File History... and Bacon?

Category: Backup

If you've used Time Machine 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 available in Windows 10 and 11 that can save your bacon by automatically making multiple backup copies of your important files. Here's how it works...

What is File History?

File History is 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. (The bar WAS a bit low, but I'll give credit where it's due.)

Why is File History such a big improvement? 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 they know about File History, and that means a dramatic drop in data disasters.

The cool thing about File History is that it stores multiple versions of files as they are updated over time. If a file is lost, damaged or deleted, you can review and restore a copy from a specific point in time. Have you ever updated a document, intending to save it with a new filename, and accidentally saved it with the old name? Or maybe wondered what that spreadsheet looked like a month ago? File History can help you restore your data in both cases.

Windows  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 (some of) 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, a USB drive instead or external hard drive that’s not Auto-Play enabled, do this:

• Open the File History control panel. (Use the Search icon to get there.)
• Click "Select Drive"
• Choose a drive from the available drives and press OK.

Why did I say "some of your folders" above? Many, but not all, applications store user-created files in the Windows folders called Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos, and Desktop. Data that resides within these folders (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.

The standard behavior is to save modified copies of files every hour, but you can click Advanced Settings to change the frequency to as often as every 10 minutes, just once daily, or many options in between. You can also control how long to keep saved versions. The default is "forever" but other options such as 1 month, 3 months, 6 months. 1 year, and "Until space is needed" are available.

Restoring Files From the Backup

To restore files from your File History backup, follow these steps:

• Click the Start button.
• Enter restore in the search box.
• Click on the Restore Your Files with File History item in the search results.
• Enter the name of the file you want to restore, or browse through the list of files.
• Optionally, you can double-click a filename and preview the contents before restoring.
• Select the file or files to be restored, then click the Restore button.

You can browse through the various versions much as you would browse your libraries using Windows Explorer. If it’s the version you want, the file(s) will be restored to their original locations, replacing the version that was there. If you want to restore to a different location, right-click the Restore button, then choose a new location.

IMPORTANT: File History does not make a complete backup of your system. It only covers the folders that Windows think are important. I also recommend creating a "system image" backup on a regular basis. Unfortunately, there’s not an easy way to schedule automatic image backups with the tools Windows provides. My popular ebook Everything You Need to Know About BACKUPS will teach you how to protect ALL your files, and save your bacon in the event of a data disaster. The ebook also includes tips for backing up smartphones, your passwords, social media accounts, email, device drivers, what to do if you're hit by a ransomware attack, and LOTS more.

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?'. I tell them 'Just great, and I sell a lot of them!'" 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.

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.

Are you using the Windows 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 "File History... and Bacon?"

Posted by:

29 Apr 2022

I've been using file history for years. Just looked back and have file versions from as far back as 2014. Even with retention of forever only using 25% of a 1 Gig drive. In that time I've switched computers twice. Just plugged in the USB drive, set up file history and forgot about it. About once a year I hose a file up, just go back and get the last version. Great tool.

Posted by:

29 Apr 2022

I use File History, but I'm not sure how the restores work. As Bob mentions, FH keeps multiple versions of files as I update them. I think it also keeps files that I delete from my PC. So let's say I lose everything, and then I want to use File History to restore everything. Is it going to restore ALL the multiple versions of my files, even files I've deleted, or will it just restore the most recent versions?

Posted by:

29 Apr 2022

This sounds like a feeble imitation of DEC's file versioning from 40+ years ago.
And I think IBM's OS360 batch systems had versioning.
The DEC system's file names were of the form A.B;N. The N was a version number. When an app closed a file, the system wrote version N+1.
This is different from snap-shotting, though.

Posted by:

Glen Philipp
29 Apr 2022

I use File History regularly but I do it manually and disconnect the external drive so that if my PC became infected with a virus, the files on the external drive would be clean. Obviously this wouldn't work if I was updating every hour or so.

Posted by:

29 Apr 2022

I use file history but have found that it does miss some files in the Windows folders so it defeats the object of using it.

Posted by:

omar F
29 Apr 2022

Whoopie! This cutting edge breakthrough alone makes it worthwhile for Microcrush to keep producing newer versions of their OS which render my current computer obsolete forcing me to scrap a perfectly functioning machine and buy a new one.

Bob says it all, ". . . it takes the pain out of making backups regularly . . . ".

OMG, my back used to ache from making periodic backups. After being reminded for years by Bob about the importance of backing up your system, I can now "set it, and forget it" (as Ron Popeil used to say). Free at last! Free at last!

Sure, making periodic backups WAS good advice from Bob, but IMO this is a metaphor for how lazy and slothful people have become. Many/most of us do regular backups - it becomes a habit. For those who don't, they probably will never set up this feature anyway and will likely never even know it exists. Most average computer users are already overwhelmed by the myriad of computer settings possible.

When will the wonders of computer technology end? Answer: never, as long as there's another dollar to squeeze out of the public for another bell or whistle they don't really need. Yes, this feature may be useful to a small minority or even a majority of uses. But at what cost?

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
29 Apr 2022

I use Macrium Reflect Free to image all my desktop PCs partitions (except the one I save the images to). I keep 2 Full System Images and 30 Differential System Images, so I have access to any version of any file on my desktop PC, in the state it was in within the past 30 days, but File History appears to be an easier way to recover a previous version of a file, so I enabled it today. In fact, it's backing up my files as I write this.

I'll see how it goes,


Posted by:

30 Apr 2022

The blue background of the comments should be lighter for easier reading.

Posted by:

01 May 2022

I would love to be able to use this but cannot figure out an AutoPlay-compatible external drive. Some help would be useful

Posted by:

03 May 2022

I have been having a very difficult time setting this up. While I am a relative new, I did find a possible reason - In Windows 10, the Local Group Policy Editor is only available in the Pro, Enterprise and Education editions. Unfortunately I am using the Home edition. That may be the reason for me.

Posted by:

11 May 2022

@Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
I also use Macrium Reflect and make image backups. In my opinion there is no difficulty at all in restoring either an image or selected filed within any image.
It's very fast and quite safe.

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