While it has become customary to bitch and moan about Windows 8′s default Metro interface and the dissolution of the 15-year-old Start Menu institution, the fact remains that Microsoft’s new OS also contains a bunch of compelling new features that laptop, desktop, and power users will much appreciate. Windows 8 can natively mount ISOs, and Task Manager is much improved — and, perhaps most importantly, Windows 8 now has a built-in, continuous backup tool.
Called File History, its closest analog is Mac OS X’s Time Machine — but it’s better in some ways, and considerably weaker in others (really, as you will soon see, it feels like File History was programmed by an intern.) The basic function of File History is to periodically back up your Libraries (your documents, music, pictures, videos) to another hard drive. These backed up files are saved as versions, which you can easily browse through and restore with a couple of clicks.
The target hard drive can be an external drive, a network share (such as a NAS), or a Storage Space (Windows 8′s new RAID tool). The key here is that File History cannot create backups on the source drive; this is Microsoft’s way of ensuring users actually create safe backups.
So far, so good — there’s just one problem: File History isn’t turned on by default. Despite Microsoft being very clear about this feature being targeted consumers who regularly get stung by a lack of up-to-date backups, File History is rather hard to discover. Let’s quickly run through how to turn File History on, and how to use it.
Enable File History
In the Metro Start Screen, type “backup” and then select Settings from the right-hand menu. (Why you have to select Settings in the first place is beyond me, and one of my biggest pet peeves with Windows 8.) Click the first result and the File History applet will pop up (if you’re not using the Metro Start Screen for ideological reasons, you can also open File History from the standard Desktop Control Panel).
Click Select Drive on the left-hand side, and then select a hard drive (or network location) with lots of empty space. Click OK, then simply click “Turn on.” That’s it — your documents are now being backed up. To check out your version history — to restore a backup — click the History button in the Explorer ribbon menu.
Changing the backup period, and other advanced settings
By default, File History backs up a version of your files every hour. If you head into Advanced Settings, you can change this to a value between “Every 10 minutes” and Daily; personally, I opted for every 10 minutes (and even then, it would be nice to have an option for every 60 seconds — maybe it’s possible via a registry hack).
You can also alter how long versions are kept for; Forever is the default, but shorter periods are available (probably advisable, if you make constant revisions to large files, such as Photoshop PSDs). The size of the offline cache can also be altered slightly (the offline cache is used if you disconnect the external hard drive, or you’re not plugged into the network).
Microsoft says that it has done a lot of work to ensure that File History doesn’t steal CPU or IO cycles from other programs; it only backs up files when nothing else is running, or there’s plenty of spare processor and I/O capacity. When File History is idle, it apparently only uses 10MB of RAM.
Backing up more file locations
Now, if you already use the Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos Libraries to store all of your personal files, you’re good to go — you can stop reading now. If you want to back up other files, though, you must add the relevant folder to your Libraries; File History will only back up the Libraries, and nothing more.
Fortunately, adding a folder to a Library is easy — just right click a Library > Properties > Add. You can also create a new Library (called “Backup,” perhaps) — right click > New — and then add all of your important folders to that.
This is where File History falls flat, though. There’s no way that an average user will add folders to a Library — and more importantly, the average user doesn’t even know where all of his important files are stored. Have you ever tried to locate the Outlook data file, buried deep within the mystical AppData folder? What about games that save their files in weird places? Or important settings, like screen calibration and hosts files, and so on? Time Machine, the OS X backup tool, backs up everything on the computer — a much better solution, I think, and it’s utterly crazy that File History doesn’t at least have the option.
Tips, tricks, and caveats
It should be noted that File History is an incredibly naive tool. All it does is check the NTFS Change Journal (a file system-managed list of recently modified files), and then copy changed files to another drive. For versioning, all it does is insert a timestamp into the filename. As far as I can tell, there is no database that links source files with the versioned backups. If you rename the original file, it is no longer associated with the versions. Likewise, if you delete the original, then create another file with the same name, it is linked with the versions. You wouldn’t expect this kind of behavior from a dedicated backup tool, so I’m not quite sure why Microsoft has chosen such a rudimentary implementation for a built-in operating system tool.
In another odd twist, Windows 8 will also see the retirement of Previous Versions, a much-more-extensive (block-level) built-in backup tool. On the other hand, though, Windows 8does have the built-in ability to create complete hard drive images, and then restore the system using those images. While we’re at it, why doesn’t File History have any hooks into Windows Live/Skydrive? All of your Metro apps and settings are saved to your Skydrive — it would’ve been rather neat if File History had the option of mirroring your backup to the cloud.
Sure, File History is very easy to configure, and the version/backup browser is cute, but I worry that File History will lull users into a false sense of security. I don’t know if I can morally recommend File History over a proper backup solution, such as an external drive or NAS combined with Easeus Todo Backup or Genie Timeline.
Ultimately, though, as long as you work out how to turn it on, File History should be more than enough to save the important files of millions of Windows 8 users — and that must be a good thing.