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Windows 7 Feature: Previous Versions

You already know that (most of the time) if you delete a file, you can get it back by looking in Windows’ Recycle Bin. What happens, though, if you make changes to a file, and realize that you need the old version back? What if you emptied your recycle bin, only to learn you deleted a whole folder, instead of a single file? What if a file you just worked on yesterday just isn’t there?

Windows 7 has an amazing feature, called Previous Versions. This feature allows you to go back and recover previous versions of files and folders. Accessing Previous Versions is pretty simple.

Recover an Earlier Version of a Changed File

Imagine you made some rush changes to a word document, saved and closed the document, only to realize you overwrote an important piece of the document that you can’t recreate! Once your breathing returns to normal, calmly open Windows Explorer, and navigate to the folder where the document is stored.

  1. Right-click the document icon or name.
  2. Select Properties.
  3. Click the Previous Versions tab.


Depending on how many times you’ve changed this file, and how long ago the file was created, you’ll see some number of entries under File versions. You can tell when each version was created, by looking at the date of each entry.

From here, you have three options:

The first options is that you can simply restore a previous version, overwriting the current version of the file. To do this, highlight the previous version you want to restore, and click the Restore… button. Windows will give you a warning, explaining that you’re about to overwrite the current version of the file. When you click Restore, it’s like going back in time. The file will now be exactly as it was on the date you selected. Any changes you’ve made since then will be gone.

The second option is to make a copy of the old version. That way, you can have both the old and new versions available to you. To do this, highlight the previous version you want to copy, and click the Copy… button. A dialog box will appear, asking where you want to save the copy. Select a folder, and click Copy. The copy will have the same name as the current version (unless you placed it in the same folder as the current version, in which case, it will have a number in parentheses at the end of the name.)

The third option is to open a previous version directly, without restoring it first. This is useful if you’re not sure which version you need, or if you just need to copy some text out of it. To open the previous version, simply click the Open button. It will open with whatever program is associated with that type of file.

Things to be Aware Of
The Previous Versions feature is tied to Windows 7’s System Restore feature. System Restore creates “system checkpoints” roughly once a day. Previous Versions are only saved when system checkpoints are created, so if you change a file several times between system checkpoints, those versions will not be saved. Also, previous versions are only created when there’s an actual prior version—meaning that, you won’t see any previous versions listed for a file that’s never been changed.

Of course, this feature must be turned on, on your PC. Usually, it is. Files on network shares will only have previous versions if the feature is turned on on the server.

One more thing: Your computer can only store so many previous versions. Older versions are deleted automatically to make way for newer ones. The more files you have, and the more you change them, the fewer previous versions you will have. Don’t expect to be able to go back weeks.

Extra Credit: Recover Files that No Longer Exist

Normally, to use Previous Versions, you right-click the current version of the file. What happens, though, if the file no longer exists? You can use the Previous Versions feature on folders as well as file. Start by finding the folder where the file used to reside, right-click, choose Properties, and click the Previous Versions Tab. The available options are exactly the same, though the most useful option is Open. When you click this button, a copy of the folder will open in another window. This folder will contain whatever that folder contained at the date and time you selected. From here, you can drag and drop (or copy and paste) files wherever you want.

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