Windows 8 In-Depth: Inside the new File History features

Traditionally the default Windows backup utility has been woeful. On the one hand this has been an opening for third-party vendors to produce all sorts of fully featured backup software and this will no doubt still be the case once Windows 8 is released. But as an advanced operating system where by its nature it enables you to be productive with your data it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for Microsoft to ship a decent tool to safeguard that data by default in Windows.

But what an improvement it is! Originally called History Vault in earlier versions of Windows 8 this completely revamped backup system is now known as File History and bears more than a passing resemblance to Apple’s Time Machine in functionality — not only does it serve as an automated backup tool it will store versions of files dating back as far in time as you set (and/or disk space permitting). This is obviously a good strategy – it serves as a backup in the case of a catastrophe and it doubles as an archive for accidentally deleted files.

Files are stored without compression or encryption making it easy to browse and manually store from archives if needed.

File History can be found under System and Security in the Control Panel and enabling is just a matter of attaching an external drive (local drives aren’t permitted though you can get around it by creating a shared folder from a local drive and linking to it) or a network location. If you use a NAS this makes it ideal for streamlining backups to the NAS without any further configuration than setting aside space and sharing a directory on the NAS.

The two defining settings for File History are how long to keep saved versions which can range from one month to ‘forever’ or alternatively until free space runs out in which case oldest versions get removed first; and the frequency that File History backs up where you can choose increments ranging from every 10 minutes to daily.

By default your Desktop Contacts and Favorites are automatically backed up as are your Libraries. Assuming you use the standard Windows directory layout to store your data there’s nothing more you need to do. If your data isn’t in these locations you’ll need to copy it to one of them as for the moment at least this list of default sources to back up can’t be added to or edited. You can however add exclusions for sub-directories. Until there’s functionality for editing this core source list you could conceivably use the exclusions functionality to exclude a source at the parent level for Desktop Contacts Favorites or Libraries to remove them from the list.

Files are stored as is with no compression or encryption but with a UTC timestamp appended. Even the configuration files defining a File History backup are in (mostly) human-readable XML in the Config directory on the File History destination.

While some may argue this is less efficient it does however make it easy to manually view and restore files from a File History backup to any computer that can read the backup medium. And in this age of gigantically large and cheap hard drives even if you’re backing up lots of data you likely don’t need compression to maximise the space. Privacy is a different issue however and that’s where Microsoft’s BitLocker comes in.

When it comes to restoring there’s a cleanly laid out dialog that showcases the day’s date and currently backed up files and folders. You can restore everything in a folder or library from here at the parent level or navigate into sub-directories just like in Explorer to reclaim individual files — and here’s where it gets nifty. At the bottom are two arrows – clicking them cycles through your backups in time (to however frequently you set the schedule). You can click back by minutes hours or days to view files in previous versions and restore them. If you’re not sure what version of a file has what you’re after you can double-click on it to open a preview. There’s also a search function included and optionally you can restore to a different target than the file was originally backed up from. If the file you’re trying to replace already exists as with file copy clash Windows will ask if you want to overwrite the newer file with your older one.

You can have multiple backup targets and if you need to change a target that has File History backups on it to a new target — for instance if you’re upgrading to a larger hard drive File History will help you migrate the backups to the new target for you.

One last nice feature is that while a File History backup destination is connected a History button in Explorer’s new Ribbon interface allows you to view previous versions of the selected file or folder though in practice all this does is open the Restore dialog for File History as opposed to an integrated view in Explorer.