Backup Strategies: File History

Posted on March 12, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Windows with 0 Comments

File History is an intriguing but limited backup solution that backs up your documents and other important files as well as previous versions of those files so you can “go back in time” and recover an older file version when needed. This functionality is available in Windows 8 or newer.

Note: Parts of this article are excerpted from my book Windows 8.1 Field Guide, which covers File History and other Windows features in more detail.

File History achieved two of the three backup goals I outlined in Thinking About PC Backup Strategies: It provides a local backup of important files, and it does so automatically. What’s missing is offsite backup, so File History by itself is not a full backup solution: You will also need some form of backup—Carbonite, CrashPlan, or whatever—that also backs up your data to the cloud.

File History works only with certain file locations, but that’s not as bad as it sounds. It will back up all of the files in your libraries and Desktop, Contacts, Favorites, and, most crucially, OneDrive folders. So if you’re using OneDrive to sync your documents, music, pictures and videos to the cloud—as I also recommend—then you’ve got the makings of a complete backup solution.

File History isn’t always an ideal choice for tablet, 2-in-1 or other hybrid PC, or many portable computers, in part because it requires a second storage device. That said, you can use File History with SD and micro-SD storage if you’d like. Or you can configure File History to use a share on another PC or device on your home network if you have such a thing. I explain how to overcome File History’s secondary location limitation in Ask Paul: Configure File History to Use a Single Drive.

File History has two management interfaces, a desktop control panel and a Modern interface in PC Settings. Since we’re not children, we’ll use the control panel: In Start search, type file history to find this interface.

fh-new

If you’re using a microSD card or similar, it should be auto-selected and you can just click the Turn On button to enable File History. Otherwise, click Select Drive on the left. This interface will let you select any connected drives that can be used for File History or find a network location. If you’re going to use a file share on another PC, home server, or NAS on your home network, you may want to proactively create that folder and share before continuing. Here, I’ll just assume a microSD card for simplicity’s sake.

select-drive

When you click OK, you’ll return to the main File History display and can see that File History is enabled and is backing up your files.

fh-on

From here, you can perform a number of File History management tasks.

Restore personal files. If you wish to get back to the previous version of a file, you can do so from here. This is discussed below.

Exclude certain folders. By default, File History will back up all files in your libraries and Desktop, Contacts, Favorites and OneDrive folders. If you’d rather not waste disk space by backing up unnecessary folders, you can exclude them using the Exclude certain folders link in the left of the File History control panel window. (Unfortunately, you can’t arbitrarily include other folders.)

Change how File History works. Using the Advanced settings link in the left of the File History control panel window, you can access an Advanced Settings interface from which you can change how frequently File History backs up, the amount of disk space used by File History, and how long it will store saved versions of backed up files.

To restore a file, click Restore Personal Files on the left. A File History window opens, letting you navigate between the various times at which File History backups were made.

file-history-restore

This interface lets you browse through the folders that are backed up by File History, and do so in whatever backups are available. The initial view is the most recent backup, but you can use the navigational buttons at the bottom of the window to “go back in time” and find older backup sets.

Beyond that, navigation works much like it does in File Explorer. When you find an earlier version of a file you might wish to restore, right-click it.

file-history-restore-right-click

Three options are available.

Preview. This will provide a preview of the file so you can ensure that it’s the version you want before you restore it.

file-history-restore-preview

Restore. This will restore the file to its original location. You’ll be prompted about replacing an existing file if there is a newer version of that file there already.

Restore To. This lets you choose a new location to which to restore the selected file. This can be the safest approach when restoring a single file, since you can compare the restored version side-by-side with the more recent version.

You can also restore all files in the current view by clicking the prominent green button in the center of the navigational controls at the bottom of the window.

You may be curious how—or even if—I use File History. I do, and though I have almost never needed to use this feature to recover files, it’s nice to know I could if needed to. On portable devices like the Surface Pro 3, I use File History with a microSD card, and on my desktop PC, I save File History backups to a share on my home server.

That said, I don’t consider File History to be a full backup solution. In some ways, replicating—or syncing—files through OneDrive is a more important feature to me, and of course I rely on cloud services like CrashPlan for archival backups as well. I’ll write more about these and other backup strategies soon.

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