Backup on OneDrive: It Finally Makes Sense

Lincoln Spector

If you subscribe to Microsoft Office 365, you already have a full terabyte of data in the cloud. And thanks to some recent changes to OneDrive, it’s now a usable place to back up to.

I wrote an article in 2014 on using sync services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, as backup, and I disqualified Microsoft’s OneDrive because it only versioned Microsoft Office file types instead of all file types.

Versioning – a necessary feature for a decent backup system – allows you to recover not just the most recent version of a file, but also any reasonably recent version. You’d want this feature in case the most recent version of a file was corrupted or if you had to walk back some of your work. Because OneDrive limited this feature to Microsoft’s own formats, it didn’t cut the grade until this summer.

Now Microsoft is rolling out a OneDrive update that fixes the problem. When the feature hits your PC (I got mine weeks ago), you’ll not only be able to recover last Thursday’s version of your Excel spreadsheets, but your Photoshop files, as well. I tried recovering old versions of files in eight different formats — .pdf, .kdbx, .zip, .psd, .hc, .jpg, .png, and .docx — and they all worked.

This is especially good news if you’re an Office 365 subscriber. You’re already paying for a full terabyte of OneDrive cloud storage. You might as well use it for your backup.

How can you tell if you’ve got the update? Copy a .jpg image to your OneDrive, then wait for it to upload. Once the OneDrive icon tells you its “Up to date,” open the .jpg in any image-editing program, alter it, then save it and wait for it to upload again. If you can retrieve the original version after all that (I discuss how below), you’ve got the update.

Like most cloud-based sync and backup services, OneDrive holds old versions of files for 30 days.

Back in July, Richard Hay discussed recovering older file versions in OneDrive. Consider this the sequel to that article.

Why Back Up to the Cloud?

Remember the 3-2-1 backup strategy:

  • Have at least three copies of your data.
  • Keep two of these copies on separate media (for instance, one in your internal storage, and one on an external drive).
  • Store one copy very far away.

That very far away backup is the one that belongs in the cloud. A burglary or fire can destroy both your original data and your backup. But with cloud-based backup, your city could burn to the ground without destroying your data.

Cloud-based backups have another advantage: They’re automatic. You create a new file or alter an existing one, and the backup starts immediately without your active participation. True, you can get automatic backups with an external hard drive plugged in 24/7, but a backup drive that’s always plugged in isn’t a secure backup. Many of the disasters that could rob you of your data can also rob you of anything on an attached drive.

The Problems of Cloud-Based Backup

Backing up over the Internet has its own problems. For one thing, it’s slow. Depending on your Internet connection and the size of your data, the first initial backup can take days, or even weeks.

While you can keep working while it uploads, you should also keep the PC running 24/7 until the initial upload finishes.

Another problem: Over the years, cloud backup costs more. With a local backup, you buy an external hard drive and that’s that. With the cloud, you’re basically renting storage on a server. For Dropbox, you’ll need to pay $99 a year for a terabyte; for Google Drive, the cost is $120.

But as I mentioned before, if you subscribe to Office 365, you’re already paying for that terabyte on OneDrive. You may as well use it.

If you’re willing to pay for cloud-based storage, and sync services aren’t important to you, you might consider a cloud-based backup service such as Carbonite ($60 a year for one PC with no size limit). It’s not very good for syncing between two PCs, but it’s excellent for backup. For details as to why, see my 2014 article.

Setting up OneDrive to Back up Your Data

OneDrive will only back up the contents of its own folder. So, if you want to use it for backup, you’ll need to move your library folders – Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos – into the OneDrive folder. They might already be there, depending on how you first set up the PC.

If they’re not already there, here’s how to fix that:

  1. Open File Explorer (Windows Explorer if you’re still using Windows 7), right-click the Documents folder and select it.
  2. In the resulting dialog box, click the Location tab, and then the Move.
  3. This will bring up a Select a Destination File Explorer box. Find and open the OneDrive folder (if you don’t see it in the main window, try the navigation pane on the left), and create a folder inside of it called Documents.
  4. Select – but don’t open – the Documents folder, and then click the Select Folder.
  5. This brings you back to the Properties dialog box. Click OK. If the the warning box comes up, click Yes.
  6. Wait while the files move.

Repeat the process for the Music, Pictures, and Videos folders.

Your initial backup will start immediately. From here on in, your files will just back up.

Getting Your Files Back

If a great white shark eats your PC and you must buy a new one, the most current versions of of your files will start downloading automatically as soon as you set up your Microsoft account on the new machine. It can’t be easier.

But if you want an older version of a particular file, it’s a little more complicated. The following instructions can also be of help if you want to make sure that the files are really getting backed up.

Right-click a folder inside the OneDrive folder and select View Online.

This opens a browser window to your files online. Right-click a file and select Version history.

What exactly happens when you click that option varies depending on the file type:

Office formats (docx, xlsx, etc): The file opens up in the browser, using the Online version of your application. You’ll find old versions, identified by date and time, on the left. Click one, and the older version will appear open in the browser. Clicking also brings up a Download link.

Popular image formats (.jpg, .png): After your click Version history, a browser window will bring up the file’s version history – showing nothing but dates and times. Click a date and time, and the appropriate photo will appear in the browser. To download it to your PC, right-click the image and select your browser’s option for downloading the file.

PDFs: This is the weirdest. The dates and times of the available versions will pop up in a window on the browser page. But whatever date you click, you’ll get the current, newest version…the one already on your PC.

So, instead, point to the space between the date and your name, on the line for your desired version. A three-dot menu icon will appear. Click it and you’ll get two options, Restore and Open File.

Select Restore.

Everything else I tried: As with the .pdfs, a list of available versions will pop up on the browser page. Only this time, clicking the date and time will bring up a dialog box for saving the version you selected.

The Big Problem

With OneDrive and other sync programs, you can easily recover all of your files in their most current form. And with a little work, you can recover an older version of a single file.

But what if you need to recover older versions of all your files? If your PC is hit by ransomware, that is exactly what you’ll want to do. But sync services such as OneDrive only allow you to recover older versions one file at a time. That doesn’t really work.

That’s why you can’t depend entirely on cloud-based backup…especially with a sync tool like OneDrive. You need a local backup, too.



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Lincoln Spector

About Lincoln Spector

Lincoln Spector writes about computers, home theater, and film and maintains two blogs: Answer Line at PCWorld.com and Bayflicks.net. His articles have appeared in CNET, InfoWorld, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.