Windows 8 includes a feature called File History that caches, or backs up, different versions of your documents and other data files, so you can “go back in time” and recover previous or deleted versions of those files. It’s a great feature that builds on technology that’s been in Windows since 2003—long before Apple copied it with Time Machine—and it works very well. The trouble is, File History is disabled by default in new installs of Windows 8. So you’ll need to enable first.
I previously wrote about File History in Windows 8 Feature Focus: File History, so please refer to that article for a more comprehensive rundown of how this feature works. But the short version is that, once enabled, File History automatically backs up files in your desktop and libraries, contacts, IE Favorites, and Microsoft SkyDrive. If you delete, damage, or change a file stored in one of these locations, you can use File History to restore it to any stored version. In this sense, File History really does provide you with a “history” of your most important files.
File History is of course most easily found with Start Search. Since it’s implemented as a classic control panel, you’ll need to filter the search to Settings.
Aside from being disabled by default, File History has one semi-onerous requirement: It requires an external drive, like a USB-based hard drive or memory drive, or a network location, such as a share on another PC, a Windows Home Server, or similar. (If you have a second internal drive, that will work as well, though you can’t have mapped any library locations to this disk.)
To use File History, you can plug in an external disk, which will cause the File History control panel to change like so:
Or, tap the Use network location link and then click Add network location to find an acceptable share location on your home network. (I happen to use a location on my Windows Home Server for this purpose, so my instructions will follow this path.)
When you’ve configured the location you want to use, click the Turn on button and File History will begin backing up your files. It also asks if you’d like to recommend this to other PCs in your homegroup, if configured. This way, if you enable File History on those PCs next, you can more easily configure it for the same location, creating a centralized store of versioned files.
Once File History is up and running, you can pretty much forget about it, as it will operate normally and automatically without any interaction required. That said, if you’re using an external drive for File History, you’ll want to ensure that the drive is connected to your PC when possible.
I explain how to actually use File History in Windows 8 Feature Focus: File History, of course, including the most crucial piece, file recovery, which occurs through a nice new interface that’s vaguely reminiscent of Windows Media Player.
One last note: File History also maintains an offline cache, which replicate some percent of your full file history on the C: drive so you can access backups when disconnected from the home network or external drive. This is useful, in particular, for portable computers, so you won’t lose File History functionality when out and about. By default, File History takes 5 percent of the space on your primary disk for this cache, but you can configure this, and a few other options, in Advanced Settings from the File History control panel.