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How to Restore Old Versions of Files From Anywhere

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Backup technology has made monumental advances in the past decade. As disk space becomes cheaper, you can probably afford a nice 1 TB external drive to keep your Mac backed up with Time Machine. Just ten years ago, it was impossible to find anything over 120 GB for $100. Now you can get around 2 TB, or 20 times as much, for that price.

All this extra space means that extra hard drives are affordable and everyone can have a backup of their drive locally. It also means that companies like Dropbox can provide unlimited previous versions of files—and your Mac and PC can automatically save ever single change you make to every file—which saves you the worry of losing your latest render of Star Wars Episode VII.

In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to restore previous versions of files in OS X, Windows, Dropbox, Google Drive, and even web apps like Evernote and Simplenote. You might not need this tutorial today, but be sure to bookmark it. One day, you'll accidentally delete a file you needed, or save an edit that you meant to save as a new copy, and you'll need to restore a previous version of a file or bring back a file from the grave. That's when this tutorial will come in handy.

Time Machine and Versions in OS X

OS X 10.5 Leopard brought a new type of backups to the PC. Rather than manually backing things up to an external drive every time they change, Time Machine saves new copies of your files automatically, all the time. Backups are made every hour, and hourly backups are kept for 24 hours. It then compresses things into daily backups, which are kept for a month, and weekly backups, which are stored as long as there is space on your external drive. The main reason people don’t use Time Machine is because it requires an additional bit of hardware: an external drive. Apple made it simpler for users with the Time Capsule, a router-hard drive combo, but it’s rather expensive at $299 for 2 TB.

The other option for retrieving old files in OS X is Versions, a feature introduced in 10.7 Lion. Apps that support the functionality allow you to look at all revisions of a document back to its inception. While it’s much more convenient than Time Machine (no external drive required), it doesn’t have nearly as much power. For one, it only works in certain apps, like text editors and minimal image editors like Preview. For another, it only works with the files that can be opened in those apps. So, if you are trying to restore a PSD to a previous state, you’ll have to resort to using Time Machine backups.

Now that you have an idea of what each backup method is, let’s dive in to using them.

Restoring Files with Time Machine

Brining back an old college textbook.

Time Machine makes recovering lost files extremely easy. If you haven’t used it before, here are a few quick steps to get you started.

  1. Launch the Time Machine app from Launchpad or your Applications folder.
  2. If you had Finder open to a specific folder, Time Machine will open with that; otherwise you’ll be presented with the Desktop folder.
  3. Use the slider on the right to select a backup and click one once you’ve found it to navigate there. You can then browse your entire hard drive just as it was then.
  4. Once you’ve found the lost file you wish to recover, just select it and click Restore. Time Machine will then, through use of appealing animation, exit to Finder, which will begin copying the file from your external drive to your Mac.

Using Versions in OS X

Browsing a tutorial's revisions in Byword.

Versions is fairly similar to Time Machine — it’s scope is just limited. Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to restoring previous revisions of your files in supported apps.

  1. Click the File menu.
  2. Hover over the Revert To menu and select Browse All Versions. You can also choose Last Saved, which will have a time signature beside it, if the file has been modified recently. This will restore the most recent revision or autosave.
  3. You’ll be presented with the Time Machine interface. On the right, you can select a date you’d like to revert the document to. If it’s a text document, you can even copy and paste bits from the previous version on the right to the Current Document on the left.
  4. When you’re finished getting back R2D2’s line that you took out of the script, just click Done to save things. Alternatively, you can click Restore to make the entire revision your current version.

Previous Versions in Windows

If you have a PC running Windows Vista, 7, or 8, you can also restore previous versions of your files. In Windows 8, there's a new File History tool that works much like Time Machine in OS X. Just search for File History from your Start Screen, then if you've never set it up before, you'll be prompted to select an external drive to use for backups. Once you do that, you can open the File History app and browse through previous versions of your files and restore the version you want.

File History in Windows 8
Access previous versions of most of your files with File History in Windows 8

Then, in Windows Vista (Business or Ultimate versions) and all versions of Windows 7, there's an even simpler way to restore previous versions of files or folders (the latter so you can recover a file you deleted). Just open Explorer to the folder where your file is stored, right-click on the file, and select Restore previous versions.

