Let’s face it — sometimes things go wrong, especially when you are dealing with computers, networks, electronic gadgetry, and the people who use them. When it comes to saved files on a hard drive, users have been known to delete, modify, and otherwise render useless important documents and then want them restored to their previous condition. The shadow copy feature in Microsoft Windows Vista and Windows 7 goes a long way toward making that restoration just a few mouse clicks from reality. That is, if you have turned shadow copy on and have it configured properly. Configuring and using shadow copy is not complicated, but it does require some specific knowledge about where these features are located.

This blog post is also available as a TechRepublic gallery and TechRepublic download. This post was originally published in the How do I… Blog in October 2007.

Shadow copy configuration

Before you can use the shadow copy feature, you must make sure it is enabled. Shadow copy does require additional system resources, so you should weigh the benefits of file restoration with the availability of system resources. For most, the benefits will outweigh the additional system requirements, but your situation may dictate a different approach.

Configuration settings for shadow copy can be found in System Properties. Navigate to the Control Panel and click the System Properties icon, as shown in Figure A. You can also type system into the Desktop Search box on the Start menu.

Figure A

Vista System Properties

In the System Properties window (Figure B), click the System Protection link on the left-hand side of the screen. It is odd, but I could find no keyword that would lead me directly to the System Protection screen from the Desktop Search. The intermediate step to System Properties seems to be required.

Figure B

Link to System Protection

Once you get to the System Properties dialog window, click the System Protection tab to reach the configuration screen for shadow copy (Figure C). Make sure to check the drives for which you would like shadow copy to be available. If you want, you can create a restore point immediately by clicking the Create button. Under normal conditions, a new restore point is created as part of the shutdown/boot process.

You can also restore to a previous point from this screen if you want to and if a restore point exists. Click OK when your configuration is complete.

Figure C

System Protection tab

Using shadow copy

Now that you have configured Windows to create shadow copies of your files, you can rest assured that no matter what bonehead thing you do to your documents, you have a copy to restore from when needed. In the example in Figure D, I have created a simple Word 2007 document called ShadowTest.docx and saved it in my folder.

Figure D

My documents

As you can see in Figure E, there is just one line of text in ShadowTest.docx.

Figure E

Original ShadowTest.docx

After saving the document and exiting Word, I right-clicked the filename and navigated to the Properties screen for the file and clicked on the Previous Versions tab, as shown in Figure F. As you can see, there is no shadow copy version of this Word document yet. Under normal operation, a shadow copy will be created during the next power down and boot cycle.

This is important to remember — the shadow copy feature does not replace file backup procedures. Instead, shadow copy should be considered a supplement to regular file backups. Restoring a file from shadow copy almost always results in a loss of data and/or time and effort. It should be used as a last-resort recovery method.

Figure F

File Properties

For our example, I forced the creation of a restore point to create a shadow copy of our test file (Figure G).

Figure G

Restore point established

From this screen (Figure G) you can Open the document, Copy it, or Restore the previous version of the file. Restoration will replace whatever is in the current document with the version shown here in the shadow copy. Windows will warn you of this fact (Figure H).

Figure H

Restoration warning


The Windows shadow copy feature will create a new shadow version of a file whenever a restore point is created by the operating system. In our example, we have only one shadow copy, but under normal operating circumstances, there will often be several shadow copies to choose from. Just keep in mind that the further back in time you go for your restoration copy, the more data you are likely to lose.