If you’ve used Windows 8 -- and probably even if you haven’t -- you already know it doesn’t look anything like Windows 7. But Windows 8’s changes aren’t just cosmetic; you'll find plenty under the hood as well, including differences in the features that backup and restore your data, repair Windows when a system configuration goes awry and that return a computer to pristine factory condition.
Let’s take a closer look at the Windows 8 features that handle all these chores -- File History, System Restore, and PC Refresh and Reset.
Windows 8 File History
You may recall a feature in both Windows 7 and in Vista called Previous Versions, which let you revert to an earlier version of a file that’s been modified, as well as to recover files that have been accidentally deleted or damaged. (Actually, you may not recall Previous Versions, since it wasn’t particularly well known or, for that matter, intuitive to use.)
Figure 1: You have to activate it first, but Windows 8 File History will periodically save the contents of your Contacts, Desktop, Favorites and Libraries to a secondary or external hard drive or network location.
Windows 8 tries to improve on Previous Versions with a new feature called File History, which automatically backs up your Contacts, Internet Explorer Favorites, Libraries and Desktop. Because File History backs up all Libraries, not just the four defaults (Documents, Pictures, Music, and Video), as long as you keep all of your personal files in a Library you can rest assured that they’re being backed up.
As it happens, File History is disabled by default, so you have to turn it on before it can help you. To find File History, search for it under Settings (Windows +W if you’re using a keyboard), open it (it launches as a Windows 7-style Control Panel item), and click the Turn On button. If your computer is the member of a HomeGroup, you’ll be given the option to recommend the drive you chose to other members. (If the button isn’t active, it means that no suitable backup location was found.)
At left, you’ll find options to exclude certain folders from File History and save your backups to a different drive. Under Advanced settings, you can adjust how frequently File History makes copies and how long it will keep them -- the defaults are once an hour and forever, respectively.
From Advanced settings you can also configure the size of the offline cache, which retains some of your File History on your primary storage device so you can still access it even if you’re not connected to the secondary/external/network drive.
As you might imagine, this comes in handy on mobile devices such as notebooks and tablets. If you plan to spend lots of time disconnected from your File History drive, can spare the space on your mobile device, and you want your File History to go back as far as possible, it’s worth bumping the offline cache up from the default 5 percent to 10 percent or even 20 percent (the maximum). Note, however, new backups aren’t performed unless the File History drive is available.
Figure 2: A simple interface makes recovering data from File History and easy task.
To retrieve something from File History, search for and open Restore your files with File History, or if you’re already in Windows Explorer, just click on Home >History. You’ll be presented with a very straightforward interface -- scroll left or right to go backward and forward in time, highlight one or more items you want to restore, and click the big green button to restore them to their original location(s).
If you want to restore to a different location, right-click the green button (or the specific item) and choose Restore to. Not quite sure what you’re looking for? Right-clicking an item also gives you the option to preview the contents of a file or folder.
Incidentally, Windows 8 still includes the Backup and Restore feature from Windows 7, albeit under a new moniker -- it’s now called Windows 7 File Recovery (again, search within Settings to find it). It works just like it does in Windows 7; it will back up the files and folders you specify and/or a system image you can use to restore the entire system -- OS, settings, apps, and data -- from scratch in the event of a catastrophic failure.