Protect your data files with Windows 10's enhanced File History tool

Windows 10 offers an improved version of the File History tool. Here's a rundown of how it works, configuration tips, and a walk-through of the new features.


Everyone knows it's important to regularly back up the data on their computer's hard disk. But knowing it is one thing; doing it is another. Fortunately, Windows 10 comes with a tool called File History that makes backing up and restoring files as easy as 1-2-3.

File History isn't new to Windows 10; it was included in Windows 8.x as well. However, this version comes with an enhanced user interface and several new capabilities that offer definite improvements over its predecessor.

In this article, I'll show you how to enable File History from the new user interface and how to configure it. As I do, I'll explain how File History works and tell you about the new features in Windows 10.

How it works

Before I show you how to set up and configure File History, let me describe how it works. When you have everything in place, File History will back up all the files and folders you choose. Once the initial backup operation is complete, File History will go into a stealth monitoring mode, where it looks for changes to files. When a file is changed, File History records those changes while keeping track of the original version of the file.

This means that in addition to being able to restore the whole file in the event of corruption or accidental deletion, you can revert a file to a previous state after making changes to it. More specifically, if you make changes to a document and then later regret it, File History will allow you to roll back to an earlier version of the file.

To perform this feat, File History takes advantage of a feature built into the NTFS file system called the change journal. Essentially, when any change is made to a file or folder on your hard disk, the change journal is updated with a description of the change and the name of the file or folder. So to determine which files need to be backed up, File History simply consults the NTFS change journal. Using the change journal is fast and efficient and won't suck up tons of system resources like running a conventional backup routine does.

File History has some other cool efficiency features up its sleeve as well. If the device configured as the backup location becomes unavailable, such as when a USB cable is disconnected or the network goes down for maintenance, File History will continue to do its job by saving the copies to a cache on the local drive. Once the backup location becomes available again, the cached contents are transferred to that location and removed from the local drive.

In addition, File History is sensitive to resource utilization. In other words, if File History is running and some other task needs the same system resources, File History will automatically back off and go into an idle state as it waits for the other task to finish before it resumes.

File History is also aware of activity related to mobile computing, such as whether a device is running on AC or battery power and whether the system has gone into Sleep mode, and it will adjust accordingly so as not to interfere with power-saving features.

A backup drive

To begin with, you're going to need a place for File History to back up your data. File History can work with an external hard disk or a specially configured share on a network.

You can find 1TB and 2TB external hard disks in both brick-and-mortar and online computer stores for under $100. For example, at the time of this writing, you could pick up a Seagate 1TB external USB hard drive at Best Buy for $59.99 or a Western Digital 1TB external USB hard drive on Amazon Prime for $53.99.

For this article, I'm using a Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Desk 1 TB USB 3.0 External Hard Drive, which I picked up Best Buy several years ago.

Getting started

To get started using The Windows 10 version of File History, access Settings from the Start menu or from the Action Center. (Keep in mind that the Windows 8 version still exists in Windows 10 in the Control Panel.)

Once you have the Settings window open, select the Upgrade & Security tile. Then, select the Backup tab to open the Back Up Using File History page, shown in Figure A.

Figure A


You'll get started with File History on the Update & Security>Backup tab in Settings.

Now, click the Add A Drive button. Windows 10 will search for a drive and then prompt you to select a drive, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

Figure B

After you have connected your external hard disk, click the Add A Drive button.

After you select that drive, File History is turned on and ready to back up your files automatically, as shown in Figure C. (You may have to close the Settings window and return to the Backup tab before you see that File History is turned on.)

Figure C

Figure C

After you select a drive, File History is turned on and ready to back up your files.

At this point, you'll need to configure how you want File History to work.

Configuring File History

To configure File History, click the More options link to display the Backup Options page, shown in Figure D. The Overview section indicates that the initial backup hasn't yet begun. But before you click the Back Up Now button, you should investigate the configuration options.

Figure D

Figure D

Before you click Back Up Now, check out File History's configuration options.

By default, File History will check the change journal every hour and back up any files that have been altered. However, the Back Up My Files dropdown menu allows you to change that frequency. You can choose a setting from every 10 minutes to once a day. You can also change how long you want File History to maintain backup versions. While the default setting is Forever, you choose anywhere from one month to Until Space Is Needed. The composite image in Figure E shows both menus.

Figure E

Figure E

You can change how often File History looks for changes as well as how long it should keep versions of your files.

If you stick with the Forever setting and the hard drive that you are using fills up, you will have to manually initiate a cleanup operation from the Control Panel version of File History. If you select Until Space Is Needed, File History will automatically remove the oldest versions of the files it's monitoring when hard disk space gets low. If you select one of the timeframe settings, File History will automatically remove the oldest versions when that time setting elapses for the files it's monitoring.

The next section, Back Up These Folders, shows you a list of all the folders File History is configured to back up and monitor. By default this will be all the folders in your user account folder (e.g., C:\Users\yourname\). This includes Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos, as well Contacts, Favorites, Downloads, and any files on your Desktop. If you're using OneDrive, File history will also back up your OneDrive folders.

In the Windows 8 version of File History, you can back up only the files and folders that were in your user account folder. The new Windows 10 version of File History will allow you to back up other local folders by using the Add A Folder button. If you want to remove a folder from the Back Up These Folders list, just select the item and click the Remove button. Figure F shows these features.

Figure F

Figure F

You can add and remove folders from the Windows 10 File History interface.

At the bottom of the page, you'll find the Exclude These Folders and the Back Up To A Different Drive sections, shown in Figure G. When you select a folder, any subfolders underneath it will be backed up too. If there are files in a subfolder you don't want to back up, just use the Exclude These Folders button. If at a later date you want to back up to a different drive, you will need to use the Stop Using Drive button. Then you can go back to the main page and use the Add A Drive button to select the one you want.

Figure G

Figure G

You can exclude specific folders and change the backup drive.

Making your backup

Once you are finished configuring File History, return to the top of the page and click the Back Up Now button. File History will display the size of the backup and indicate that your files are being backed up. It will also let you know when the backup is complete. Figure H shows both of these states.

Figure H

Figure H

File History provides pertinent information while the backup is running and when it is complete.

When your initial backup is complete, just close the Settings window. From this point forward, File History will monitor all the files and folders you have chosen and back up any files that you change.

In the next article, I'll show you how to use File History to restore data.

What's your take?

Now that you know about File History in Windows 10, will you use it? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

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About Greg Shultz

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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