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How to Use Windows 8’s New File History Backup (aka Time Machine for Windows)

It wasn’t one of the more publicized features, but Windows 8 actually comes with a brand-new backup feature called File History, that works similar to Apple’s Time Machine: It automatically backs up files in the background and lets you restore them from a simple, time-based interface.

We’ve always liked Crashplan for creating backups, since it’s a bit more configurable and allows you to back up to the internet—which is very important if you want to keep your files safe. However, we know some people prefer to use built-in tools, or maybe you just want to have a second backup program for smaller, more immediate backups. In that case, File History is a good option.

The Difference Between File History and Windows Backup

Windows Backup still exists in Windows 8, it’s just been renamed to “Windows 7 File Recovery.” So, if you want to back up your files, you have the choice of which system you want to use.

Windows Backup (now called “Windows 7 File Recovery”) backs up your computer on a schedule you set—for example, once a week on Sunday at 2am (though the default is once a month). You can choose to back up whatever you want, from a small selection of personal files to program files to anything else. You can even create a full system image, which is handy when you want to restore your computer to exactly the way it was at a certain point in time. To restore files, you had to go into it’s slightly confusing interface and find the files you were looking for in a set of folders on your backup drive.

Windows 8’s File History, on the other hand, works a bit differently. In fact, you may know about it already: it used to be called Previous Versions in Vista and 7, but it’s been revamped with a much easier-to-use, more backup-focused interface. File History doesn’t back up your whole system. Instead, 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 computer the way Windows 7 File Recovery does. Also, instead of running large backups every week or month, it takes a snapshot of your files every hour, so you can restore your files in a much more fine-grained fashion.

They each have their pros and cons. I personally prefer Windows 8 File History, because I’m able to restore files from much more specific periods in time. Furthermore, my personal files are really what matter—if my entire system started having problems, I can at least reinstall windows and restore my files. My personal documents are the only irreplaceable files. Unfortunately, you can’t run both backup programs at once, or you’d have the best of both worlds.

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, like 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 almost no effort. 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 long it takes a snapshot of your files. You can also exclude folders from your backup if you want, which is useful if you have a large folder of, say, videos 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. Open up Windows Explorer and head to the folder where that file used to reside, You an then 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.

Next, a new window will pop up that looks suspiciously like Apple’s Time Machine, but without all the fancy animations. 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. It’ll 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 do.

Pretty simple, huh? Again, it isn’t quite as powerful as Crashplan, but it is a really nice built-in option for fast, versioned backups of your personal files, and it’s built right into Windows 8