How to activate Windows 8's File History feature

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As I slowly learn my way around Windows 8, I continue to uncover a few features I didn't know existed. (You'd think Microsoft would include a live tile or something that calls out these new features—"Hey, look what we've added!"—but, no.)

One such hidden perk is File History. Like Apple's Time Machine, it archives copies of older versions of your files, and does so automatically and in the background, while you work. It is, for all intents and purposes, a real-time backup tool.

One caveat, though: It's not a full-system backup tool like Windows Backup; by default it preserves only those files in your Libraries: documents, music, photos, and other media. You can add other folders if you wish, but only by adding them to your Libraries. (You can also exclude folders if you don't want, say, your videos to be backed up.)

File History requires some kind of external storage: a USB flash drive, USB hard drive, or network drive. The more space you devote to File History, the deeper your backup will go. Here's how to get started with it:

1. Bring up the Charms Bar (by mousing into either right-hand corner or pressing Windows-C), then click the Search icon.

2. Type file history, then click Settings when it appears below the Search bar.

3. Click the File History link that appears in the search results.

4. By default, the feature is turned off. Plug in whatever storage you intend to use, then click the Refresh icon next to the address bar. (If you're using network storage, click Use network location instead, then choose your desired drive.)

5. Click the button marked Turn on.

That's all there is to it. File History will make an initial backup of your Libraries, then scan those folders once per hour and make additional backups of any new or changed files it finds.

If you need to recover your files, just return to the File History window and click Restore personal files. (You can also manually navigate into the File History folder created on your storage drive, but you'll have to click through numerous sub-folders to find your data.)

This is a decidedly handy feature that's worth devoting, say, a flash drive to, if only to preserve your most precious documents.

Contributing Editor Rick Broida writes about business and consumer technology. Ask for help with your PC hassles at, or try the treasure trove of helpful folks in the PCWorld ForumsSign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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