Saving Your Digital Bacon

Category: Hard-Drives

Have you ever accidentally deleted a file? Do you sometimes wish you could go back in time (a week, a month or a year) to see an older version of a document or spreadsheet? Wouldn't it be great if your computer automatically created backups to help in both of these scenarios? Your wish could be granted, if you turn on this little-known feature of your operating system. Read on...

What is File History?

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 to turn on File History, and how it works...

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.

Windows  File History

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.

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 instead use a networked folder, a USB drive, 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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This article was posted by on 22 Feb 2024

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Most recent comments on "Saving Your Digital Bacon"

Posted by:

Robert Bell
22 Feb 2024

This document is made unreadable by pop-up adverts

Posted by:

Ken H
22 Feb 2024

Robert Bell. I haven't had that happen in so long, I can't remember how to block them. Probably with a Popup blocker. Oh right, it's built into Win 11, put "popup blocker" in the search box and go directly to the setting to allow or block popups. Block popups.

Posted by:

22 Feb 2024

I'm not at all a techie as I'm about to reveal. If I take the steps you've outlined above I can fire Carbonite, right?

Posted by:

David S
22 Feb 2024

Autoplay compatible?
Examples? Sorry, haven’t used an external drive in a long time.

Posted by:

22 Feb 2024

Does File History require an external drive? I.e., could a networked machine have this feature enabled?

Posted by:

Brian B
22 Feb 2024

If File History doesn't backup all files, I can't see the point of it. In a monumental crash, or ransomware attack, it would still require an installation of windows, plus hours and hours of re acquiring all the downloaded apps that you've just lost, and re configuring dozens of settings. Probably 2 or 3 days work. Not worth the hassle.
A decent disk imaging app running overnight is far more convenient, as well as set and forget. I use Macriium Reflect with a full backup once a week then incremental backups the following 6 days. I have 2 external HDDs used on alternate weeks.

Posted by:

22 Feb 2024

Kool! Can you swap between two external drives on a daily or weekly basis, to protect against drive failure?

Posted by:

22 Feb 2024

Giving up. Too many pop-up ads on my iPhone

Posted by:

23 Feb 2024

To Veronica -
If your whole system/network gets hit by a virus or ransomware, file history will probably be affected, too. An online backup like Carbonite or Backblaze would probably be safe.

Posted by:

23 Feb 2024

For those with pop-up or advert problems, "uBlock Origin" is the extension you want. For those on Apple device, tough luck, Apple doesn't allow it.

File History was, and is, a great feature of Windows 10. Apparentaly, Microsoft is trying to kill it in Windows 11. It's no longer in settings, you have to go to the old Control Panel to even find it.

In Windows 10, adding and removing folders to watch to File History was easy. In Windows 11 it's hard. Hard, as in how are your XML editing skills?

I'd like to invoke Hanlon's razor, but I don't understand why. Microsoft is copying everything else from Apple (i.e., the Taskbar, Menu) why not Time Machine? But the changes they made to it in Windows 11 made it mostly unusable.

Posted by:

23 Feb 2024

Thank you bb for the Windows 10 vs. 11 info. Unfortunately, adding & removing folders to my File History doesn't even appear to be an option! And the offered folders don't even cover what Bob listed in his article. I just don't even understand how this is easy for you & somehow not even possible for me. The frustration. *sigh*

Posted by:

Herb Klug
23 Feb 2024

Bob - When I plugged in a portable drive to my PC, I did not get a popup which would allow me to 'Configure this drive for backup.' All it did was nothing. If I opened a File Manager window I could see the drive, but I had no indication at all that the drive would be used for File Backup. After a while, I decided to search 'File History,' and it took me to the Control Panel where I could, indeed, Turn on the File History feature.
Should that step be added to this article? I'd hate to think some people just plug in an external drive and hope for the best but get nothing.

Posted by:

Brian B
23 Feb 2024

@ Bob. Yes, I perform a full image backup on Sunday night with incremental backups all other nights. I just change over the USB plugs prior to Sunday nights full backup. I keep 2 backups on each disk and Macrium is set to delete the oldest of the two after the latest successful backup. Each of my backup sets is about 1.8TB so a hefty external HDD memory is required to accommodate 3 sets. Mine are 12TB each. The parallel disks not only protect me from a failure of one of them, but also, completely protects me from any malware that sneaks through, especially ransomware.

Posted by:

Ken Driver
24 Feb 2024

Filehistory refuses to display my other internal hard drive, so I use Syncfolder from the Microsoft Store. I can create as many backup jobs as I want, and it's set it and forget it.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It's important to note that Sync is not the same as Backup. For example. if you have a Backup, and you accidentally delete a file, you can retrieve it from the Backup. If you are Syncing folders, when you delete that file, it gets deleted from the synced folder as well.

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Saving Your Digital Bacon (Posted: 22 Feb 2024)
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