The New ‘Previous Versions’ in Windows 8

Backing up your data is important. We all know that right? Yet, only a small percentage of users are actually doing just that! It surprises me that many times when I ask a user how they are backing up their precious data such as their music library or photos, I just get a shoulder shrug for an answer and worst, an attempt to quickly change the subject! One thing I will admit is that Microsoft could have done a better job at advertising its built-in backup mechanisms in Windows. For example, while some users know what a system restore point is, you’ll not find many who knows that a system restore point also helps them recover a previous version of a file. Although the Previous Versions is a very powerful feature built in to Windows 7, it didn’t do any good as users didn’t even know about it! In the meantime, while Microsoft understands that protecting user data is very important, they too are now trying a different yet similar approach to the Previous Versions feature in Windows 8 in hopes that they can get more users to get into the habit of data backup. Will it work or will users just completely ignore it as they did in the past?

The File History feature in Windows 8 allows a user to store a “history” list of their changed files onto an external drive or network folder. When in need to restore an older version of that file, the user can simply browse through the past revisions of that file and restore the one that they want. It is a very simple yet much needed feature in any operating system today. In fact, I’ve made many users convert to Dropbox in the past for this feature alone. As users acquire more and more data, there must exist a need to keep a backup of those data. One of the most used examples in seeing how a file history feature would benefit a user is invoking the “Save” command rather than “Save As”. Come on, we’ve all done this before. You’re working on a research paper or essay in Word and you made a lot of changes to the original document. You got into the habit of frequently saving your data by pressing Ctrl+S but you just noticed that you made some changes that shouldn’t be made in the document. You need to revert back to the original document but of course, you overwrote it by pressing Ctrl+S. With File History in Windows 8, you can easily restore the copy of the document prior to it being overwritten. While having this feature is awesome, Microsoft knew that they had to make the entire backup and restore process as simple as possible so that users won’t be deterred from it. They also know that they had to also give power users some advanced features in File History otherwise they would balk at Microsoft. Well, they certainly got the easy part down because all you literally need is an external hard drive and to click a couple of buttons. You’re then all set. Let’s take a look at how this feature works.

You can read the entire blog post by Microsoft on File History from here.

File History in Windows 8

To get started, all you need is Windows 8 and an external USB hard drive or internal drive that Windows isn’t booting off from. You could also choose to store your file history on a remote network share but for simplicity, I’ll use the USB hard drive method here. Your USB drive does not have to be completely dedicated for the File History feature. Therefore, you can continue storing your other files on it as you did in the past. After you have the USB drive plugged in, head into Control Panel and select the File History applet. Control PanelFile History will then scan your system for a viable USB hard drive. In my case, I only have one attached so I don’t have much to pick from. Also notice the locations that File History will protect. File History will only help keep previous version files for any folders in your Libraries, Desktop, Contact and Favorites. Before actually enabling File History, let’s take a look at some of the advance options. First, let’s exclude some folders. On the left panel, simply click on the Exclude Folders link.

Drive Select

Many users will have folders that they do not want to include for File History. If you want to exclude a folder from File History, you can simply add that folder location here. For example, you may not want to store your HD video collection here as you probably have it backed up to a different drive elsewhere. Because these files rarely change, it doesn’t make sense to have File History make a backup of it if you have already done so elsewhere.

Excluded Folder

Next we’ll head into the Advanced Settings link. Here is where we configure the bulk of the File History options. The first option is configuring how frequent you want File History to scan the files that have changed in your system. By default, it will perform a scan every hour. By scanning more frequently, you’ll get to restore more previous versions of a file at the expense of disk space on your USB drive. This of course assumes that you frequently alter files. You can scan as frequently as every 10 minutes. You can also invoke a manual scan at anytime as well as seen later.

Scanning Frequency

The offline cache size relates to the disk space on your computer and not the USB drive. For example, if you disconnected the USB drive from your computer, the changed files obviously won’t be able to get sent to the USB drive for storage. In this situation, those files would be stored in the offline cache. Once you reconnect with the USB drive, the data stored in the cache will then get flushed to the USB drive and it will be empty once again. If you have a habit of frequently disconnecting the USB drive from your computer, increase the size of the offline cache for better protection.

