SEARCH

How-To Geek

Use Windows 7’s Previous Versions to Go Back in Time and Save Your Files

image

Previous Versions is an incredibly useful feature built into Windows 7, which allows the OS to record and view earlier versions of files without a flux capacitor. Here’s a detailed guide to using this excellent feature.

This feature goes beyond the functionality of the Recycle Bin as it allows you to:

  • Recover files you may have permanently deleted.
  • View or restore a version of a file which you have saved over.
  • Allow you to compare current and/or previous versions of a file side by side.

With a little bit of dedicated hard drive space, an automation script and scheduled task, you can leverage this feature to guard against inadvertent file deletions and overwrites which traditional backups may not adequately cover.

Using Previous Versions: A Simple Demonstration

Before covering the configuration options, we are going to demonstrate the awesome power of previous versions. If you are already familiar with this, you can jump to the section about configuration.

Assume we have a folder on our desktop which has 3 files which have previously been captured as previous versions. We will use these files throughout the demonstration.

image

image

image

image

Making Changes to the Original Files

Now we are going to permanently delete (Shift+Delete) the Excel file,

image

edit the text file,

image

and rename the Word document.

image

Recovering the Original Files

Once the text file is closed, we lose the ability to undo our changes. So in the event we need to recover a previous version of the file, simply right-click on the file and select the Restore Previous Versions menu option.

image

In the Previous Versions tab of the file’s Properties dialog, you will see all of the previous versions (or snapshots) of this file which have been captured. Select the version you want to view or restore from.

image

  • Clicking the Open button will open the the selected copy in the default program. This is the file at the time to snapshot was taken.

image

  • Clicking the Copy button will prompt you for the location where you want to create a copy of the selected version.

image

  • Clicking Restore will replace the current version with the selected version. You will be prompted to confirm you really want to do this.

image

But what about the Word Document we renamed or the Excel file we deleted? When you open the previous versions of the renamed file, there is nothing there. If a file is deleted, there is obviously no file to view the previous versions of.

image

In the event of a file being renamed or deleted, you have to view the previous version of the the containing folder. You do this by right-clicking on some white space in the folder and selecting the Properties option.

image

In the Previous Versions tab, you can see snapshots made of the folder as a whole.

image

By double-clicking the folder in the list or clicking the Open button you can view the contents of the folder at the time the snapshot was made. You can see here that the Word Document has the original file name and the contents also contain the Excel file which we permanently deleted.

From here you can view or copy the respective file versions. Additionally, you can use the Copy and Restore buttons in the Previous Versions tab exactly as you would have against an individual file.

image

Recovering a Deleted Folder

What about the case where an entire folder is deleted?

Currently our Sample Files folder is on the desktop, so we are going to permanently delete (Shift+Delete) it.

image

In order to recover this folder or a file inside of this folder, we have to view the previous version of the parent folder. In our case the desktop.

Unfortunately, if you right-click on the desktop, there is no Restore Previous Versions or Properties option.

image

So in order to get to this, we need to get to the Windows Explorer view of the desktop folder.

Open your profile folder from the Start Menu.

image

Inside of the Windows Explorer view of your profile, there is a Desktop folder. Right-click on this folder and select the Restore Previous Versions option.

image

As you can probably guess, you can now view historical snapshots of your desktop contents.

image

Open the respective previous version and you can view the contents of the desktop at the time of the snapshot. Notice this snapshot contains the folder we permanently deleted previously.

image

By opening the Sample File folder, we can now recover the contents of what we previously deleted.

image

While this is just a very basic example, it demonstrates just how powerful this function is. The same methodology can be use to recover files from almost any folder on your computer, not just your documents.

Setting Up and Configuring Previous Versions

Previous versions of files are recorded as part of a System Restore Point. So whenever a restore point is created, if you have the option set to capture previous versions of files, this data will be recorded at that time. It is important to note that this function is smart enough to know that only changes to documents should be recorded. For example, if you have not updated a document in 3 months, a new snapshot is not captured each time a restore point is created.

