One of Windows 8's most useful but less-discussed features is File History, which automatically backs up files and lets you restore them from a simple, time-based interface. Here's how to use it.
File History clearly takes some inspiration from the Time Machine backup feature in Mac OS X, but delivers it within the new Windows 8 interface. Regardless, having a simple built-in backup option increases the chances that people will actually remember to back up their personal files.
We've always liked Crashplan for creating backups, since it's highly configurable and allows you to back up to the internet, which is vital if you want to keep your files safe. Nonetheless, using built-in tools means you don't have to spend for online services. It can also be a useful extra layer in your backup strategy when you want to do a fast, immediate backup.
The Difference Between File History and Windows Backup
Windows 8 actually offers two backup options. The old Windows Backup tool still exists as well, but has been renamed to 'Windows 7 File Recovery'. Which should you choose? (Unfortunately, you can't run both.)
Windows 7 File Recovery backs up your computer on a schedule you set -- for example, once a week on Sunday at 2am (the default is once a month). You can also choose which files you want to back up, whether that's personal files, program installations or a full system image. The main disadvantage was that the interface to restore files was somewhat confusing.
Windows 8's File History works somewhat differently. It only backs up the files in your Libraries -- essentially, your personal documents, files and media. You can add any folders you want to a library, of course, but it won't back up your entire installation the way Windows 7 File Recovery does. And rather than running complete backups on a user-defined schedule, it takes a snapshot of your files every hour, meaning you can restore your files in a much more fine-grained fashion. Want to grab the version of a document you worked on yesterday? File History makes that possible.
Both approaches have pros and cons. I personally prefer Windows 8 File History, because I'm able to restore files from much more specific periods in time. As well, my personal files are really what matter -- if my entire system started having problems, I can reinstall Windows and restore my files and applications. My personal documents are the only irreplaceable files.
How To Set Up File History
Windows 8's File History is very easy to set up. Just head to Control Panel > File History. If you have an external drive plugged in, you can just click the "Turn On" button. Alternatively, you can plug in an external drive and Windows will ask you if you want to use it for backup. If you want to back up to a network location such as a NAS, click "Change Drive" in the left sidebar first. Pick your network location, then return to File History's main window and click "Turn On".
That's actually all it takes -- your computer will start backing up regularly with no intervention from you. If you want to tweak how often it backs up, click "Advanced Settings" in the left sidebar. You can change how long it keeps files and how frequently it takes a snapshot of your files. You can also exclude folders from your backup if you want, which is useful if (for example) you have a folder of large video files that you don't want wasting space on your backup drive.
How To Restore Your Files
If you accidentally delete a file and need to restore it , or if you change a file and decide you want the old version back, you can restore that file very simply from the main File History window. Open up Windows Explorer and head to the folder where that file used to reside, click the "Home" button and click the File History icon on the right side of the Ribbon. Alternatively, you can head back to Control Panel > File History and click "Restore Personal Files" on the left sidebar.
You can search through your documents using the search at the top, or navigate to the file you want to restore. To search an older snapshot, click the Previous button at the bottom of the window. When you find the file you want to restore, click on it, then press the big green Restore orb at the bottom of the window. That wull restore the file to its original location. If you're restoring an old version of a file that already exists, Windows will ask you if you want to overwrite the file (which you usually will want to do).