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The Automatic Windows 7 File Backup That You Didn’t Know You Had

Windows 7 and certain editions of Windows Vista come with an automatic file and folder backup feature called “Previous Versions” that many PC users don’t seem to know about. Individual data file and folder backups are created by System Restore or by Windows Backup. With the default setting for System Restore, this means monitored files are backed up once a day. To be more precise, records called “shadow copies” are created. These keep track of any changes that have occurred for files and folders.

These shadow copies can’t be accessed directly. To see the previous versions of a file or folder, right-click the object and choose “Restore Previous Versions” from the context menu.  A dialog listing the previous versions will then open. An example for a folder called “PDFs” is shown in the figure below. Only dates when the file or folder had changes will be shown. There are three buttons that allow for various operations with a selected previous version. Clicking the button "Open" will display a selected entry. Clicking "Copy" will allow you to create a copy of a particular version and save it in a different location. Clicking "Restore" will replace the present file or folder contents with those of the selected version.

Previous versions dialog

And there you have it- a Windows time machine.

More information: Additional details about Previous Versions can be found at this link.

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This tips section is maintained by Vic Laurie. Vic runs several websites with Windows how-to's and tutorials, including  a computer education website and a site for learning about the command line.

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Comments

by Dwain (not verified) on 30. November 2011 - 4:02  (84150)

This may be slightly off topic, but I would like to see a discussion on how the winsxs folder constantly eats up disk space. Mine is currently at 6.5 gig.

by jeffnalc2810 (not verified) on 25. November 2011 - 16:21  (83885)

Does this automatic backup of files eat away at memory at an alarming rate?

by v.laurie on 25. November 2011 - 16:47  (83887)

By "memory", I assume you mean disk space. Windows limits the amount of disk space that is used and you can configure the amount yourself if you wish. Your comment and other comments suggest to me that a tip on controlling the disk space that is used is in order. So watch for the next tip.

by Anonymous6589 (not verified) on 27. November 2011 - 9:23  (83982)

Could he have meant the amount of memory required to monitor the files changes etc?

I would assume it wouldn't be that much

by TedWest (not verified) on 23. November 2011 - 22:33  (83797)

I used Win7 Prtemium64, and I have shadow copies that I can access via Shadow Explorer, but navigating to a specific file and restoring it is slow, not to mention that if you want a different version, you have to access a different shadow copy in Shadow Explorer. So I would love to be able to use "Restore previous version" Unfortunately, on every drive and partition, I get the message that there are no previous versions available. I( thought I may have to turn something on, but there appears to be nothing to turn on, it simply doesn't work for some reason. Does anyone have any ideas about this?

by v.laurie on 23. November 2011 - 22:57  (83799)

Have you turned off System Restore? Are all your volumes being monitored? Are you allotting enough space for restore points?

by Starlight (not verified) on 23. November 2011 - 17:12  (83789)

Hi and what a great tip, thank you!

However when I right click files there is no
"Restore Previous Versions" selection in the context menu.

I presume therefore that my OS "Windows Vista Home Premium" is one of the Vista versions that doesn't do this even though it still makes Shadow copies.

Are you able to confirm this please or is there something else I need to do or try to achieve this?

yours respectfully

Starlight

by v.laurie on 23. November 2011 - 17:23  (83790)

Vista Home Premium does not show Previous Versions. However, they are actually present in System Restore points and there is a way to see these shadow copies. See the reference (http://windows7tips.com/windows-7-previous-versions.html) given in the tip. It mentions a freeware program called Shadow Explorer (http://www.shadowexplorer.com/)

by rroberto on 23. November 2011 - 16:39  (83786)

This sounds great, but does this use up a lot of boot drive space? If yes, is there a way to have the shadow copies made directly to an external HD -- and still have data be restored to their original location?

by v.laurie on 23. November 2011 - 17:10  (83788)

Shadow copies that are part of System Restore are on the same drive as the original. The amount of space devoted to Restore points is configurable. Windows 7 Backup is normally used to place backups on an external drive.

by Neverthetwain (not verified) on 23. November 2011 - 11:59  (83772)

Great tip!

I'm in the process of writing a book and occasionally have wanted to see an earlier version.

Perfect way!

by WoJ (not verified) on 24. November 2011 - 7:31  (83822)

In that case you should consider using a verionning system which will be more relaible and will have more features. There are plenty available, the top ones being subversion (http://subversion.tigris.org/) and git (http://git-scm.com/).
There are others standalone ones for any platform.

by Richard Dixon (not verified) on 23. November 2011 - 11:09  (83768)

Forgive the double posting; don't know what happened there...the second problem, which I still have, it that I cannot access previous versions of files by right click > Properties > Previous Versions. When I do that, it says there are none available. Yet when I go to the HD and select the partition and do the same thing, the entire drive's worth of previous versions are there to be found, and can be successfully extracted. Go figure. That said, it is a great feature and an excellent addition to a normal backup routine.

by v.laurie on 23. November 2011 - 14:32  (83781)

When no shadow copies are shown for a file, try the trick of saving the file. Then shadow copies are often displayed.

by Richard Dixon (not verified) on 23. November 2011 - 11:05  (83767)

I use this and it is great, but I did have an initial problem. My Win 7 Home SP1 system was seemingly unable to make restore points for a data partition that contained a lot of huge files, like ISOs and movies, probably because it was too much to manage. So, I repartitioned the HD to make separate data and video partitions. With that done, no problem; I enabled Previous Versions for the data partition and not for the video one, and it works fine.

by Steeleye (not verified) on 22. November 2011 - 15:30  (83712)

I just let Windows Backup pull a system image daily.

by v.laurie on 22. November 2011 - 15:37  (83713)

Those backups create shadow copies also. The point of this tip is that you can access copies of a single file made at several points in time if you wish.

by Remah on 23. November 2011 - 11:45  (83770)

Yes, that is the power of it. Excellent tip, thanks.