Offline Cache

Finally, you can configure how long you want File History to keep the actual saved copies of your changed data. By default, it will keep it forever. If you only need to retain the data for only a month’s time, you can configure it here. By configuring a shorter retention period, you get to use your disk space more efficiently at the expense of the amount of versions you can restore from. By configuring a high retention period, you get to keep a lot more file versions at the expense of filling up your disk space faster. Of course, this all depends on your work flow and so there is not a right or wrong answer. Just whatever works for you.

Retention Period

Once you have saved your settings, all that is left to do is actually turning on the File History feature. Once you have selected the drive you want to use, hit the Turn On button and that will be it. File History will immediately go to work and start saving the initial copies of your data from the specified locations. Everything is transparent to the user.


How File History Works

Once all of the initial copies of data have been seeded to your USB drive, File History will then begin scanning your system every X amount of time where X equals the frequency you have configured (default is 1 hour). The awesome news is that Microsoft touts that File History is very light on resources and a user will not be impacted by the backup at all. Rather than scanning the entire hard drive for files that may or may not have changed, File History looks into the journal file, which your internal computer hard drive keeps track of, to quickly see exactly which files have changed. It can then use this information to save a copy of that file onto your USB drive. This process would continue until either you decide to turn off the File History feature or there is an issue with your USB drive. Once again, everything should be completely seamless and transparent to the user. As long the USB drive is connected, every changed file in the monitored locations will be pushed to the drive. You also can manually invoke File History to perform a scan as well by heading back into the File History applet and clicking Run Now. Run NowThe only time you would really need to mess with File History again after the initial configuration is when you need to perform a restore, which I’ll perform next.

Restoring Previous Versions of Files

How a user backs up their data is important but equally important is how a user can restore those data. Luckily, Microsoft made this process extremely easy as well with File History. To restore a document, simply browse to that document file or folder within Windows Explorer and select it. In the new Explorer Ribbon interface at the top, click on the History button. History Button The restore window will then popup. Depending on what it is you are recovering, the view will vary. The very cool thing is that with pictures and documents, you actually get to see a live preview of the file right in the restore window. This allows you to quickly compare the different versions available so that you’ll have a higher degree of success in restoring the file to the exact version that you want. Below, I am trying to recover a Word document which I have altered three times. Initially, I see the most recent version of that file. However, when I click on the Previous button, I’ll immediately be taken to the previous version. If click the button again, I’ll be taken to the next previous version and so on and so on. What is also cool is that I can even just select the text I want and copy it to my clipboard. For example, if I overwrote a text file, I can simply just copy the original text from a previous version right in the restore window and paste it back to my current live version all without having to do an actual restore of the file itself.

Current DocumentAltered DocumentOriginal Document

If I so happen to delete the actual document itself and need to now restore the whole darn thing, I can’t just select the document itself and press the History button because the document is deleted! In this case, I just need to head over to the folder location the file was stored at. In my case it would be Documents. Once inside this folder, I press the History button and voila! I get to recover the actual file to the original location or to another location of my choice. It’s that simple.

Doc Restore

Other Restoration Methods

There are other ways to restore the data that you want. Instead of restoring individual files one by one, you can also browse your entire File History structure which includes every folder that is monitored by File History. The first method is to click on the Restore Personal Files link within the File History control panel applet. The restore window pops up again but this time, you can browse through the directory structure just like how you could in Windows Explorer. Once you arrive to the location, simply perform the restore of the file or folder.

Full Restore

If you want to be brave, you can even browse directly in the File History folder stored on your USB drive. Within the root of the drive, you will find a folder called FileHistory. Here you’ll be able to navigate through the folder structure to recover the files you want. Each file is time stamped so you can quickly restore the correct version of your file. Using this method might be preferred to the other methods for power users because it gives you a quick glance at what canbe recovered. But whatever method you use, the whole point of File History is to give you better data protection and a chance to restore them should the need arises.