You can then see each of the previous versions of that file or folder, along with the date and time the previous version was saved. Select the version you want to restore, then pick the place you'd like to save that version of the file, and you'll have the old version of your file ready for use.

For a more detailed way to restore previous of files, download the free Shadow Explorer tool which lets you browse through all of your previous versions of files, much like the newer File History tool in Windows 8, and also lets you view previous versions on the Home editions of Windows Vista.

Dropbox and Packrat

Cloud storage is becoming a very popular method of backing up documents. It allows them to be accessed virtually anywhere, with services like Dropbox and Google Drive available in the browser. Dropbox offers the ability to recover up to 30 days of a file’s history for free, and Pro accounts include unlimited snapshots (a feature called “Packrat”) so you’ll never lose anything important. It’s even better than Time Machine thanks to letting you view your files from anywhere and storing multiple copies of your files potentially dating back to the day you first used Dropbox.

Now that you have an idea what Dropbox has to offer, let’s go over recovering old versions of files in your account. Please note that it is not possible to recover versions of a folder, just the containing files.

Web

Lots of journal entry revisions due to Day One's autosaving tactics.
  1. Head to http://www.dropbox.com, sign in, and navigate to the file you wish to recover.
  2. Right-click the file and select Previous versions.
  3. To preview a version before restoring it, click the Version X link, where X is the version number.
  4. Select the box beside the version you wish to replace the current one with and click Restore.

Mac

Quickly heading to Dropbox's website via the app's shortcut.
  1. Open the Dropbox folder in Finder and navigate to the file you wish to recover.
  2. Right-click the file and select View Previous Versions. Pages documents will not have this option because they are viewed by Dropbox as a package, therefore a folder with more files inside. If you need to restore a Pages document, I suggest using OS X’s native versions functionality.
  3. You’ll be taken to Dropbox’s website. Log in if necessary.
  4. Choose which version of the document you wish to recover by checking the box beside it and clicking Restore. You can also preview the file before restoring it by clicking the Version X link, where X is the number.

Google Drive

There are many who find Google Drive more practical than Dropbox, mainly because it’s significantly more affordable. It’s also run by Google, which is the best guarantee of its security and uptime. Drive appears too simple to be used for cloud storage the way Dropbox is, but it actually has some powerful features. It also offers a method of storing file revisions, though not as many as Dropbox is capable of — Google Drive is limited to 30 days, or 100 revisions, but can be overridden. Old versions also count toward your overall space, so they will be deleted if you’re running low on disk space.

Now that you know the limitations of Drive, here’s how to use its file versions feature:

  1. Head to Google Drive’s website and sign in.
  2. Navigate to the file you wish to restore.
  3. Click the More menu and select Manage revisions.
  4. Click a revision to download it. You can then restore it to your Google Drive by re-uploading it.

Apps Save Previous Versions, Too

Many of the files we save today never end up in Finder or Explorer, but instead exist solely inside of our apps. If you're using a Mac and your app's sync via iCloud, those files may have versions inside your Time Machine that you can access inside the app as mentioned above. Otherwise, you'll have to check your app's features to see if it has an option to restore previous versions. And, today, many web apps especially offer history tools to roll back changes.

Evernote, for example, has a Note History feature for any user with a Pro account. Just open a note, select its Info pane, and click the Note History link inside it. That'll open a list of all the previous versions of your note, along with the date and time they were created, which you can preview inside the Note History window and even copy text and more from the previous version. Or, if you'd like, you can import that version of the note back into your notebooks.

restore old notes in Evernote
See the previous versions of your notes with an Evernote Pro subscription

Other web apps, including LucidChart, Simplenote, WordPress, and more automatically save versions of your charts, notes, blog posts, and more as you're working, and each include their own tools to restore those previous versions. If you ever lose something in any app, be sure to check its documentation to see if there's a previous versions or file history tool built-in.

Conclusion

No one ever plans to accidentally delete important info from a document, but it's so easy to do. The only good thing is that there's so many ways to bring your data back today that's it's unlikely your info's lost for good. These tips should help you restore previous versions of your files from almost anywhere, but if you have any trouble getting your data back, be sure to leave a comment below and we'll try to help you out.

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