Every operating system backs up previous versions of files and offers an easy way to go back in time. If you use a cloud storage service, it also keeps previous versions of your files.
This is often useful when dealing with some sort of office document. But, any time you’ve modified any type of file and want to go back, it’ll work.
On Windows 7, the Previous Versions feature allows you to restore older versions of your existing files. Just locate a file in Windows Explorer, right-click it, select Properties, and click the Previous Versions tab. You’ll see any available previous versions.
These older versions of files come both from backups created with Windows Backup (if you use that backup system) and the automatic System Restore feature. This means that you should be able to restore previous versions of some files without configuring anything — System Restore will be there for you — but it’ll certainly work better if you also enable Windows Backup.
Windows 8 and 8.1
Microsoft changed the way this works in Windows 8 and 8.1. The old “Previous Versions” feature was removed, as was Windows Backup. Check out our overview of various backup features built into Windows to understand how all these different tools compare.
Instead, Windows now uses File History. Connect an external drive or point Windows at a network drive and set up File History on that location. Windows will then back up your files automatically. You’ll be able to restore previous versions of them by right-clicking a file, pointing to Properties, and using the options on the File History tab.
Crucially, System Restore no longer keeps backup copies of previous versions of your files. As File History isn’t enabled by default, this means you can’t restore previous versions of files unless you’ve gone out of your way to set it up. Former Windows 7 users might have a rude awakening if they expect Windows to automatically back up previous versions of files — it won’t, by default.
Mac OS X
Macs offer several features for this. The first is “Versions,” which works in applications specifically designed for it. This includes text editors, office applications, image editors, and so on. For example, it works in the included TextEdit and Preview applications.
Open the file you want to view a previous version of in that applicaiton, click the File menu, and point to Revert To. You’ll see a list of previous versions of the file, and you can click “Browse All Versions” to flip through them.
You can also use Time Machine for this, assuming you’ve set upg Time Machine backups. Launch the Time Machine application, select a time, and choose a specific file at that time. Use the Restore button to restore it.
On Mac laptops, Time Machine actually creates backup copies of files on your Mac’s local hard drive. Time Machine should have some previous versions of files available to you, even if you haven’t performed a Time Machine backup to an external drive in a while.
Linux desktops don’t tend to have this feature built in, and they’re generally not automatically creating backups of your files. If you use a backup tool — like the Backups tool included in Ubuntu (also known as Déjà Dup) — you may be able to recover backup copies of previous files from the backup tool. Check the backup software you use for more help.
Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and Other Cloud Storage Services
Cloud storage services generally store previous versions of your files. This gives you another way to get previous versions of files back if your desktop operating system fails you. This feature generally isn’t exposed in the desktop client, though — you should visit the service’s website or perhaps use a mobile app to access it.
For example, on Dropbox’s website you can right-click any file and select Previous versions to see a list of previous versions of the file you can restore. On Google Drive’s website, you can right-click a file and select Manage versions if there’s a previous version available. On OneDrive’s website, right-click a file and select Version history.
Note that your cloud storage service won’t keep previous versions forever. Depending on the service you use, the previous versions may be deleted after a period of time (like 30 days), when there are too many previous versions of the file, or to free up space. Don’t rely on the previous versions feature as a historical record!
From Your Backups
If you use a different local backup program — in other words, not Windows Backup on Windows 7, File History on Windows 8 or 8.1, or Time Machine on Mac OS X — that backup program is obviously a good place to go find previous versions of your files, too. Head to your backup software of choice and perform a search for the file you want to see a previous version of.
This process is similar to restoring from backups — after all, each previous version of a file is just a backup of an older file — but operating systems expose this function in a different way.
It may even be easier to restore a previous version of a file than recover a backup of a deleted file — just witness cloud storage services. They won’t help you get a file back if you’ve emptied it from your trash, but will keep many previous versions of files you haven’t deleted.
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