No More Previous Versions in Windows 8

As mentioned in the beginning of the article, Windows 7 actually had a similar feature to File History called Previous Versions. I wrote a pretty simple article detailing how you can use it to protect your files similar to File History. It didn’t have a whole lot of customization and it was a little confusing as to when it would actually capture a snapshot of the system unless you tweaked it a bit. With File History, if you configure it to scan every 10 minutes, then it will do exactly that. The good news with Previous Versions was that it automatically protected almost every folder/files on your system without you having to specify it. It created a shadow copy for any changed files that it found during a system restore point creation event. With File History, you are initially limited to just your Libraries, Desktop, Contacts and Favorites locations. However, with many users storing their data in exactly those locations, they should be good to go with the defaults. For power users who need more control, they will need to first add the folders to a library before it can be protected by File History. This is can be considered an inconvenience to some but hardly a deal breaker in my honest opinion. Take for example the Downloads folder. It is not part of any default library and so it won’t be protected initially. Once you add it to an existing or new library, File History will step in and do its thing. But whatever the case may be, Previous Versions is gone in Windows 8 and File History is the new replacement.

Misc. Notes About File History

Although File History is the replacement for Previous Versions, it’s not a 100% for the better.

– You must be aware that in order to use File History, you must use a different disk besides the one you have Windows installed on currently. Technically you can use a network share but the other computer must be turned on for File History on your computer to send files to that network folder. There are some advantages and disadvantages to requiring a second disk. On the good side, if your laptop were to be stolen, you data is still with you assuming that the thief didn’t also steal the drive. If your hard drive goes bye bye, then once again you are protected because your data are stored on the external/second drive. The bad news, sorta, is that many hard drives lasts pretty long these days. Rarely does a hard drive just goes dead on you. With Previous Versions, the shadow copies of the data were stored locally and as long as the hard drive was spinning, users could recover previous versions of a file even though it was on the same physical disk. It would have been great if Microsoft gave us an option to pick where we want to store the File History data. If a user chooses to store the data on the same disk as their original data, then it should be allowed but of course with a big red warning message stating the disadvantage of doing so.

– File History will supersede Backup and Restore Center in Windows 7. At the moment in Windows 8 Release Preview, users can still use the old Backup and Restore app but it has been renamed to Windows 7 File Recovery. One of the best feature of Backup and Restore was giving users the ability to create system images for free. This allowed many users to ditch third party imaging utilities that they only used for that one feature. Microsoft stated that users are still allowed to create system images should they choose too in Windows 8.

– File History is not meant to be a full system backup solution. However, Microsoft stated that most users only care about their actual data and less on application and configuration. This makes sense because you can always reinstall an application but you can’t always replace your vacation photos. In Windows 8, Microsoft allows a user to easily reset their PC so that they can start with a clean slate. By resetting a Windows 8 PC and then subsequently restoring data via File History, a user should get back to their original configuration fairly quick. They just need to reinstall all of their applications and Metro apps. Here is Microsoft’s recommendation for disaster recovery:

When your PC is replaced or needs to be reinstalled:

  1. Use the recovery drive to restore the operating system
  2. Connect to your Microsoft account
  3. Configure your PC to sync your settings – this will bring your settings back
  4. Go to the Store and reinstall your modern apps
  5. Reinstall legacy apps
  6. Connect your old File History drive and restore everything – this will restore your personal files

– If you have huge files being protected by File History, you need to mind the disk space because it can fill up quickly. For example, Outlook PST files can be humongous in size and it changes pretty much every time you open and close it. File History will detect this change and create a copy of it. You can see the problem. Some are saying that File History will ignore some file types but exactly which ones I have no idea at the moment. Also, it would have been cool if File History was smart enough to only store the changes of a file and not the entire file itself for every change. When a restore is needed, File History will restore the base file and apply only the changes up to that specific restore time. This can save huge amounts of disk space over time. In Windows Server technology, there is a feature called Remote Differential Compression in which computer A would only send the changes (differences) in a file over the network to computer B rather than send the entire file each and every time. I’m sure some brilliant engineer at Microsoft could make this happen for File History!

