PM »

The thing that really needs to be asked/addressed here is what is being separated, and why. The OP states that:
Quote
Every respectable backup guide these days will tell you that the most robust scenario, and one that will minimize the chance you will one day cry, is to keep your data well separated from the system and software.
Now while that is true, one needs to look at the context to really understand what it means. With a server there are performance concerns that require certain type of applications/data to be segregated to prevent fragmentation from bringing the whole shebang to a crawl. Which is why partitions are used to keep log files, databases, & etc. from scattering everything everywhere. So on a server where rapid restores are a must, the partition breaks make things less stressful. But, on a workstation, from a backup perspective, what does multiple partitions really gain you? In reality... nothing. Backup software does just fine following folder trees (and there's no real rush).

Manufacturers trying to out low-ball each other flooded the market with XP machines that had 256MB RAM, a "recovery" partition, and no install media. When the machines started getting a bit old, and XP memory requirements increased a bit, these machines unanimously celebrated by scuttling a hole in the drive right where the pagefile wasn't anymore. Sure, the recovery partition was "safe" on its own partition...but the drive was trashed which rendered it useless also. So keeping your data on a separate partition doesn't really in-and-of-itself solve anything. A separate physical disk, would, but that's not a cure-all either. All of the scuttled-to-death hard drives had one thing in common. They all trashed the pagefile's location, and My Documents was never an issue to recover.

So now you're thinking but viruses could eat my files...Yeah...and hiding them is going to help how? The last really aggressive file eater was Snow white; it ate a very large segment of CBS's archives...which I'm reasonably sure were not in anybodies My Documents folder. Hiding your porn stash might keep mom out of it...but a really aggressive bug, will only take a few milliseconds more before it starts chewing up your stash. In which case software based "real-Time" mirroring, only guarantees that you will have two identical copies of the same damaged file.

Other random "incidents" - Well if you really knew better ... it wouldn't have happened in the first place. But that's kinda the point of backing up (on a regular schedule) to external media. Not to mention that "emergency" reinstalls do not actually require formatting the drive, so even if I do manage to hose the OS I'm still not going to lose anything (parallel installs are quite easy).

Sure nobody's perfect, and anything I have that is extremely critical gets a multi-site backup. Once to my server, and once to the office server. The rest is just backed up to the (local) server.

Do I keep my documents in the default location? No it is on a separate working partition. But that is solely a maintenance issue driven by the high level of fragmentation caused by some of my activities. This allows the contents of the OS partition to remain a bit more static (Circular fixed size logs don't change size).


One thing I thought to add is that mirroring or any other RAID based disk configuration are only availability solutions that prevent the need for downtime and a restore operation if a disk fails, which maximizes uptime. They do not replace or even mitigate the need for a regularly scheduled back to external media.
« Last Edit: January 20, 2010, 06:36:37 PM by Stoic Joker » Logged
f0dder
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« Reply #9 on: January 20, 2010, 07:09:05 PM »

What about having a logical data "partition" accessible through drive manager and admin interfaces/tools, thus solving the data corruption and portability issue in the same way as current partitioning schemes, but still showing them as one drive for the lowest common denominator masses who, as Stoic Joker put it above, "...tend to panic if they are faced with more than one of something"
This has been possible for quite a while (iirc introduced with Win2k?) - using NTFS junctions, you can mount a partition pretty much anywhere in the filesystem, and you can even do this from diskmgmt.msc without having to bother with console apps. It's still GeekBoyPowerHead though, each partition has to have a separate mount point (ie, it's not a "fusion" filesystem wrapper), and some applications don't handle them properly (mostly only a problem with some file managers and backup tools, though).

Stoic Joker: while I agree with a bunch of your points, keeping OS+apps and data on separate partitions (on same drive) still has a lot of value for several people. Disk images are smaller that way, and it's much easier to do a restore (or fresh reinstall) as well, when you can format your system partition without losing your data partition smiley
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« Reply #10 on: January 20, 2010, 10:16:40 PM »

I've never really been a fan of imaging, unless you are transfering an existing system to a new HDD. On a fresh/clean install the format is not necessarily required. Using XP as an example.

