Windows 7 / Getting Started

Restoring a file with shadow copies (previous versions)

Unless you change things (see the next section for details), Windows 7 automatically keeps shadow copies of every folder and document on your main hard drive.

Shadow copies (also called "previous versions") live on the same hard drive that contains the original data, so they don't protect you from disasters that take out the drive, like an errant ball bearing rolling to meet its maker or a talented cup of coffee performing a swan dive into your computer's case. Instead, shadow copies exist to help you recover if you accidentally delete or otherwise screw up an important file.

To understand the real world benefits and shortcomings of shadow copies, it's important to realize that different programs save changes in different ways - and the differences can cost you hours of frustration. For example:

  • When you're using Microsoft Word and you save a Word document, Word puts the updated information on disk but saves all your intermediate steps. As long as you don't close the document, you can undo any mistakes you made. If you mess up a document and you catch the problem in time, you can click the Undo button and move back to any previous state. After you close the document, though, Word forgets all the undo steps.
  • By contrast, when you're using Microsoft Excel and you save an Excel spreadsheet, Excel puts the updated information on disk, but it then immediately forgets all your undo steps. If you mess up an Excel spreadsheet and discover the error of your ways immediately after you save, the best you can hope for (with apologies to Kenny Rogers) is to die in your sleep - to a first approximation, anyway.

Windows 7 makes shadow copies of your data files sporadically. At the very least, you should have an automatically generated shadow copy (er, previous version) of every data file on your main hard drive, and at any given moment, that shadow copy should be no more than 24 hours old.

If you suddenly get that "oops" feeling and want to recover your data, follow these school-of-hard-knocks steps:

  1. If you're working on a document (spreadsheet, whatever) and you get the sinking feeling that something has gone awry, don't panic, don't save the document, don't close the document, and don't shut down the application.
  2. Click the application's Undo button.
    Almost all Office applications, and many other applications, have a dropdown arrow next to the Undo button that lets you group undo actions and apply many of them at once. See whether you can restore the document to the state you want by undoing.
  3. If you can't undo your way out of the mess, don't save or close the screwed-up document.
    Leave it open, right where it is, in case you can use some of the jumbled mess to make an older version of the document right.
  4. Choose Start → Documents and navigate to the document that's causing you problems. Right-click the document and choose Restore Previous Versions.
    Windows 7 shows you the Previous Versions tab for the afflicted file.
  5. Click the Copy button (don't click the Open button), and put the copy of the old version of the file in a location you can remember.
    Clicking Open in the Previous Versions dialog box can cause all sorts of confusion - and you may not know that you have a problem until you try to save or close the recovered file.
    If the Open and Copy buttons are both grayed out, avoid using the Restore button. Instead, click the red X to close the Previous Versions dialog box, go back into the original application, and choose File → Save As to save the screwed-up version of the file, giving it a new name. Then repeat Steps 1 to 4, and use the Previous Versions dialog box to open the older version of the file. Yes, it's complicated. A scorecard helps.
  6. Open the previous version.
    If you're restoring an Excel spreadsheet, you have to manually change the name of the previous version file before opening it - Excel doesn't allow you to open two spreadsheets with the same name at the same time. That's crazy, but that's Excel.
    You can now copy and paste between the previous version and the screwed-up version of the document. When you're done, close and delete the screwed-up version.

Shadow copies can also be useful if you accidentally delete a file - although I recommend that you use the Recycle Bin, if at all possible (double-click the Recycle Bin on the desktop, select the file you want to restore, and then click the Restore button). The Recycle Bin is much less confusing.

To bring back a deleted file (or folder) using shadow copies/previous versions, right-click the folder that used to contain the file (or folder) and choose Restore Previous Versions. Then click the version of the folder you want to resurrect and drag it to the desktop. At that point, you can open the folder and rummage around inside - your deleted files (and folders) are still there.

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