In the End…

File History is very easy to work with and that makes it very easy to recommend for casual users who just need some rudimentary way of backing up their files. There are a thousand and one different ways to back up user data and yet many users can’t even find one to use. As with many other features, there are some drawbacks to File History but from a basic consumer point of view, it should get deployed more than previous backup features from Windows. However, a user in this day and age of computing has many other choices. In fact, some may prefer to just stick with cloud services such as Microsoft’s own Skydrive or Dropbox for simple file history. The disadvantage for those services are space limitation and the need for Internet uploads, which could be very slow for some. Right now, I’m looking to see how Microsoft will advertise this feature to users who are oblivious to data backup. Will File History repeat Previous Versions  same fate due to users not even knowing about it in the first place? Only time will tell.

No matter the issue, backup is very important and for those that want a truly set it and forget it scenario, File History serves that purpose. I’m sure even veteran Windows users will find something useful with File History. It’s not the best thing out there but what is? Every person works differently and by combining different feature sets and services, a user can truly feel more comfortable as to what will and what will not work for them. The main goal is to at least get the users into the habit of backing up data in the first place.

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  1. Thank you for your kind response.

    You are right, windows 7 shadow copies do not make a shadow copy each time a file changes, it was a mistake on my part to point out that.

    I am a home user, with lots of photos, some videos and other documents to care about.

    I have a cheap NAS, a xtreamer eTrayz. The idea with it was to share videos, photos and other documents among family members and home computers without the need of having one of them powered on 24×7 (it uses much less power consumption) and making backup on it.

    In the main computer, and in some other, I use a sync program to maintain important directories synced with the NAS (which puts that file at the disposal of all family members).
    I am using skydrive to put some of that files available in internet (but my space needs are much heavier, about 1TB).
    The problem with that is that it is not a backup system. You can recover files if my disks burn out, but does not protect you against file lose due to viruses or human errors, like deletions, and the syncing mechanism propagates the problem rapidly.

    So I used rdiff-backup running in the NAS to make nightly incremental backups to its own disks.
    The idea was not having to wait for backups to finish before I could power down my computer (as syncing is almost instantaneous).

    The problem is that when I try rdiff-backup to recover files, it says there was an error in last backup and when I try to run the recover command, it takes for ever and finally hungs.
    Not having a good interface to rdiff-backup and notification system was the cause to not having realize that the backups were not OK.

    I had activated shadow copies because it is much easier and quick to use its restore file capabilities locally in the PC if you realize you have recently deleted or changed a file you shouldn’t, than having to restore it from backups.

    Now I am going to continue using the syncing program and skydrive, but I will drop rdiff-backup in the NAS.

    I will use history archive to activate a backup in the NAS (besides the syncing of files in the shared directories).
    I loose the ability to power down without worring if the files have already been back up or not, but it will be much more easy to realize if something goes wrong with it.

    I have made a libray called backup archive where I put all directories I want to backup.
    Some of them are already in some other libraries, but I hope they will be copied just once, as the backup system seems to use the original path to keep track of backup files, am I right?

    Thank you again.

    • From my understanding, how incremental backups work is that let’s say you start on Sunday by creating a full backup. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, you create an incremental backup. On Thursday, you made a mistake and need to recover a file. With an incremental backup system, you need to actually include all the backups in the backup set. So the program will need the full backup on Sunday. Then it will layer the incremental backup taken on Monday on top of it. It will do so with the Tuesday and Wednesday incremental backup as well. I have not used rdiff before but in most cases, that’s how incremental backups work. So if you had a problem with restoring files from rdiff, there could have been an issue with your backups either being corrupted, it not being backed up correctly or you’ve somehow performed the recovery process erroneously.

      As for the library issue with File History, I believe you are correct in that directories in multiple libraries will be backed up once. I’ve just tested this. In the File History restore interface, I do see all of my libraries and custom directories with all files inside it. Some might believe that File History is backing up the same files multiple times but when I dug inside my external drive where the actual data lives, I do not see my custom library folders at all, which is good. For example, if I created a directory on my Desktop (backed up by default) called Test and included Test also in a custom library I made called Sample, within my external drive I only see the directory Test within the Desktop folder. The library Sample is not shown at all. However, when you browse in the File History restore interface, it shows both libraries and folders even though there is only one actual copy of the data.

