This tip was written when Windows 8 was in beta, Greg has since updated his tutorial on File History to include features available in the current retail version of Windows 8.

File History is a new feature in Windows 8 that works like a combination of Previous Versions and Windows Backup and Restore. File History continuously monitors files stored in Libraries, Desktop, Favorites, and Contacts folders and when it detects changes in any file it then makes a backup copy to another location – such as an external hard disk or a network drive.

In this edition of the Windows Desktop Report, I’ll show you how File History works.

This blog post is also available as a TechRepublic Slideshow Photo Gallery.

Getting started

Launching File History in Windows 8 is easy. Just press the [Windows] key, type File History while on the Start Screen, select Settings, and click File History, as illustrated in Figure A.

Figure A

Accessing Windows 8’s File History from the Start screen is easy.

Turning on File History

Once the screen appears, as shown in Figure B, you’ll see that by default File History is turned off. You’ll also notice that in this example, no usable drives have been found and that the Turn on button is disabled.

Figure B

By default, File History is turned off.

Once you connect an external drive to the Windows 8 system, File History recognizes the drive as a potential storage location, as shown in Figure C. However, File History doesn’t automatically turn on.

Figure C

Once you connect an external drive to the system, File History will recognize it.

To begin using File History, click the Turn on button. As soon as you do, File History begins making copies of all the files your Libraries (Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos), as well as files in Contacts, Favorites, and on your Desktop, as shown in Figure D. It will not allow you to select folders in other locations – if you have other files that you want File History to keep track of, you can add them to one of your existing libraries or create a new library.

Figure D

Once you turn it on, File History begins saving copies of all the files in Libraries, Contacts, Favorites, and the Desktop.

As soon as File History is done backing up your files, it displays a date and time stamp, as shown in Figure E, so you’ll know how current the backup is. You’ll also see how much disk space is still available.

Figure E

When File History is done with the initial backup, you’ll see a date and time stamp.

How it works

Once you have File History up and running it is ready to begin protecting your data. By default, every hour File History will go to work and create backup copies of any file that has changed since the last backup. File History takes advantage of a feature of 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, in order to determine which files need to be backed up, File History simply consults the NTFS change journal, discovers which files or folders have changed, and backs them up. 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 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 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 the backup 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 running on AC or battery power or when the system goes into Sleep mode and will adjust accordingly so as not to interfere with power saving features.

Changing settings

As I mentioned, File History will scan through the change journal every hour and back up changed files. However, you can change that frequency as well as adjust other settings. Select the Advanced setting in the Task pane on the left side of the main window. In the Advanced Settings window, shown in Figure F, you can use the drop down menus to change the various settings.

You can change the frequency that File History will check for changes and make backups from 10 minutes to 24 hours. You can change the size of the offline cache from 5% to 20% of disk space and you can change the length of time that File History will keep saved versions of changed files from one month to forever or until space is needed.

Figure F

From the Advanced Settings window, you can adjust several settings.

You’ll also notice that if the Windows 8 system is connected to a Homegroup, the external drive can be shared over the network to other Windows 8 systems for use with File History. If File History encounters any problems, it will create records in the File History event logs, which as you can see are easily accessible from the Advanced Settings window

If you return to the main window and select Exclude folders, you can choose certain folders that you don’t want File History to monitor. If you want to select a different backup device, you can choose Select drive and choose another external drive or a network location. Both these options are shown in Figure G.

Figure G

This composite image shows the Exclude Folders and Select Drive windows.

Restoring files

Of course the ultimate goal of File History is to be able to restore files and there are two ways that you can go about restoring files and you can either perform a full restore or simply restore individual files. The first way to initiate a restore operation is from the main File History window by selecting Restore personal files setting in the Task pane on the left. The other way is from Windows Explorer. Restoring from the main File History window will make a full restore easy while restoring from Windows Explorer will make restoring individual files easy.

From Windows Explorer, you will go to the Home tab in the Open section and you’ll see a History button, as shown in Figure H.

Figure H

You can launch a restore operation from within Windows Explorer.

For the sake of showing a detailed example, let’s suppose that you launch the restore operation from the File History window with the goal of restoring a single file. When you do, you’ll see a window like the one shown in Figure I. Here you’ll see all of the folders in the backup and can drill down to any folder containing the file or files that you want to restore.

Figure I

You can scroll through all of the available versions by using the Previous version and Next version buttons.

At the top of the window, you’ll see that this view is showing the most recent version of the File History backup – version 5 of 5 created on August 8 at 6:59. Over to the left you can see the outline of the previous version (4 of 5). You can scroll through all of the available versions by using the Previous version and Next version buttons at the bottom of the screen.

If you wanted to restore all of your files, like you would in the event of a hard disk failure, you would just click the blue Restore button between the Previous version and Next version buttons. If you wanted to restore a particular version of the file, you would drill down to the folder and file and choose the correct version that you are looking for.

Another handy feature of File History is that you can preview the file before you actually restore it. As you can imagine this take a lot out of the guess work out of finding the exact version that you are looking for.

Once you have found the file version that you want to restore, select it and click the Restore button. When you do, you’ll be prompted for the next step. In the case of a version you can either Replace the existing file with the copy from File History or Compare both files before deciding what to do. If you select Replace, you’ll see the new copy operation progress dialog box complete with the graph. This process is illustrated in Figure J. When the operation is complete, the folder containing the new file will open.

Figure J

The restore operation is fairly straightforward.

If the file that you want to restore has been inadvertently deleted from your hard disk, the restore will happen immediately since the destination no longer contains a duplicate file name.

Now, if you wanted to preview a file before deciding if it is the one that you want to restore, just double click the file. If File History can provide a preview, it will be displayed right in the window, as shown in Figure K. If File History is unable to provide the preview, if will prompt you to launch the application associated with the file.

Figure K

If File History can do so, it will display a preview in its window.

If from the Replace or Skip Files dialog box you selected Compare, you would see a window like the one shown in Figure L, which is titled File Conflict, and shows you the file’s date and time stamp as well as the file’s size. You would select the check box adjacent to the one that you want to keep and click Continue.

Figure L

You can compare files by date and time as well as size.

What’s your take?

File History works like a combination of Previous Versions and Windows Backup and Restore. Does this feature make Windows 8 a more compelling upgrade for you? Of course things may change a bit in File History between now and October 26th when Windows 8 officially launches. As such, I’ll cover File History in more detail later. As always, if you have comments or information to share about this topic, please take a moment to drop by the TechRepublic Community Forums and let us hear from you.

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