Boot to WinPE (or other CLI) and on C: run the following commands
attrib *.* -h -r -s
del *.* (Just to kill the boot files) Granted this assumes no files we stored on the root of C:
ren progra~1 PROG_OLD
ren docume~1 DOC_OLD
ren Windows WIN_OLD

Reboot to XP install disk and run normal clean install - Even tho the old OS is still there, it's invisible to the installer. I do this frequently if there is a question about how/where to find drivers for oddball hardware. Or if I'm pressed for time and don't want to copy XGB of what not back and forth.
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f0dder
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« Reply #11 on: January 21, 2010, 03:50:13 AM »

Imaging is much faster than a reinstall - not only the OS installation process itself, but also the task of installing (and configuring!) third party apps. I haven't done imaging for years, but I've been contemplating getting into it again... also, when I do a clean reinstall, I do want the format to get rid of any leftover junk and have a fragmentation-free clean slate.
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« Reply #12 on: January 21, 2010, 06:00:59 AM »

Imaging is much faster than a reinstall - not only the OS installation process itself, but also the task of installing (and configuring!) third party apps.
True, but I've need to reinstall the OS on my primary machine once since 1999 (when Win2k came out), and that was due to a hardware (motherboard) failure. I installed Vista 3 years ago when I built this machine, then upgraded to 7 when it came out. Anything questionable is done with VMs.

I see Client machines killed in all sorts of ways on a regular basis, and they never have images or backups. So it's always a fun game to deal with the aftermath of what went wrong (hence the above solution).

Quote
I haven't done imaging for years, but I've been contemplating getting into it again... also, when I do a clean reinstall, I do want the format to get rid of any leftover junk and have a fragmentation-free clean slate.
I'm not really sure what you mean by leftover junk...anything on the drive that is unwanted is delete-able (I assume I'm missing something). Clean installs are not fragmentation free (pagefile will be in 3-5 pieces etc.). Obviously they're less fragmented then my sudo-parallel method. But if you're a stickler for data layout (I am), it'll still need a few passes from PerfectDisk before it's bounce-a-quarter-off-the-bed tight.
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« Reply #13 on: January 21, 2010, 09:39:38 AM »

In XP I remapped the entire "My Documents" to the secondary drive, and had no problems, all apps made correct use of all the predefined folders the OS provides, and those who don't, create folders in the root, as they should. Will do the same in Windows 7, if it lets me do so. Kinda like the OS provides such well-thought default folders (saves me some thinking :P), and the ability to move them as you like. Linux distros have been doing the same for a while, so I guess all of them can't be wrong.

The next step would be to let users remap "Documents and Settings" aka "Users" as they see fit as well. It would make backing up program settings sooo much easier. And in the process, they could punch in the head those apps which insist on not making use of "Application Data" and store the data in a folder created in the "<username>" root (VirtualBox, I'm looking at you).

OTOH, I have never remapped "My music" or "My videos", and prefer to store these types of files where Windows doesn't know. Reason: any media player these days will want to continually scan and index these locations, and I don't want to have three or four or five such indexes on my system. Also, I have seen a media player that, upon first run, not only indexed mp3s, but started pulling online data and **updating tags in my files** with it, all before I had a chance to say no. (I had to restore a lot of files from backup, thanks a lot.) So I keep my media where these applications won't find them until I manually point them to the folders.