      • The problema with rdiff-backup is that when the program is killed abruptly (or when you power off system while rdiff-backup is running) the backup gets corrupted, and it does no other backup until you run it with a recover option, or next time the backup is scheduled (it does an automatic cleaning of the backup file).

        The problema is that the cleaning command takes for ever in this NAS. May be it has not enough power to run the command in a 1TB backup, I don’t know.

        As you noted, file history seems to store the files with a path structure that resembles their original location. Thus, even if you include some directories in several libraries, I think the files are stored and process just once.

  2. Good article, Windows 8 help does not clarify so well the differences with the Windows 7 shodow copy.

    I am fed up of Microsoft. It is “moving your shooting target” with every versión of Windows.
    It seems to be a boat moved by the sea currents.
    Does not seem to have a clear idea of what it wants its OS to be, in such important áreas as data backup.
    Each time it makes changes, it breaks backwards compatibility.

    I have upgraded from windows7 to Windows 8, where I had the shadow copies service active, and could restore previos versions of files.

    Besides that, I had a NAS for data backup and a sync program to do backup, with versión control.

    After a couples of days with Windows 8, I realized that a few directories I needed were empty. I don’t know how exactly what happened.

    The restoring of the files from the backup is not posible, as the NAS seems to take for ever to just make the listing of the versions in it.

    I tried to restore previous files from the shadows copies.
    And found that MS had changed entirely the way previous versions of files Works 🙁

    There is no way to restore previous versions of my files, I gess.

    Moreover, now you need to have an external drive and make the backups with MS system, just to restore a file that you realice you have overwriten a minute ago.

    And you cannot protect directories you want, just libraires and directories MS thought would be neccessary.
    You need to dedícate one drive to MS file history feature in order to get the benefits, no protection of your system drive files, and no help if you are using another backup schema.

    Moreover, shadow copies provieded you with a versión each time a file changed, if you wanted. Now just at regular time basis.

    Not a step forward, but again a backward compatibility break.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting on the article Fernando. I definitely understand your frustration as Microsoft does make a habit sometimes of changing things just for the sake of change. Volume Shadow Copy Service was one of Microsoft’s most brilliant and useful technology. In fact, the technology is heavily used in backup scenarios in many big organizations. With Windows 8 and the new File History feature, it’s sort of the same thing but in a way not really. Also, I want to point out a couple of things that I noticed based on your comment.

      I have no idea what type of NAS device you are using so I can’t speak on that issue you have with not being able to restore your files but it was definitely smart of you to use a different type of backup method as shadow copies was never Microsoft’s intention as a sole backup utility for users.

      You can include your own directories so that File History can monitor it for changes but you have to create your own library. This is definitely not a hard task to do and so if you really have folders and files not included in the default “save” locations, then you definitely should create your own library and add your custom folders to that library.

      You mentioned that shadow copies provided you with a version each time a file changed. That is untrue and not how shadow copies worked in Windows 7. Shadow copies relies on system restore points and the only time your file was included as a “previous version” is when a system restore point was created. Therefore, you could have made 5 different changes and saves to your document but you could not roll back to those changes if a restore point was not created each and every time you saved that file. With File History, it now gives users much better scheduling ability. With restore points, it can be challenging for users knowing when a restore point was created. Of course, they could manually create one at any time but most users aren’t going to do that. With File History, you can also manually run the process to have it scan over your libraries but you can also configure it to run automatically as little as every 10 minutes.

      Honestly, if users really need a true file versioning backup utility, I would recommend an online service such as Skydrive or Dropbox instead. These I consider true file versioning services in that every time you hit that save button on a document after making a change, it would create a “previous version” automatically. No need to wait for a time to expire and whatnot before the process kicks off nor do you have to manually tell it to run. It just does it.

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