A Windows 8 How-To: File History, Refresh and Reset

Monday Jan 7th 2013 by Joseph Moran
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New Windows 8 features make it easier to safeguard personal data, restore a PC’s original factory configuration without losing your data, and if necessary, do so while destroying your data in the process. 

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.)

Windows 8 file history activate

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.

Windows 8 File history restore

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.

Windows 8 System Restore

When a Windows PC starts exhibiting strange behavior and it’s not immediately obvious what (or where) the problem lies, restoring the system configuration to a time before the symptoms began is typically the first step in troubleshooting.

Windows 8 PC refresh

Figure 3: Refreshing your PC removes non-Windows 8 apps and returns Windows 8 to its default configuration, but it leaves your personal data and settings intact.

In Windows 8, you can return to earlier system configurations using the same System Restore feature that’s found in earlier versions of Windows. To find System Restore in Windows 8, search for restore, run Create a restore point, then click the System Restore button and run the wizard to choose a specific restore point. Unlike File History, System Restore is on by default and creates restore points daily, as well as each time you install a new program or an operating system update.

Windows 8 PC refresh app list

Figure 4: After your system’s been refreshed, you’ll find a list of removed apps on your desktop.

Just as in Windows 7, using a restore point removes any software that’s been installed since that point in time (you can do a scan before applying the restore point so you’ll know beforehand which programs will be affected), but it leaves your personal data intact. It’s a relatively low-effort, low-risk way to cure a system problem.  As often as not, using a restore point to roll your system back solves the problem, but when it doesn’t, things get a lot trickier -- at least they used to prior to Windows 8.   

Windows 8 PC Refresh and Reset

When System Restore doesn’t do the trick in Windows 7, the next step is to return the computer to its out-of-the-box factory condition using whatever tools the system vendor provides. Not only is this process almost always cumbersome (every vendor’s process is a little different; some use one or more DVDs --which you have to make yourself -- and others use a special hard disk partition), it blows away all your data, so you have to back it up first, then put your data back on the system after you restore the factory configuration.

Windows 8’s Refresh feature, on the other hand, restores your PC’s factory configuration while leaving both your data files and your OS personalization settings intact. And although Refresh does eliminate any programs you’ve installed from discs or websites, any programs that you downloaded from the Windows Store will survive the transition.

Windows8 PC reset

Figure 5: When resetting your PC, your data is erased, but you also have the option to "clean" the drive by erasing your data securely.

Refreshing a PC is easy -- search for refresh under Settings, run Refresh your PC, and after two more clicks, your computer will restart and refresh itself. (This can take a while, so be patient.)  When you get back into Windows, you’ll find a file on your Desktop listing all the removed software, so you’ll know what may need to be reinstalled.   

But let’s say you want to start with a clean slate and return your computer to factory condition without keeping any of your existing data, settings, or software. Windows 8 lets you do that too -- it’s called PC Reset. Search for remove, and run Remove everything and reinstall Windows.

Here you do have a choice to make before kicking off the reset process -- namely, do you want to simply remove (erase) the files, or do you want to fully clean the drive? Cleaning the drive essentially wipes your data, so it’s the right choice if you intend to dispose of a PC by selling, donating, or recycling it.

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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