Get IT Done: Recover missing Outlook Express data after upgrading to Windows XP

Solve problem of missing Outlook Express data after upgrading to Windows XP

I'm generally a bit slow to upgrade operating systems unless there’s a compelling reason to switch. So I didn't switch from Windows 2000 Professional to Windows XP until XP had been out for several months. In fact, the main reason I switched was that Windows 2000 was locking up when more than one Office application was running. I never discovered the cause, but moving to XP eliminated it.

When I did upgrade to Windows XP, I discovered a problem that affects a lot of users who make the same move: Outlook Express doesn't make the transition very well. If you've recently moved to XP or are planning such a move, this Daily Drill Down will not only help you recover missing Outlook Express data, but also help you avoid the problem altogether.

Supporting Outlook Express
Although a lot of IT departments have made the move to Outlook, many end users still rely on the old standby that comes with Internet Explorer—Outlook Express. This venerable e-mail client has been around for a long time, and although some would argue that it suffers from some security problems, it's a good choice for many users. After all, it's free, and has the ability to work with newsgroups; something Outlook doesn't do (the exception being newsgroups stored in Exchange Server public folders, which are accessible from Outlook). Outlook Express even beats Outlook at a few tasks; for example, Outlook Express offers some rule features Outlook doesn’t. Nevertheless, at some point in your IT career you’ll probably need to support someone who uses Outlook Express.

Store folders
Like all e-mail clients, Outlook Express lets you use multiple folders to separate your messages and newsgroups and gives you the ability to create additional folders as needed to help you manage those messages effectively. However, Outlook Express folders don’t translate directly to folders in the file system. Instead, Outlook Express uses files to represent each folder.

Outlook Express stores all of your data—e-mail messages, newsgroup messages, and so on—in a single file system folder called the store folder. The data isn't contained in a single file but in several files. For example, the Inbox is stored in the file Inbox.dbx, Sent Items are stored in a file named Sent Items.dbx, and each newsgroup is stored in its own file. The newsgroup microsoft.public.win98.internet.outlookexpress, for example, would be stored in microsoft.public.win98.internet.outlookexpress.dbx.

In addition to these message- and newsgroup-specific files, you'll also find other files that Outlook Express uses to maintain your Outlook data store. For example, the Folders.dbx file defines your Outlook Express folder structure.

However, these files are just one piece of the puzzle. Outlook Express can make use of identities to enable you to manage multiple data stores. For example, your coworker would have one identity on a workstation, while you’d have another. Or, you might use identities to separate your work data from personal data on a work system. Outlook Express uses a different folder for each identity, with the store folder located within that identity folder. To complicate matters, each identity has a cryptic folder name. For example, your store might be located in C:\Documents and Settings\janedoe\Local Settings\Application Data\Identities\{04CDE264-40FB-4ABD-8179-170F7304537D}\Microsoft\Outlook Express. Other identity folders would have similarly impossible-to-decipher folders located under the Application Data\Identities folder.

The location of the Identities folder varies according to the operating system on which you're running Outlook Express. Up to and including Windows Me, the Identities folder resides in the Application Data folder of the user's profile. For example, on a Windows 98 computer with user profiles enabled, my data store might be stored in C:\Windows\Profiles\jboyce\Application Data\Identities\{04CDE264-40FB-4ABD-8179-170F7304537D}\Microsoft\Outlook Express. On a Windows XP system, the store folder for the same user account would be in the Local Settings branch of the user profile. Using jboyce as the logon name, for example, the data store would be located in C:\Windows\Documents and Settings\jboyce\Local Settings \Application Data\Identities\{04CDE264-40FB-4ABD-8179-170F7304537D}\Microsoft\Outlook Express.

This difference in store location apparently causes some problems for Windows XP Setup in migrating the data store when upgrading a system to Windows XP. After you upgrade a system, you might find that all of your Outlook Express data is missing—a horrible thought if, like most people, you store all of your important contacts and messages there. What generally makes it worse is that few users reliably back up their Outlook Express data, which means that restoring the data can be difficult unless you know where to look for the old store. However, don’t lose hope. Although it might look like the data is gone, it's still on the computer. Outlook Express just doesn't know where to find it.

Recovering Outlook Express data
How you go about restoring the data depends on the version of Outlook Express running on the original platform. If the old system was running Outlook Express 6.0, you can simply copy the old data to the current folder location. You won't save a lot of time using this method, but you’ll save the few added steps required to import the messages into Outlook.

Before you take this approach, however, you should know that your existing data in the new store location will no longer appear in Outlook Express. You could import the messages from the new store into Outlook Express after you recover the old store, but that wouldn't be any easier than simply importing the old store. Since that would be a rather backward approach, you should only use this file copy method if you don't have any data in your current new Outlook Express data store. If you need to retain the messages, use the import method I’ll describe a bit later.

