Windows 8 File History

Category: Backup

If you've used the Time Machine feature on a Mac (or had to listen to a Mac owner brag about it), and wished there was something similar for Windows, here's good news. File History is a cool feature in Windows 8, that can save your bacon by automatically making multiple backup copies of your important files. You should know how it works, even if you haven't moved to Windows 8. Here's the scoop...

What is File History?

I still have not completely warmed up to Windows 8, although I've found that it can be tweaked so that the most annoying features are pretty much invisible. (See Switching to Windows 8 Made Easier.)

But there is at least one part of that I like very much. I’m talking about File History, an elegant replacement for the old Backup and Restore functions of earlier Windows editions. File History could be the greatest advancement in data security that Microsoft has ever developed.

Why? Because it takes the pain out of making backups regularly, and makes restoring data from backups natural and easy. Significant numbers of people will actually back up their data if File History becomes widely available, and that means a dramatic drop in catastrophes.
Windows 8  File History

File History does not require understanding of technical details like disk images, incremental and differential backups, or painstaking plotting and scheduling of backup plans. It’s literally “set it and forget it” until you need to restore a file. Here is how to set up File History:

  • Step 1: Plug an AutoPlay-compatible external drive into your computer.
  • Step 2: On the AutoPlay notification that pops up, tap or click “Configure this drive for backup.”

What Next?

That’s it. You’re done. No, really! From now on, File History will silently scan your folders, desktop, favorites, and contacts for any files that have changed or been created since the last scan (the default interval is one hour) and copy them to the external drive. It will keep as many earlier versions of a file as the external storage device permits.

If you want File History to use a networked folder or a USB drive instead of an external hard drive, do this:

  1. Open the File History control panel. (Use the Search icon to get there.)
  2. Click "Select Drive"
  3. Tap or click “Turn on”.

Many (but not all) applications store user-created files in the Windows 8 folders called Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos, and Desktop. Data that resides within these folder (and their sub folders) will be backed up, but data from other places won't, unless you configure File History to include them. You can do so by adding sub-folders to existing folders that are already being backed up. And if needed, you can exclude folders from the backup.

Microsoft's website notes that "File History doesn't back up files you have on SkyDrive, even if you have synched copies stored on your PC in folders that File History backs up." But the Windows 8.1 Update 1 that's supposed to roll out in April 2014 fixes that problem.

You can browse through the various versions much as you would browse your libraries using Windows Explorer. You can preview a file and, if it’s the version you want, restore it to its place on your main drive with a click.

How Does it Work?

When I was a new-hire at IBM in 1984, I attended a presentation by one of the company's top sales reps. He said "People always ask me 'How do computers work?' and I tell them 'Just great!'" It's the same with File History. But if you must know, here are a few secret tech details that I extracted from a Microsoft employee who wishes to remain anonymous:

File History uses fewer system resources than previous backup technologies. Instead of opening directories and directly scanning files for changes, File History just reads the NTFS change journal, a running record of every file change kept by the NTFS file system used by Windows. From the journal, File History compiles a list of files that need to be copied without checking the files themselves.

File History adjusts its own performance to accommodate many ever-changing conditions: power source, foreground activity, network availability, and more. When you close a laptop’s lid and the device goes to sleep, File History suspends operation and resumes when the device wakes up, automatically and exactly where it left off.

One thing that File History doesn't do is make a full system backup, or system image. I do recommend making a system image on an external hard drive every week, every month, or on a schedule that suits your needs. On lower left part of the File History window, you can find a link for System Image Backup. If you already have backup software that you like, such as the free Macrium Reflect, you can use it to make your image backups, and schedule them to run automatically.

File History offers simplicity and peace of mind. It’s so easy to set up that there’s no excuse for not doing so. Once set up, it constantly and unobtrusively protects all of your critical data. It’s almost sufficient reason, all by itself, to switch to Windows 8.

Are you using Windows 8's File History feature? If so. tell me about your experience with it. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Windows 8 File History"

Posted by:

Art F
07 Apr 2014

Any guidance on how big an external device you'd recommend? Something like, maybe, "look at drive C properties and see how much is used; get an external device that is at least X percent of that amount"?

Can the external device also be used for other storage, or is it reserved exclusively for File History?

EDITOR'S NOTE: You can get a 2TB external drive for $79 now. 1 TB drives are only about $10 cheaper, so why bother with anything smaller?


Posted by:

Bill
07 Apr 2014

Hi, Bob. Enjoying your always-useful daily tips.
Will File History accumulate new material when the external device is not connected and then copy it when it is connected, even if I miss connecting it at the scheduled time?

Thanks for your continuing dedication!


Posted by:

Rich
07 Apr 2014

Bob, you were right. Even though I do not use Win8 and am currently using Win7 on my four computers, I'm still glad that I took the time to read this article and understand the concept of Windows 8 File History. I am convinced that I will need to use this in the future when new MS OS's are foisted upon me.


Posted by:

Rafael
07 Apr 2014

I will be recieving my new desk top in a few days and i want to thank you for the info on windows 8. I will be also downloading the "startbutton" when I get my comp.


Posted by:

BobV
07 Apr 2014

Can you clarify some conflicting information about File History? I have read that File History will back up anything in your libraries, even an external USB flash drive on which one may store some files. But if I place such a drive into my libraries, File History is NOT backing those files up. Which way is it supposed to work? And is there a way to have File History back up some documents that I choose to always keep on a USB flash drive?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I can't find an answer to your question, but I suspect the behavior you've seen is "working as designed" because the file is already on an external device.


Posted by:

Nezzar
08 Apr 2014

Dear Bob,
I have the same question as Bill. Will the File History collect the info even if the external hard drive is not connected and then copy it to the hard drive when it is connected? It is a bit awkward to have an external hard drive connected to the computer all the time; it is in the way.
Thanks much for this article. At least, there is something good about Windows 8.

EDITOR'S NOTE: You are correct, there's no need to have the external hard drive connected all the time. It will cache files that need to be backed up, and write them to the backup device when it is reconnected.


Posted by:

Lee McIntyre
10 Apr 2014

I have the same question as Art:

"Can the external device also be used for other storage, or is it reserved exclusively for File History?"

Thanks, Bob

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, it can be used for storage of other files and folders.


Posted by:

Art F
12 Apr 2014

Is it okay to leave the external drive's power on all the time to allow the File History backups to proceed automatically? I'm worried that this might shorten the drive's lifetime due to whatever interval it keeps spinning for (several minutes?? What is typical?) after being accessed.


Posted by:

Art F
16 Apr 2014

I created a System Image Backup as you recommended. It went to completion, and my external drive has a new folder called WindowsImageBackup. A lot of free space disappeared on the drive, but this folder's properties indicate that it contains zero bytes. Is that normal?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Apparently it is! See http://www.pagestart.com/win7bckprstvhd10131001.html


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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Windows 8 File History (Posted: 7 Apr 2014)
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