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Protect Your Windows Files

Some things on your hard drive are valuable. Pictures and videos from digital cameras are irreplaceable. Documents you spent hours creating required an investment of your time. You don't want to lose those things because of a technical problem or mistake, so keeping backups is a good idea. That way, if you lose the originals on your hard drive, you can easily restore them from your backup copy.

In addition to the files you create and use yourself, many system files reside on your hard drive. These are files that Windows 10 needs to function properly. If those files get messed up, your computer may not work correctly. So, you need some means of backing up those system files as well.

This tutorial explains how to back up both your personal files and your system files. (We also cover the ability to save your system settings and configuration to your OneDrive.) Of course, the backups don't do you any good if you can't use them when you need them. So, we discuss how to use those backups if you ever need to get your system back in shape. We also discuss System Protection, which creates restore points to keep copies of some files around temporarily. This feature helps you fix minor mishaps on the spot without fumbling around with external disks.

File Backups

A simple way to back up items from your user account is to copy files to an external disk. Just make sure that the disk to which you're copying has enough space to store what you're copying.

To see how much material is in a folder in your user account, open File Explorer and then point to the folder you're considering backing up, or right-click that folder and choose Properties. When you point, the size of the folder shows in a tooltip. When you right-click and choose Properties, the size of the folder shows up next to Size on Disk in the Properties dialog box.

Folder sizes show in tooltips only if you selected Show Pop-Up Description for Folder and Desktop Items in the Folder Options dialog box. For more information on that and other terms and concepts used in this tutorial.

To see how much space is available on a removable disk, such as a flash drive, connect it to a USB port and then open the root folder on your computer. With some kinds of drives, you see the amount of available space right on the icon.

The layout for Windows 10 is very different from previous versions of File Explorer or Windows Explorer. In particular, Windows no longer puts libraries under Favorites.

1KB is 1024 bytes, 1MB is a little more than a million (10242) bytes, and 1GB is about a billion (10243) bytes.

If the disk has enough space for the item you want to copy, copy it to the disk. If you ever lose or damage a file on your hard drive, you can get it back from the copy on the external disk.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of e-mail services and multiple e-mail clients exist, and they don't all work the same. In fact, e-mail has nothing to do with Windows 10. E-mail is a service provided by your ISP or mail service provider. Your only resource for information is the tech support provided by your ISP or mail service (or someone who happens to use and know the same service).

That's the quick and easy way to make backups of important files. More elaborate methods exist. The next two sections discuss ways of backing up all your files, and even your entire hard drive.

Using File History

Windows 10's File History feature is an alternative to the simple method for backing up files described earlier and is an upgrade to the Windows Backup feature released with Windows 7. File History can back up individual folders, all files for all user accounts, or even your entire hard drive. It works with an external hard drive, USB drive, or a shared network drive. File History makes recovering files very easy because it allows you to access backed-up files from File Explorer.

File History does not use OneDrive as an external drive. You must supply one of the following: a physical hard disk that is attached to your local computer, a drive on a server somewhere in your office, or a drive on a server in the cloud. Drives on servers can be found by configuring network connections to these resources.

Starting File History

File History is a tool for backing up files in all user accounts so you need administrative privileges to run it. If you're logged in to a standard account, log off, or run as administrator. Then log back in to an administrative account.

To launch File History, open Settings, launch the Update and Security application, and then click Backup in menu on the left. Or open Control Panel and click the File History option. File History can be accessed from Settings.

By default, File History is turned off under Windows 10. A message on the main File History page indicates such. Also, File History recommends that you use an external drive for your backup storage device, or use a network location for backups. In fact, notice that the Turn On button is grayed out. You cannot even turn on File History until it recognizes a supported drive. In the example shown, File History has accepted an external USB hard drive.

To turn on File History, connect an external drive to your computer. Press F5 on your keyboard or click the Refresh button on the Address bar to refresh the page. If you would rather use a network drive than an external drive, click the Use Network Location link and follow the instructions in the next section, "Backing Up to a Network Location."

The next example here uses an external USB drive to back up files. The File History page looks like after plugging in the USB drive and refreshing the page. Before turning on File History, note that File History backs up files from the following locations by default:

  • Libraries
  • Desktop
  • Contacts
  • Favorites

Its main purpose is to make sure that you can recover documents such as pictures, music, and videos if you lose the originals on your hard drive.

Click the Turn On button to activate File History. The Recommend a Drive for File History dialog box appears, asking if you want to allow others in your network homegroup to use this drive as their backup drive as well. If you want to allow this, click Yes; otherwise, click No.

After you activate File History, the File History page changes to show that it's turned on and that File History is making a copy of your files for the first time. This initial backup may take several minutes or even hours, depending on the number of files you have in the folders being backed up.

The first file backup you perform may take several hours. It runs in the background, so you can continue to use your computer during the backup. But the backup consumes some computer resources, slowing your computer down. You may want to run the first backup overnight, starting it at a time when you can leave the computer on and running.

As we mentioned, the first backup may take a while. But subsequent backups copy only files that have changed since the most recent backup, so the backups complete more quickly.

Backing Up to a Network Location

You can use a network location to back up files. This is handy if you have multiple computers in a location and want to use it as a shared backup location. Another benefit to using a network location is access to hard drives that may have large amounts of unused space. Typically, networked computers have larger hard drives than dedicated external drives. In many cases, you can use these larger hard drives to back up files.

To use a network location, click the Use Network Location link when you initially access the File History page. Or click the Select Drive link on the left side of the File History window. This opens the Select Drive window.

Click the Add Network Location link to display the Select Folder window. Find the computer and folder to back up your files to. You must have network access privileges to access a computer and folder on your network. Click Select Folder after you find the location on the network to back up your files.