To view or change your current settings, open the System item in the Control Panel and click the System Protection item. If you get a UAC prompt, select the option to continue.

image

Under the System Protection tab, select the drive containing the files you want to monitor for previous changes and click the Configure button.

image

Under the Restore Settings section, make sure you have one of the options which includes previous files selected.

Under the Disk Space Usage, set the amount of space you want to allow for storing previous versions of files. The more space you allow here, the farther you can “go back” to a previous copy of a file. However, by dedicating space for this feature, you lose the respective amount of storage for new files so be sure to take this into consideration when making this setting.

image

Apply your settings and System Restore will start using them immediately.

Creating System Restore Points

As mentioned above, previous versions are captured as part of a System Restore Point. Restore points are created automatically by Windows whenever certain installations are done and also, according to Microsoft documentation, once a day (although my observations do not support this). However, if you want to take complete control over when restore points are taken, you can create them yourself either manually or via a scheduled task.

Manually Creating a Restore Point

To create a System Restore Point manually, in the System Protection tab in the System Properties dialog, simply select the respective drive and click the Create button.

image

Give the new restore point a name and click Create.

image

Automating the System Restore Point Creation

If this function is something which you intend to use heavily or simply want some additional insurance against accidental file overwrites and deletes, creating a Scheduled Task to force the creation of a System Restore Point is the way to go. While there is not a simple command you can run to create a restore point, we have provided a VBScript file which allows you to automate the process of creating a restore point. You can download this script at the end of the article.

Create a new Scheduled Task which runs as an administrator on the respective machine. Make sure you have the Run with highest privileges box checked.

image

In the Triggers tab, configure how often you want a restore point created. Remember, snapshots of files are captured as part of the System Restore Point.

image

In the Actions tab, configure the task to run the CreateRestorePoint.vbs script provided at the end of the article.

image

In the Conditions tab, select the option to Wake the computer to run this task.

image

In the Settings tab, select the option to be able to run the task on demand as well as the option to run the task as soon as possible after a missed schedule.

image

Apply your changes and you are all set.

Previous Versions vs. Backups

As you can see the previous versions function is quite powerful. However, to be clear, this is not a replacement for regular system backups as it will not protect against drive failure. That said, previous versions offer several conveniences and functions that backups and file syncing services may not:

  • Ability to view or restore deleted/overwritten files with just a few clicks (in the event your backup drive is not available).
  • Ability to pick from several snapshots of the same file as they were captured at different points in time.
  • Historical snapshots can be created at regular, frequent intervals to provide in-day protection against accidental “oops”.
  • No uploading or downloading required.

Previous versions, however, make a great compliment to backups and file syncing services as it not only adds an extra layer of protection but also the conveniences from above at no additional cost.

Download CreateRestorePoint Script

Jason Faulkner is a developer and IT professional who never has a hot cup of coffee far away. Interact with him on Google+

  • Published 03/28/11

Comments (22)

  1. Neel

    nice tutorial, thx ;)

  2. Hatryst

    Another useful thing that MS learned from Time Machine (I won’t say it copied Apple), because it somewhat failed to implement this feature correctly, not keeping in view the convenience of the user.

  3. Carlos Ferrari

    I too remembered Time Machine when I saw this tutorial, but I have to admit Previous Versions really is more user friendly.
    One thing though: this feature were already available in Windows Server 2003, right?

  4. Luke Rogerson

    I am embarrassed to say I never knew how to permanently delete (shift + delete). D’oh!
    Interesting article, though. Thanks.

  5. Seasider

    Using Windows 7 Home Premium. I can’t get this to work for me and never have. Is it supported on all versions?

  6. Jason Faulkner

    @Carlos Ferrari – Server 2003 called it “shadow copies” but it was not nearly as robust as this new system.

    @Seasider – This article was written using Windows 7 Pro, but, according to Microsoft, all version of Windows 7 have this feature (upper right corner): http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows7/Previous-versions-of-files-frequently-asked-questions

  7. jim

    hi, how do I get my hands on that sweet Delorean graphic minus the windows trademark layer?

