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Windows Vista hints and tips

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Recover lost files using Previous Versions

Everyone has lost files on the hard disk drive at some point and it is not always the fault of the operating system. Sometimes it is simply human error that is to blame. For example, we might accidentally delete a file in Explorer or overwrite one that we wanted to keep with another one by clicking Save instead of Save As in an application. Of course, deleted files go to the Recycle Bin, but when it has been emptied the file is really gone and it cannot be found anywhere on the disk. And the Recycle Bin won't help if you have overwriten a file. It can be really frustrating to lose a valuable file, particularly when you have spent a lot of time and effort in creating it.

Disable Vista servicesOf course, we should make backups in the event of a disaster, but sometimes files can be lost even though we regularly make backups. For example, suppose you spend a couple of hours creating some artwork using a paint program or photo editor. You save it when you have finished and think that it is safe and sound on the disk, then you decide to create a new image so you clear the canvas.

You then save the new image, but forget to give it a new name using the Save As option on the file menu. The new file overwrites the old one and since both files are new the backup you made last week or a few days ago won't have the file you lost.

Fortunately, Windows Vista has an incredibly useful feature called Previous Versions. However, you do need to be running either the Business or Ultimate editions in order to use it (but there's a way around this as we'll see later). If you have accidentally overwritten a file you just need to right click it in an Explorer window and select Restore Previous Versions in the menu that is displayed. (You can also right click a file, select Properties and then click the Previous Versions tab in the dialog too.)

You'll see a list of the previous versions of the file and if you select one, you can use the Copy button to copy the selected previous version to another folder, the Open button to open the previous version, or the Restore button to replace the current version of the file with the previous version you have selected. You will see the date and time each version of the file was created, so you can usually tell which one you want if there are several to choose from.

This feature isn't just for individual files and you can use exactly the same technique with folders. If the contents of a folder has changed, for example, if you have updated files, moved or deleted them, you can right click the folder in an Explorer window and choose Restore Previous Versions. Just select the previous version you want, using the time and date, or just open each one until you find the one you need. You can restore the folder and put it back as it was on the date and time displayed, or copy the files you want out of the previous version. It's a really clever feature and it can be a life saver too.

Previous Versions - a worked example

If you try to use Vista's Previous Versions facility you might be confused because sometimes it doesn't quite work as you might expect, so let's work through an example to give you a better understanding. Start the Paint accessory by selecting Start, All Programs, Accessories, Paint. Pick the paintbrush tool and a colour and then doodle on the canvas. Now save the painting in your Documents folder and then quit Paint. What we are going to do is to delete the file and then recover it.

Previous Versions is actually part of System Restore and we need a restore point in order to continue. Vista creates restore points every day and also when you make changes to the system, such as when you install software or use Windows update. Now you could stop right here and continue this tomorrow when there will be a new restore point stored on disk, but we'll speed things along a bit by creating a restore point right away.

Click Start, right click Computer and select Properties on the menu that is displayed. Click System Protection in the task list on the left and then click the Create button on the System Protection tab of the System Properties dialog. After a bit of disk activity you'll have a restore point and we can continue with our demonstration of Previous Versions.

Open the Documents folder and delete that Paint file. Now either right click the Recycle Bin and select Empty Recycle Bin or double click the bin and delete the Paint file. OK, so we've really deleted the file and it's gone from the Documents folder and the Recycle Bin. Now suppose that was a really valuable file that you deleted accidentally (this will also work if you overwrite the Paint file or change the painting and resave it with the same name.) Can we get that lost file back again? Of course we can, just use Previous Versions.

Remember this is for Vista Business and Ultimate users only (but see the next section). Open an Explorer window and find the Documents folder - it's in C:\Users\YourName. Right click it and select Restore Previous Versions in the menu that is displayed. You will see several versions of the the Documents folder and you can select them and click the Open button to view the contents. We're only going back to the last restore point, so the previous version of the Documents folder that contains your Paint file will be fairly obvious from the time and date. Open it and you can copy the deleted Paint file out of it. You have successfully recovered the 'lost' file, even though it was deleted from the Recycle Bin.

Just a final thing that's worth mentioning - Previous Versions raises a security issue and files that you thought you had deleted could be recovered by someone that has access to your PC using the Previous Versions feature. Maybe you're thinking that you could use a secure erase utility to overwrite a file with random data to prevent its recovery, but would that work or could someone simply go back to the previous version before you overwrote it and scrambled the contents? That's a frightening thought. Try it and see.

Use Previous Versions with ANY version of Vista

Previous Versions is only accessible in Vista Business and Ultimate, which is a shame if you have one of the other editions. The strange thing though is that this feature is part of System Restore and System Restore runs on all versions of Vista. Previous Versions is therefore running on all versions of Vista too and it is simply the menu option and tab in the Properties dialog that is hidden so that you can't access it.

Disable Vista servicesWhat we need is some way of accessing Previous Versions without going through the regular menus and dialogs. A free utility called Shadow Explorer does exactly this. Download and install the program and then run it. It looks a bit like an older and simpler version of Explorer and there's a drive/folder pane on the left and a folder/file pane on the right.

Notice at the top in the toolbar there is a drop-down list of dates. You can select any file or folder on the hard disk drive and choose a date from the drop down list. Then right click the folder or file and select Export. The selected item as it was on the time and date you chose will be saved to a new place of your choosing on the hard disk drive. Shadow Explorer is just an alternative tool to the Previous Versions feature in Vista Ultimate and Business. It's a great program for recovering lost files or files you have overwritten with something else.



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