The Select Drive window reappears, listing the network drive you just selected. If it isn't selected, select it and then click OK to save your selection. For systems on which you've already backed up files to a drive (such as to a USB drive), File History prompts you with a message asking if you want to move your currently backed-up files to the network location. Click Yes to ensure all your backed-up files are available on the new network location. This move may take several minutes or even hours depending on the number of files on your backup drive.

If you use the Select Drive feature again and select a drive that you've previously used for backups (in the example, if you reselect the USB drive), you're presented with a list that shows at least one backup exists. To ensure all your backed-up files are on the most recent drive selection, select an existing backup, choose OK, and then click Yes when prompted to reselect a drive you've previously used.

Excluding Folders during Backups

There may be some folders on your computer that you do not need to back up. For example, you may find that all your music is backed up using a different backup utility or music program. In this case, you don't need to use File History resources (backup time and drive space, for example) to back up your music.

To specify folders that you don't want to back up, click the Exclude Folders link on the left side of the File History window. The Exclude Folders window appears. By default, folders are not excluded so your Excluded Folders and Libraries list will simply say No Excluded Items.

Click the Add button to display the Select Folder window. Select a folder to exclude and then click Select Folder. File History adds that selected folder to the list of excluded folders. Continue this process until all the folders you want to exclude from backups are selected. For example, we've added the Music, Videos, and Camera Roll folders to exclude in our backups. Click Save Changes to save your changes.

If you want to remove folders or libraries from the Exclude Folders list, select the item and then click Remove. This enables File History to back up files in that folder once again.

Setting the File History Advanced Option

To change File History advanced settings, click the Advanced Settings link on the File History window. The following paragraphs describe the settings you can modify on this window.

By default, File History looks to see if you've made changes to already backed-up files every hour. If changes have been made, File History saves the most current file to your backup location. If hourly is not an appropriate length of time - too short a time or too long a time - change it by choosing a new time from the Save Copies of Files drop-down list. You have the following options:

  • Every 10 Minutes
  • Every 15 Minutes
  • Every 20 Minutes
  • Every 30 Minutes
  • Every Hour (Default)
  • Every 3 Hours
  • Every 6 Hours
  • Every 12 Hours
  • Daily

One setting you may want to change is the Keep Saved Versions option. This instructs File History on how long to keep backup copies of your files. File History keeps multiple copies of your files so that you can restore a file to a previous date and time. This feature is great when you accidentally delete a file and want to return to a previous version of that file. The downside comes in the amount of space needed to store all so many multiple copies.

By default, File History saves all copies forever, as long as you have sufficient storage space. You may want to change this to a shorter period of time, such as one month or three months if you know that you won't need to return to all those multiple versions of the same file. File History keeps the last copies within the time frame you choose, so you have the option of returning to more recent copies. But you may not ever return to a version that is two years old, for example.

Your options for saved versions include the following:

  • Until Space Is Needed
  • 1 Month
  • 3 Months
  • 6 Months
  • 9 Months
  • 1 Year
  • 2 Years
  • Forever (Default)
Use the Clean Up Versions link when you want to get back some space on your backup drive. Click that link, and File History removes old versions of the same file so that only the most recent copy is on the backup drive.

You can choose the Recommend This Drive option. Use this option only if your computer belongs to a homegroup and you want others on the network to be able to use your drive to back up their files.

Finally, you view File History event logs by clicking the Open File History Event Logs to View Recent Events or Errors option. Event Viewer, provides helpful information in case you encounter problems with File History.

When you finish modifying the advanced settings for File History, click Save Changes.

Restoring Files from a Backup

If you ever find that you've lost or destroyed important files, you can restore them from your File History backup. But understand that you need this method only if the files or folders are not in the Windows 10 Recycle Bin. Before you bother with the method described here, open the Recycle Bin and look for the missing file or folder. If you find what you need, right-click it and choose Restore. The deleted item goes right back where it was, and you don't need to proceed with the procedure described here.

If this method does not help you recover the lost items, you can restore from your backup. First, log in to the user account from which you lost the files. Open the File History application (type File History in the Search field, for example or open it from Control Panel), click the link Restore Personal Files, and then click the Restore to original location button in the center of the File History window.

The File History window appears. This window shows all your saved folders.

You also can access files to restore by opening File Explorer to the folder or library that you want to restore files to. On the Home tab, click the History button. This opens the Home - File History window.

Find the file you want to restore by opening an appropriate folder. If you know the file is in a previous version, for example, you want to return to a version of a file that is several days old, and if you know it isn't the most recent version backed up, click the Restore button at the bottom of the window to navigate back in time to see previous versions.

The next dialog box, gives you the following options:

  • Copy and replace:
    This option replaces the current file on your hard disk with the backed-up version you just selected.
  • Don't copy:
    This option instructs File History to ignore this file during the restore phase. The option makes sense only if you're choosing multiple files to restore or you suddenly want to cancel the current restore.
  • Copy, but keep both files:
    Use this option when you want to see file details about the file you selected to restore and the file currently on your hard drive. From the dialog box that appears, you can select the file you want to keep or keep both copies. (A sequential number will be added to the filename of the restored file. Click Continue to complete the restoration process.)

When restoring a file, you can click Preview to preview the file first. If you want to restore the file but restore it to a different location - which makes a copy of that file somewhere other than its original location - click Restore To and specify a location for it to be restored to. Click Select Folder after you select a folder and to complete the restoration of the file.

Not only can you restore individual or multiple files, but you can use the preceding instructions for restoring complete folders as well.

The following sections do not use File History, so you can close its window by clicking the red Close button (X).