A friend of mine recently bought a Mac for the first time and then told me that he’d never switch back to using Windows until it had something like Time Machine – the automatic backup program built into Mac OS X. See also: Windows 8 vs OS X Moutain Lion

Windows 8, although most people don't realise it, has a new File History back up feature which offers something like the simplicity and ease of use of Time Machine. It lacks only the intergalactic eye-candy that adorns Time Machine’s graphical interface.

If truth be told, File History is really just a refinement of the Windows Backup feature that was built into Windows 7 (and which is still buried in the depths of Windows 8 if you want to carry on using it).

Like Windows Backup, File History allows you to make automatic back-up copies of your files onto an external hard disk or network drive. It works with folders and files stored in your Windows libraries – which include your Documents, Music, Photos and Videos folders – as well your Favourites and Contacts and files on your Windows Desktop.

Windows Backup was quite limited as it only allowed you to schedule backups on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, but File History works more like Time Machine and performs continuous incremental backups that allow you to save multiple versions of a file or document.

If you accidentally delete a file, or need to revert to a previous version of that file, you can easily step back through the various saved versions of that file in order to locate the version that you need.

By default, File History makes hourly back-ups, but you can specify the frequency yourself, choosing anything from 10 minutes to a single daily back-up. You can also specify how long you want File History to keep old versions of your files.

File History isn’t quite as intelligent as Apple’s Time Machine, as Time Machine will allow you to restore anything from a single file to your entire operating system. Windows still splits those two tasks rather awkwardly between File History and System Restore, while individual PC manufacturers may also include system recovery options of their own.

However, File History is very easy to use, and once you’ve set it up you can forget all about it, secure in the knowledge that your important files will always be backed-up in the event of disaster.

How to configure Windows 8 File History

Click on any of the images below to see a larger version.

Step 1. Just search for ‘file history’ on the Windows 8 Start screen and you’ll find it listed under ‘Settings’. If you’re not a fan of the new Start screen you can also find File History in the ‘System And Security’ section of the main Control Panel.

Windows 8 File History Step 1

Step 2: File History will automatically detect an external drive connected to your PC, but you can select a different location – such as a network drive – by clicking on ‘Select Drive’ in the left-hand panel. Click ‘Turn On’ to get started.

Windows 8 File History Step 2

Step 3: File History will now back-up all your libraries – including Documents, Music, Photos and Videos – along with the contents of the Desktop, Contacts and Favourites folders. However, you can prevent any folder from being backed-up by using the ‘Exclude Folders’ option.

Windows 8 File History Step 3

Step 4: You can click on ‘Advanced Settings’ to modify the way that File History works. The default setting is for hourly back-ups – which is probably fine for most people – but you can vary this period from 10 minutes to 24 hours.

Windows 8 File History Step 4

Step 5: Your backups shouldn’t take up too much space as File History only makes ‘incremental’ back-ups of files as they actually change. However, the ‘offline cache’ option’ allows you to set a limit on the amount of disk space used for back-ups.

Windows 8 File History Step 5

Step 6: You can also specify how long you keep old versions of your files. You can keep them forever, or for a specified number of months or years. Or, to free up some space on your back-up drive, just select ‘until space is needed’.

Windows 8 File History Step 6

Step 7: To restore files just click on ‘Restore Personal Files’ in the File History control panel. Here’s our most recent back-up – 08:23 on 13th March – so we can just select the folder or file that we need and hit the green Restore button.  

Windows 8 File History Step 7

Step 8: It’s not explained very well, but you can step back through older saved versions of your files by clicking on the panel on the far left of this window. Let’s go back to the 12th March and locate a file that we need to recover.

Windows 8 File History Step 8

Step 9: Right-clicking on a file or folder provides two options. If you select ‘restore’ then the old version of that file will completely replace the current version. However, ‘restore to’ will restore the old version of the file to a different location, leaving both versions intact.

Windows 8 File History Step 9