A New Way to Backup: File History in Windows 8

A New Way to Backup: File History in Windows 8

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Chances are you’ve experienced the sinking feeling when you've lost personal data. It can be the result of user error, mechanical storage failure, or other issues. Regardless of how it happens, data loss is a huge bummer. In most cases data loss is preventable, but many of the “traditional” options for data protection can be costly and/or difficult to setup.

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File History in Windows 8

File History is a new feature in Windows 8 that helps to ensure that your personal files are safe. In addition to being a backup solution, File History also provides the capability to restore multiple backup copies (versions) of your files. File history in Windows 8 is easy to setup, powerful, and reliable. This means you can have more confidence when working with files, and also keep less redundant copies around for your own personal “data history”. You can easily configure File History to protect some or all of the files that are in your libraries on Windows 8. You can add folders to your libraries easily in Windows 8, giving you the ability to use File History with any group of folders and files that you choose. File History automatically checks your files at the frequency that you select (the default is every hour), and automatically makes backup copies when file changes are detected. File history works with inexpensive attached or network storage, and requires minimal fuss to get working.

File history also supports many of the advanced storage features that are included in Windows 8. You can protect your backed up files with BitLocker, backup from a Storage Space, backup to a Storage Space, and more. Since Windows 8 supports UAS 3.0 and USB 3.0, you can experience great performance with File History at an economical price. To summarize: File History is easy to work with, flexible, secure, performs well, and cost effective.

File History Setup

Here are two straight-forward ways to launch File History:

  1. From Start Screen, type “File History”, click on settings in right pane, click on File History icon
  2. Navigate to: “Control Panel\System and Security\File History” in the Desktop Control Panel

Once you have the File History Control Panel page open, configuring File History can be as simple as a one-click operation. In this example I have a single external hard drive, and decide to use the default settings. All I have to do is click “Turn On”:

Turn On File History 600

It doesn’t get much easier than that! After this one-click configuration, the following happened automatically:

  • My Toshiba external hard drive was selected as the target storage device
  • My libraries, desktop, contacts, and favorites were added to the backup list
  • An initial backup was performed

After this setup process File History checks every hour to see if any of the files in these locations have changed, and backs up any files as needed. If I’m using a mobile system like a tablet or laptop, some of the advanced File History features will kick in. This includes “pausing” and “resuming” backups when the system is turned on/off, hibernated/resumed, or when the target storage device is connected/disconnected. I don’t even have to think about it, all of the device management and scheduling is handled by File History in Windows 8.

But what about power users? If you are like me, you have some data that might not be practical or necessary to create history for (such as video file collections and music libraries.) Or, what if you need to have File History store versions of files on a frequent basis? This is where the flexibility of File History shines.

Advanced Settings in File History

File History allows you to fine tune how it works including:

  • Which target storage device is used
  • How frequently files are checked and backed up
  • How much space is used locally to cache backup versions of your files when the target backup device is disconnected
  • How long backup files are retained
  • Which folders in your libraries are excluded from backup

There are two places to work with the Advanced Settings, the first is the File History Advanced Settings dialog:

File history advanced settings 600

To give you an idea of how these settings work, I’ll show each of the options here.

For backup interval, you can pick from the following values:

File history save frequency

For offline cache size (local File History cache that’s used when target device is not present), you have the following options:

File history dialog disk space

Finally, you can specify options for file retention that are evaluated if/when your target storage device fills up:

File history dialog retention duration

Some notes about File History retention:

  • The retention policy is used only when the target storage device is full, and not before that. If your target device fills up, backup versions of your files that are older than the age specified by your retention policy are deleted, but the most recent backup copy of each file is always retained regardless of its age.
  • If you have sufficient disk space on the target device, this retention policy will not be evaluated, and your revision history will continue to grow.
  • If you are concerned about disk space on the target device, you can clean up your revision history manually.

To clean up your File History files, click on the “Clean up versions” link below the dropdown boxes on the File History Advanced Settings dialog. When this dialog launches, you’ll be presented with the following options for cleaning up your backed-up file revisions:

clean up file revisions dialog

Once you select an age, clicking on the “Clean Up” button will cause File History to clean up the backup files on the target device.

Exclude Folders from File History

The second place to perform advanced configuration is the File History Exclude Folders dialog, which you can launch from the top-level File History Control Panel page (left-hand side: “Exclude Folders” link).

File history exclude folders 600

Here you can see that I chose not to have my video files backed up with File History. Since these are large files (several GB each) I don’t want to keep multiple versions of them.

Now that I have File History setup, I don’t have to keep redundant copies of my files on my local drive. I can roll back to previous versions using File History if I need to. Since I use SkyDrive, I now have multiple redundant forms of backup for the files that I depend on, that’s nice to know!

One of the most frustrating data loss experiences for me has been when I’ve saved a re-sized (smaller) version of a photo. I usually save off photos that are down-scaled as a copy with appended name suffixes. When I don’t remember to “save as” with a different name, it can result in permanent data loss. Now that I’m running File History, I don’t have to worry about this issue. Since my photos are protected and backed up every 10 minutes, the chances of running into this issue on Windows 8 are greatly diminished.

Restoring Files

Here’s how you restore files with File History:

  1. Click on “Restore personal files” in the File History Control Panel dialog
  2. Browse to the location where your files were backed up to
  3. Double click on the file or folder that you wish to restore
  4. Select the version to restore
  5. Click on the “Restore” button

To illustrate this process, I purposefully over-wrote a photo file with a down-scaled version to show you what it’s like to restore files with Windows 8 file history. Here’s a few screenshots of the process:

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Restoring files – Selecting folder to restore from

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Restoring files – Selecting file version to restore (browse with left/right buttons)

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Restoring files – confirming file restoration details (optional)

It’s that simple. In about a minute you can restore a file and be off and running again. Accidentally delete a folder? It’s just as easy to restore an entire folder!

Quick Tip: You can also click on the File History button in Windows Explorer (on the “Home” tab) when a folder or file is selected:

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File History button in Windows Explorer “Home” tab

By clicking on this button, you’ll be taken directly to the “browse File History” dialog for the currently selected file or folder.

Restoring Your System Files

Windows 8 File History is great for backing up personal files, but it is not meant for backing up system and application files.

The best way to recover your system is by means of two new tools in Windows 8:

  • Reset your PC: Remove all personal data, apps, and settings from the PC, and reinstall Windows
  • Refresh your PC: Keep all personal data, Metro style apps, and important settings from the PC, and reinstall Windows

Windows 8 also includes the legacy “Windows 7 File Recovery” backup tools which you can use if the “Reset your PC” and “Refresh your PC” tools don’t meet your needs for system and application files. These tools work in Windows 8 just like they did in Windows 7.

Want to know more about File History in Windows 8? There’s a great write-up here where you can get more information.

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