What kind of nasty media players are you using? :S
« Last Edit: January 21, 2010, 09:42:32 AM by Lashiec » Logged
f0dder
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« Reply #14 on: January 22, 2010, 07:50:10 AM »

Quote
I haven't done imaging for years, but I've been contemplating getting into it again... also, when I do a clean reinstall, I do want the format to get rid of any leftover junk and have a fragmentation-free clean slate.
I'm not really sure what you mean by leftover junk...anything on the drive that is unwanted is delete-able (I assume I'm missing something).
System Volume Information smiley

Clean installs are not fragmentation free (pagefile will be in 3-5 pieces etc.).
True - and iirc you can't even get rid of pagefile + hibernation files when doing unattended setups... iirc it's possible to edit the pre-configured hive files so they should be disabled pre-install, but at least one of them gets generated anyway (agian, iirc).
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« Reply #15 on: January 22, 2010, 10:28:35 AM »

Quote
I haven't done imaging for years, but I've been contemplating getting into it again... also, when I do a clean reinstall, I do want the format to get rid of any leftover junk and have a fragmentation-free clean slate.
I'm not really sure what you mean by leftover junk...anything on the drive that is unwanted is delete-able (I assume I'm missing something).
System Volume Information smiley
...Which contains one metric boat load of system recovery snapshots and etc.

Hm... For some reason I ws thinking that the install cleaned that out. *Shrug* but it can be deleted if need be. I don't do it frequently enough to quip off the top of me head, but I'll play with it this weekend if I have time.
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« Reply #16 on: January 22, 2010, 10:46:52 AM »

I wouldn't expect the windows install to clean up System Volume Information, but I honestly don't know - it might not, it might, or it might remove snapshots but not other stuff in there... at any rate, there's something nice about knowing that you have a completely fresh filesystem, without the possibility of any old corruptions smiley
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« Reply #17 on: January 22, 2010, 12:00:16 PM »

The my whatever folders were moved out of the (My) Documents root because too many company networks were having issues with backing up users music file collections.
[ snip ]

Excellent comments. The corporate world is so different than the home. And small businesses are the ones that have to deal with things like this all the time with small staffs and even small budgets.
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« Reply #18 on: January 22, 2010, 12:14:18 PM »

Corporate IT has been dealing with this for decades and everybody still comes with their own twist on things. I have never seen two shops do it the same way. Even different departments within a company often handle these issues differently.

What is a lowly home user to do?
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« Reply #19 on: January 22, 2010, 03:08:22 PM »

Corporate IT departments hopefully have at least one person who has read and understands the MS white papers on how to setup a network.

Mid sized company networks (like the ones I see daily never do, and) tend to be a train wreck; growth never allows enough time for organization (until it's too late - Then I show up, and tend to sigh alot...).

Small companies (I see these too) that use work groups and working servers, are doomed. There is just no right way to do that in this day and age.

Home users can either just backup the user folder, or redirect the folders they use back into Documents (ala XP) and back that up. Or use some manner of imaging strategy as the tweaker/power user types do. For home users the method isn't really important ... the frequency is. Only exception is (in my experience) restoring from a multi session CD backup always fails. I once met a fellow with 3 complete sets of a CD backup...(9 CDs total)...all of which were full, yet failed to restore a single file. The external USB/FireWire/ESATA drives do seem to work well enough however.

I've got the purchasing managers home comp on the bench right now ... hundreds of family photos ... and a failing drive. They were going to do a backup - when they had time...
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« Reply #20 on: January 25, 2010, 05:33:11 AM »


In XP I have My Documents remapped to my secondary drive, and it mostly works well - except for some rare applications where the path location is hard-coded. I've seen such apps, but I couldn't give an example right now, so I guess they're not even on my radar anymore. OTOH, I have never remapped "My music" or "My videos", and prefer to store these types of files where Windows doesn't know. Reason: any media player these days will want to continually scan and index these locations, and I don't want to have three or four or five such indexes on my system. Also, I have seen a media player that, upon first run, not only indexed mp3s, but started pulling online data and **updating tags in my files** with it, all before I had a chance to say no. (I had to restore a lot of files from backup, thanks a lot.) So I keep my media where these applications won't find them until I manually point them to the folders.