File copy method
Here's how to restore the old messages without going through an import process:
  1. Open Outlook Express and choose Tools | Options.
  2. Click the Maintenance tab, and then click Store Folder. Note the location of the current store. Highlight the store path and press [Ctrl]C to copy it to the Clipboard.
  3. Close Outlook Express and open the folder containing the new store. The easiest way to accomplish this is to open My Computer, click in the Address field, and press [Ctrl]V to copy the path from the Clipboard. Then, just press [Enter] to open the target folder. Or, if you're a glutton for punishment, browse to the folder.
  4. In the new store folder, create a folder named Backup and move all of the existing files (Inbox.dbx, Sent Items.dbx, etc.) to the Backup folder. The new store folder should now contain only the Backup folder and no files.
  5. Open a second folder window showing the old store, and then select all of the files in it. Right-click the files and drag them to the new store folder, and then select Copy from the context menu. This copies the old message files to the new store location, where Outlook Express expects to find its data.
  6. After the files are copied to the new store location, close the folders and open Outlook Express. The Outlook Express data should now be restored, with all of the user's old messages, folders, and other items available and in their expected locations.

Import method
If the versions of Outlook Express on the old and new systems aren't the same, or if you’re unsure of the old version, you can use a different method to restore the data from its old location. You should also use this method if you want to retain the messages and folders created in the new store rather than replace them with the old store's contents.

Rather than simply copy the folder and files to the new store location, you can import the data in Outlook Express:
  1. Create a folder on the desktop named OE.
  2. Click Search on the Start menu, and in the Search Results window, enter *.dbxin the field labeled All Or Part Of The File Name. Click More Advanced Options, and place a check by Search Hidden Files And Folders. Click Search to perform a search on the system for *.dbx and locate the old data store.
  3. After you identify the appropriate old store folder, right-click one of the files in the Search Results window and choose Open Containing Folder.
  4. Select all of the files in the resulting folder and copy them to the OE folder on the desktop.
  5. Open Outlook Express and choose File | Import | Messages.
  6. If you were previously using Outlook Express 4, choose Microsoft Outlook Express 4 and click Next. Otherwise, choose Outlook Express 6 (even if you were using Outlook Express 5 or 5.5) and click Next.
  7. If you selected Outlook Express 6, choose the option Import mail from an OE6 store directory, and click OK.
  8. At this point you should see the same thing, regardless of the version of Outlook Express you selected—the wizard prompts you to select the location of the store files. Click Browse and browse to the OE folder where you copied the files, and then click Next.
  9. Select All Folders if you want to import everything, or select one or more folders in the list to selectively restore, and then click Next. Click Finish to complete the process.

Multiple old identities
If you have multiple old identities on the computer, you can often differentiate them based of the size of the Inbox folder, names of newsgroups, or other properties. For example, your primary identity will probably have an Inbox file that is larger than the others, unless you’ve been diligent about deleting old messages. If all else fails, you can simply import from multiple identities and delete the messages or other items you don't want.

Working with multiple identities
As I mentioned earlier, Outlook Express lets you use identities to manage different sets of accounts and messages. Outlook Express places each message store in a separate folder under the Local Settings\Application Data\Identities\ folder of the user's profile. If you’re trying to recover message stores for multiple identities, you first need to create the identities after upgrading to Windows XP, if Setup didn’t create them for you. Or, perhaps you've decided to start using identities now that you've performed the upgrade, and you need to migrate the old data to an identity other than the default Main Identity.

You manage identities through Outlook Express. Choose File | Identities | Manage Identities to display the Manage Identities dialog box. Click New, and type a name for the identity (such as your name, Personal, Work, and so on). Click Require Password if you want to require a password be entered to switch to the new identity. Outlook Express prompts you for a password. Click OK to create the identity. Repeat the process to create any other required identities.

Now you're ready to import the messages as I described above. In Outlook Express, choose File | Switch Identity, select the identity from the list, and click OK. After Outlook Express changes to the new identity, perform the message import process to recover messages from the old store to the new identity's store. Do this as many times as you have identities.

Restoring the Windows Address Book
Unlike Outlook, Outlook Express doesn’t store contacts within the Outlook Express data store. Instead, Outlook Express uses the Windows Address Book, or WAB. Each user has a different WAB, and it’s stored in the Application Data\Microsoft\Address Book folder of the user's profile. The easiest way to locate the WAB file is to perform a simple search for it. Open the Search Results window from the Start menu and perform a search for *.wab. When you locate the correct file, copy it to the OE folder you created for importing messages. You can verify that you have the right file by simply double-clicking it. If the resulting address book contains your contacts, it's the right one. If not, keep searching until you find the right one.

Once you've identified the WAB file and copied it to the OE folder, you're ready to import the addresses into Outlook Express. Open Outlook Express and choose File | Import | Address Book. Browse to the OE folder and select the WAB file, and then click Open to import the addresses.

Be prepared
I've focused on how to recover Outlook Express data after an upgrade to Windows XP. However, there are other situations in which this process will come in handy. For example, you might be migrating a user to a new computer and need to migrate that user's Outlook Express mail store. Or maybe you're performing disaster recovery on a system that won't boot but still has a working hard drive with the user's data on it. Whatever the case, having a good copy of the user's data store is the key.

If you or your users rely heavily on Outlook Express and would be lost if the data suddenly went missing, make sure to integrate the store folder in your regular backup process. At a minimum, you should back up the store folder to tape, CD-RW, or a network share on a daily basis for very active accounts. Having that backup will enable you to recover the store even if the user's system fails completely.

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