Thinking About Windows 10 File History

Posted on June 4, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in OneDrive, Windows 10 with 67 Comments

Thinking About Windows 10 File History

The recently-leaked Windows 10 Insider Preview build 16212 includes a dire warning for File History users: This feature is no longer supported. I think I know why this happening.

So let’s discuss what this means.

File History is one part of a broader set of backup and recovery features that have been built into Windows for years. It can be configured to automatically backup your most important files to a separate hard drive or network location. But it’s better than a basic backup: File History also lets you retrieve earlier versions of a file, so that if you make a change to a document or other file, you can “go back in time” and return to any earlier versions.

In Windows 10 specifically, File History was updated so that it backs up more locations automatically. And it can now be configured almost completely from the Settings app, bypassing the need to access the legacy control panel interface, as was previously required.

In the Windows 10 Field Guide, I discuss some of the backup strategies that a Windows 10 user might consider: OneDrive for file replication to the cloud, Reset This PC and Refresh Windows (now called Fresh Start), legacy system image backups, File History, and so on. Interestingly, two of these—OneDrive and File History—have a bit of overlap in that they both address personal files.

And that is the key issue here, I think. Microsoft basically has two different ways of helping you keep your most important personal files safe. One of the connects to the cloud, which enables cross-device sync and accessibility. And of them that does not.

Does it make sense to kill File History? After all, this feature retains previous versions of your documents and other personal files, letting you “go back in time” to recover a previous version if you screw something up. That is absolutely useful.

But File History has disadvantages, too. It’s not enabled by default, for starters, because doing so kills free disk space. This is particularly problematic on modern portable PCs, which tend to have only a single disk and often have limited storage regardless.

Today, File History can work hand-in-hand with OneDrive to create previous versions of files you replicate to the cloud. But these previous versions are device-specific and will be re-created on any PC for which you’ve enabled File History. By which I mean, if you have two PCs, both using File History to backup the same files in OneDrive, then you will have two different versions of File History backups, stored locally on two different PCs.

And that, I think, is the problem Microsoft is trying to solve by killing File History. For File History to work efficiently, to work correctly, it needs to be a feature of OneDrive, not Windows 10. And that functionality needs to be accessible from any PC or device, with previous versions not locked to an individual PC.

We already have half of that functionality today: As it turns out, OneDrive also creates previous versions of the documents (and only the documents) you store in the cloud service. What’s missing is an easy way to access those previous versions from Windows. And from other OneDrive clients, for that matter. You have to use OneDrive on the web to access those previous versions—via a feature called version history—today. (Also missing is the ability to access previous versions of more file types. This can and should be added to OneDrive as well.)

So I’m speculating here, but I could imagine Microsoft adding that capability to the Windows shell. And instead of having to manually configure File History on your PC, you could instead just right-click on any file in OneDrive from File Explorer and find and restore those previous versions. Which are stored in the cloud, and not locked to your PC.

This design makes particular sense in the coming version of Windows 10 because OneDrive is getting an On-Demand Files feature, similar to placeholders, which lets you browse your entire OneDrive storage set. And that, I think, is the reason Microsoft is killing File History in this coming version of Windows 10. It will no longer be needed.

We can see how this would work today, too. Right now, you can right-click any document or other personal file in Windows 10 and choose “Restore previous versions”. But this functionality is tied to local backup and restore features like File History or system restore points, and is essentially a vestigial leftover from the past. In the next Windows 10 version, I bet, this functionality will tie to the cloud instead. And that makes tons of sense.

So we’ll see what happens. But that’s my bet.


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