This is exactly what I did on Win XP. Remapped "My documents" to another partition and never bothered about "My videos" and "My music". And yes there were a few programs that had trouble adapting to the change. One was Windows Live Writer from Microsoft itself. WLW stored drafts at C:\My Documents\My weblog post\ and wouldn't move to the new location. I had to create another folder on C named "My documents" as a workaround even though my actual documents folder was on another partition.

On Win 7 I haven't remapped the Documents folder. Instead I use a custom folder and added it to Libraries. I don't worry about applications using Documents folder to save program settings, as my real data is safe on another partition.
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« Reply #21 on: January 29, 2010, 05:08:27 PM »

Most users don't know what a 'partition' is, and don't care. They do care that they can get to 'Documents', 'Pictures' etc from the start menu, and that all programs by default save things to well known locations such as these. The alternative - that upon installation every user would have to create their own data directory and remember to use them, is terrible. And programs still wouldn't know that documents go into a shell folder for documents.

Remapping these custom folders is easy. Only advanced users care about keeping 2 partitions for OS and data, and a normal user shouldn't be expected to have to reinstall the OS and keep the original data. If you want to do that, Windows provides plenty of ways - Easy Transfer Wizard, System Backup etc. I don't really see what the problem is with special folders.

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« Reply #22 on: January 31, 2010, 01:53:48 AM »

It seems that everyone totally miscontrued the intent of my suggestion, which probably means it's not intuitive anyway (although in the actual UI I think it could be made to be). Anyway, I still find file management, backup, settings storage, and transfer are not totally solved problems, and I think MS could handle them better. But the existing solutions *are* decent.

- Oshyan
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phillfri
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« Reply #23 on: February 11, 2010, 08:35:33 AM »

Windows does have its history of being able to trash the OS partition, doesn't it :>)

Immediately after installing Windows 7 (clean install) I redirected the C:\Users\ folders to my D drive. All of them, including AppData for each user. I left the original C:\Users folders intact for those few programs that can't handle redirected folders. I found that Windows 7 networking and Media Player have some quirks that seem to cause issues if one doesn't redirect the entire C:\Users structure to the D: drive. And don't rename the core folders, e.g. "\Users", "\My Documents", etc.

Note: I Actually manually recreate the C:\Users folder structure on the D Drive, then I do the redirect/copy routine on the C:\Users folder and its subfolders. You may find that when redirecting the AppData folder(s) to the D drive you'll end up having to manually copy the AppData folder(s) contents to the D Drive to make sure you get it all. Some of the AppData folders contents may be in use while running Windows 7.

So I have the \Users, \Data, \Scripts, and \OSBkup folders on my D drive. This makes backing up a breeze. I use Image for Windows for timed backups of the OS partition to D:\OSBkup once a week. I use Synkron to synchronize/backup the D Drive folders to either a network or external hard drive (depending on the machine).

I've been running this setup on 5 machines, desktops and laptops, and haven't had any issues.

« Last Edit: February 11, 2010, 08:57:25 AM by phillfri » Logged
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« Reply #24 on: February 11, 2010, 08:38:57 AM »

Windows does have its history of being able to trash the OS partition, doesn't it :>)
Does it? Never happened to me on NT... the only times I've had bad corruption has been when writing my own (buggy!) kernel mode drivers, using flaky hardware, or 3rd-party unstable drivers (ATI and Creative, I'm pointing at you!)

On installing Windows 7 I redirected the C:\Users\ folders to my D drive. All of them, including AppData for each user. I left the original C:\Users folders intact for those few programs that can't handle redirected folders. I found that Windows 7 networking and Media Player have some quirks that seem to cause issues if one doesn't redirect the entire C:\Users structure to the D: drive. And don't rename the core folders, e.g. "\Users", "\My Documents", etc.
How did you do this redirection? Unattended setup scripts, vLite, ... ?
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