3 ways to recover an older version of an existing file

Sometimes, you need the day-before-yesterday's version of a file. Here's how to get it.

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Credit: OneO2 / iStock

Jim Wilkerson tells me that he “opened a WordPad document that I have been working on for about two weeks…the last ten or so pages were not there.”

You can’t recover an older version of an existing file the way you can recover deleted ones. The file, as it existed last Wednesday, has almost certainly been overwritten by a later version. But hopefully, there may be older versions of that file elsewhere. Here are three places to look.

[Have a tech question? Ask PCWorld Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector. Send your query to answer@pcworld.com.]

Windows’ previous versions tool

Windows has a tool that automatically saves old versions of your data files...if and when it works.

To access this feature, go to the folder containing the file in question. Right-click the file and select Restore previous version. Or you can select Properties and click the Previous Versions tab.

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Unfortunately, at least in my experience, this comes up empty more often than not. For one thing, Windows only saves these changes when a restore point is created, and it’s surprising how rarely that can happen. But there are other tricky configuration issues that can keep Windows from backing up old versions.

In other words, if you’ve taken no other precautions, this might work, and it’s therefore worth trying.

Cloud-based syncing and storage

If you use a service such as Dropbox or Google Drive, and the file in question is located where it will automatically be uploaded to that service’s cloud server, you’re probably in luck. Most of these services save older versions of a file for about a month.

Dropbox lets you easily recover old versions. Right-click the file in question and select Use previous versions in the Dropbox section of the menu.

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This takes you to a webpage where you’ll find many versions of the file. You can download any one of them.

Recovering an old version of a file from Google Drive is a little harder. Point your browser to drive.google.com, then click My Drive on the left pane (if it’s not already selected). Find the file. Then click the three-dot menu icon on the toolbar and select Manage versions.

0607 google drive

Microsoft’s OneDrive has a similar way of working, but it has one big problem: It only saves older versions of Office file formats. In other words, you can retrieve an older version of a .docx file, but not a .jpg.

I might add that if you use cloud-based applications to create and edit your files, these may also save versions. For instance, in Google Docs, you can select File > See revision history to see what older versions are available.

Backup programs

There’s really no excuse for not backing up, and every file backup program worthy of the name stores multiple versions of files. (This isn’t necessarily the case with image backup programs.)

For instance, if you use Windows 10’s built-in File History file backup tool, you’ll find that the Previous Versions tool discussed above works just fine…so long as you plug in your backup drive.

Another example: If you use Carbonite’s cloud-based backup program, all you need do is right-click the file and select Carbonite > Restore previous version for a dialog box where you can make your choice.

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