The Vista Backups That You Can’t Have

In this month’s Pit Blog, Rob weighed in with his concerns about Vista’s restore points. I have a bone to pick with Microsoft about this as well, from a slightly different perspective.

When Microsoft came up with six versions of Vista (Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate), they needed to offer the $200 Windows Vista Home Basic as an entry-level product, but hold back features so many users will crave an upgrade to the $400 Windows Vista Ultimate. To some extent, that’s just good old-fashioned marketing at work. In at least one case, though, Microsoft’s feature partitioning has resulted in a situation where users lose control of their own data.

In Vista Home Basic and Vista Home Premium, Microsoft left out the feature called Previous Versions. It saves older versions of documents and files, so for example you can rescue yesterday’s copy of a budget spreadsheet if you clobbered and saved it today. In Vista Business, Enterprise, or Ultimate, you access Previous Versions by right-clicking on a file or folder and selecting Properties. If any backups are available, one of the tabs shown will be Previous Versions and you can retrieve those older versions.

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Vista Previous Versions Dialog
Previous Versions keeps backups of your documents, but they’re inaccessable in the Home editions; buying an upgrade to Ultimate makes them appear.

Like Windows XP before it, all versions of Windows Vista include System Restore to undo changes to system files and settings but leave user data files untouched. The Previous Versions feature is like System Restore for your own files, but you get to choose the particular files that are restored. Both System Restore and Previous Versions take advantage of a Vista system service called Volume Shadow Copy. This makes perfect technical sense; both features essentially take snapshots of disk activity so that a file can be restored to an older version.

Unfortunately, this is where the feature-cleavers in Microsoft’s marketing department went crazy. Even though the Home Basic and Home Premium versions of Vista are backing up all files including user data files, users can’t access the backups of their own data. Want proof that the backups are there? Use Microsoft’s Windows Anytime Upgrade feature to upgrade from Home to Ultimate. When we did that, the Previous Versions tab appeared and revealed changes to data files that were made before the upgrade occurred.

Previous Versions has other problematic behaviors. Vista grabs 15 percent of each drive to archive the combination of user data and system files, with just a cryptic command line interface to change the number. There is no way to selectively add or remove a file or folder from the backup; someone could easily find an old version of a file that you thought you had removed for good. Unfortunately, it’s a package deal; you must take it all or nothing at all. Disabling Previous Versions removes user data backups, but it also disables System Restore and deletes all restore points.

Vista users may have to live with these design tradeoffs, but Microsoft’s decision to intentionally hide backups of user data is just plain wrong. If Vista keeps backups of user data, the user is entitled to see, use, and remove them. Users shouldn’t need an expensive upgrade to Vista Ultimate just to rescue their data backups. Microsoft should either make Previous Versions available on the Home editions or change Volume Shadow Copy so that user files are not saved when the Previous Versions feature has been hidden.

There is perhaps one other option, suggested by my business partner Charlie “Knuckles” McGee: Windows Vista Document Ransom Edition. That would add just the Previous Versions feature, for a “minimal” fee. After all, you have such nice-looking documents…it would be a shame for anything to happen to them.

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