  8. SteveG

    I’m still running XP Prof but I read the Geek religiously and IF I move to Windows7 it will be because
    of the info I get from your site. I read it to keep up with my wife’s laptop which has Win7 on it.
    Thanks.

  9. Aakash Goel

    awesome article!! have been using windows 7 professional for quite a time now and then i get to learn new stuff on howtogeek!! I love your daily dosage of articles!!

  10. Paulo Cezar

    The article is great as always and very informative but this feature´s implementation sucks to say the least. It´s useful but it is hidden and difficult to setup for the average user. Creating a restore point just to have old version of files? Frankly?

    A long time ago I was a VMS user and it had file versions natively implemented in the OS itself. You could even choose how may versions of each file to keep. Strange enough Wikipedia says “Microsoft hired a group of developers from Digital Equipment Corporation led by Dave Cutler to build Windows NT, and many elements of the design reflect earlier DEC experience with Cutler’s VMS”. So why not implement it as simple and elegant as it was in VMS days?

    This is not to say that everything from the past is better. All I´m saying is that it should be in the front end and visible to the user without the need to point and click lots of screens.

  11. Carlos Ferrari

    @jim: I think it’s a toy, so you can buy and make one the way you like. :)

  12. Indigo4953

    Great article! One question – some government sites have the restore setting turned off in group policy, the reasoning is that a virus or trojan may be placed in the restore area or a virus or trojan embeded into a user file will be saved to the restore area and be deployed with the file or system is restored to a previous version. We have Endpoint running and I would expect that to pick up virus’sand trojans before they could embed themselves. Does Endpoint or other security software look into the recovery directory? I have yet to find any documentation showing a single virus or trojan deployed on a system from the recovery area. Are there any cases?

  13. pb2004

    @Hatryst

    Previous versions was new feature in Windows Vista (at November 8, 2006). Time Machine initial release date was October 26, 2007. So Apple learned/copied from Microsoft.

  14. Coyette

    Excellent tutorial. Yet, I only use restore points for restoring the operating system, not for restoring documents. For that purpose I use Acronis Nonstop Backup (part of Acronis True Image 2011). This application has a timeline which enables you to restore earlier versions of documents you have been working on. I find that much more convenient to use in case that I have to restore documents that I accidently overwrote or deleted.
    Acronis Tue Image 2011 should be installed on every computer anyway.

  15. Debasish

    Well i love the articles and the dose i get from the real geeks from How 2 Geek
    All credits 2 ur team.
    Thanks again for this article,,,u arm us with minor windows tools that give massive power 8)

  16. CCWQ

    wow

    nice article :)

    thx

  17. Sabz

    awesome thanks!!

  18. BK

    In your example, you have access to “historical” sets of previous versions, going back to several points in time – however, in my Windows 7 Pro (stand-alone laptop) there is only one copy of ANY file or folder (from the date of the last system restore snapshot) under previous versions. How did you get this to happen? Is your system a member of a domain? If it is, I think you will need to revise your article (which is an excellent article anyway) to make that distinction…

    Please review this Microsoft FAQ and see the “note” under the “How are previous versions created?” section:

    http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows7/Previous-versions-of-files-frequently-asked-questions

    Cheers,

    Brendan

  19. Jason Faulkner

    @BK – I am not attached to a domain in this example, but that should not matter. The multiple shapshots are created over time. The end of the article discusses how you can force snapshots to be created on your schedule instead of relying on the Windows automatic timer.

  20. Dawa

    I had a really tough internship that I needed for my school, and then today I lost my religiously kept internship journal when I inadvertantly saved something else over it(I was contemplating jumping over the golden gate bridge). I found this site which helped me to recover yesterday’s version of it. Thank you so much.

  21. Alan

    Dude I am writing a documentation for my campus IT job about using and accessing previous versions that the IT College Campus Help Desk Department can use, Thank you this is great help

  22. Jennie

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! You’ve really just saved my bacon as I had just stupidly saved a new doc as one I wrote last week, how daft was that. To think about writing it from scratch was breaking my heart. Thanks so much for taking the time to write the tutorial. :-))))

Get Free Articles in Your Inbox!

Join 134,000 newsletter readers

Email:

Go check your email!