Recover GBs of space by cleaning up Windows File History

Don't let Windows File History use up all of your disk space

File History is a type of backup utility that is built into Windows 10 and 8. After using it for some time you might find that the backup disk is full. What can you do? Here’s the solution.

hard disk drive

I have looked at File history before in Use a NAS drive with Windows 8 File History backup and Recover disk space used by Windows 8 File History and those two articles are well worth reading if you have never used File History before.

Like a lot of people, I have upgraded to Windows 10, but the feature is pretty much the same.

The Windows File History feature is accessed in the Control Panel and you select an external disk drive for it to use, such as a USB disk, and turn it on.

There isn’t actually much else to configure and once it is enabled and it copies the files in your C:\Users\YourName folder to the backup disk silently in the background without you having to do anything and without you even knowing it is doing it.

Store many versions of files

It stores not only a copy of the current files in your user account folder, such as documents, photos, music, videos and so on, but also older versions of the files too. So if you create a document today and edit it tomorrow and then again next week, all three versions are stored on the backup disk.

This is very useful because if you make a mess of a file, such as when editing a photo or editing a long document, you can restore the previous version or the version before that, and so on.

File History is a great way to prevent the loss of your personal files, but there are other backup options, such as Backupper and EaseUS Todo Backup. Here are 6 ways to protect your PC from disaster.

You might wonder how many versions of files are stored by File History and for how long. The answer is all versions of files and for up to a year.

Do you have enough disk space?

If you are an occasional PC user don’t create many files on the disk drive then this default setting is fine, but for people that work with lots of files and who spend a lot of time editing them and saving new versions, they will sooner or later run out of disk space on the backup disk.

All those versions of files consume lots of disk space and it can get out of hand. One solution is to simply buy a bigger external drive for backups disk and this is an option worth considering.

USB disk drives of up to 8TB are available and they probably don’t cost as much as you might think. The Seagate Backup Plus 4TB External HDD for example, is available for £139 (about $174). It is a USB 3 device, so it's fast.

That’s a large amount of storage space and you would probably never run out of space for File History, at least not for a very long time.

Money is the answer to many problems of course, but it can be hard to come by and we can’t rush out and buy new hardware whenever we feel like it.

Recover space used by File History

Another solution is to recover some of the space that is currently being used by File History. This Windows backup tool stores multiple versions of files and by deleting some of those versions, such as the oldest ones, while keeping the most recent, it is possible to recover a lot of disk space. It can amount to hundreds of gigabytes of space.

1 Use Explorer

Open an Explorer window and select Computer or This PC. File History always uses an external drive. If the whole disk drive is being used by File History, right click the disk and select Properties on the menu that is displayed.

If File History is set to use a folder on the drive, double click the drive that is being used, such as E:, right click the folder and select Properties.

 Windows Explorer

2 Check the space

It can take several minutes to count up all the files and work out the total amount of space being used by File History. On this disk drive you can see that it is using 428GB.

 Folder properties in Windows

3 Compress the files

Click the Advanced button and in the Advanced Attributes window is an option to Compress the contents to save disk space.

This is not like zip compression and it is transparent. Everything looks normal and the disk can be used in the usual way, but the files are compressed to reduce the amount of space they occupy. This is one way to get more space from a disk drive.

Tick the box and click OK and OK to close the windows. There is an option to Apply changes to this folder only, or Apply changes to this folder, subfolders and files. Choose the second option to apply it to the folder and subfolders.

It will take a long time to compress all the files the first time you do this, but from then on it will compress files on the fly without you knowing.

 Compress files in Windows

4 Open File History

Several hours later (seriously, it can take a long time to compress the files), open the Control Panel (right click Start and select it in Windows 10 for example), and then click File History (select small icons view if you don’t immediately see it).

It shows the status of File History and in my case you can see that it is turned on and there is 202GB of disk space free.

Click Advanced settings on the left.

 Windows File History

5 Clean up

In the Advanced Settings are a couple of options and one is to keep saved versions not forever, but only for a fixed period of time. This PC is set to save versions for up to one month

The original file is always saved, so there is always at least one version of a file, but other versions of the file that are more than a month old are deleted to recover disk space. There are several other time periods to choose from by clicking the setting.

Also on the right is a link to Clean up versions. Click it.

 Windows File History

6 Manual clean up

Now you can choose to delete old versions of files depending on how old they are. If you have File History set to save versions for up to a year, you could choose to delete versions of files older than one month.

This PC already has File History set to one month, so to recover space, All but the latest one could be selected to recover a it more space.

This means that there is a backup of every file, but older versions of files are deleted.

 Windows File History

7 Delete old versions

On this PC it deleted 44,915 files – old versions of files leaving the originals. That is a lot of files!

 Windows File History

8 Recovered disk space

So how much space was recovered? Return to steps one and two to get the disk or folder properties and check the space. On this PC you can see that nearly 200GB of disk space was recovered.

 Folder properties in Windows

As File History does its job, it will start saving versions again and the disk space will be used up, so the benefits are only temporary. However, it can still be useful to recover some space, even if it is only temporary.


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4 Comments on Recover GBs of space by cleaning up Windows File History

  1. Simon Freeman // 2016/10/01 at 09:48 // Reply

    This article is very helpful and I have saved some space but I don’t have the Advanced Settings button when I select Properties for a folder in File (Windows) Explorer – using Windows 10 – how can I recover the Advanced Settings button? Many thanks.

    • Disks can be formatted in two ways – FAT or NTFS. Only NTFS uses the advanced features and this may be why you aren’t seeing the Advanced button. Open Explorer, select This PC, right click the disk and select properties. Look at File System and it should say NTFS. If it does not, you might want to convert the disk from FAT to NTFS. Press Command+R and type:

      cmd
      convert E: /FS:NTFS

      Replace drive letter E: with the drive letter you want to convert. NTFS is better than FAT and the only downside is that Linux PCs and Apple Macs can’t read the disk. It is better for Windows though.

  2. Daniel Barrett // 2016/10/26 at 02:58 // Reply

    Does File History REALLY delete the oldest files when it gets low on room? Or is it more intelligent than that (I hope!). Otherwise, you could easily be in a situation where you lose ALL version backups of a given file–if it’s one you haven’t changed frequently.

    It would be much better to have some intelligence that takes into account if the oldest version is also the ONLY remaining backup version of a file, and keep it if that’s the case.

    I would love confirmation if that’s how it behaves. This “deletes the oldest files” information seems way simplistic for any advanced backup/version saving software.

    • When it is said that ‘it deletes the oldest files’ what is meant is this: File History stores multiple versions of files, so if you had 5 copies of a file stored on different dates, it would delete the oldest, then then next oldest and so on, until there is only one copy left. That copy is never deleted.

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