The most recent versions of Microsoft Windows, Vista and Windows 7, include a wonderfully useful tool called Volume Shadow Copies. You can think of Volume Shadow Copies as insurance against momentary stupidity or negligence.
Consider that in any given day, the typical computer user (namely me) works with a lot of files. These include data, images, and text. As part of the workflow, I may be editing and combining changes to a document from many people. Over time, this can result in a great deal of cruft. Thus, while I’m working, I try and maintain some semblance of organization by applying edits to the most recent version and keeping a semi-automated log of the changes that have been made. Older versions of the document will typically be backed up in the subversion repository on my server, or in a dedicated archive.
However, in the process of shuffling and moving the digital detritus, occasionally I have accidentally deleted the wrong file. Which, invariably, happens while away from the backup server. Losing work is obnoxious, frustrating and embarrassing; thus, my healthy appreciation for Volume Shadow Copies.
On a regular schedule, Windows takes a picture of how your drive looks at that moment and saves it away. So, should you ever need to restore a lost file, you can use the Volume Shadow copies to do so. It’s even a relatively straightforward process. Simply right click on the folder you need to access and select “Properties.” Then, click on the “Previous Versions” tab and you will find a list of every snapshot that the computer has taken.
But while all versions of Windows have Volume Shadow Copies, Microsoft decided that only those who purchase the most expensive versions (Business, Enterprise and Ultimate) get the ability to use them. Home users are out of luck. The Shadow Copy service is still there, but you need a third party program to get at the stored information.
The open source Shadow Explorer is one such option. It’s free and gets the job done. But I recently stumbled upon a second alternative that is worth mentioning, Time Traveler, developed by Bears on the Loose Software.
While reading about Time Traveler, I learned something very interesting. Microsoft considers Volume Shadow Copies to be essential to the operation of Windows. More than a few of the internal services like System Restore and File Backup make extensive use of it. Support is even built-in to Windows Explorer (the file managing utility, not the internet browser). If you know the proper url, you can navigate to where the previous versions are stored on the hard drive and work with them like any other file.
But, bizarrely, Microsoft didn’t connect any of these technologies. They didn’t make it easy for the end-user to take advantage of their hard work. Sure, right clicking is easy enough … but … that’s the problem. It’s like saying that something is “good enough,” or “useful enough.” The “enough” is a qualifier, it implies that the solution is merely passable rather than excellent.
The problem with Microsoft’s implementation of Previous Versions is that you have to add the qualifier. Of course a good tool should be invisible, at least until you need it. But Microsoft’s Previous Versions is too invisible. It forgets that you should also be able to find said tool quickly and efficiently. To use Microsoft’s Previous Versions (assuming you even have the right version of Windows), you first have to load a context menu, then you have to go to the all-encompassing “Properties” option and find the right tab. Only after three unnecessary clicks can you actually review your shadow copies. And what happens if you don’t know where your lost file once lived? There’s no way to actually search through the archive.
You see, it’s “good enough.” And because there’s a gaping hole in the integration, others can make some money by patching it; enter Time Traveler. Bears on the Loose took the final step that Microsoft should have taken: they integrated Shadow Copies into the rest of the Windows.
The program does one thing, it points Windows explorer to the url where the relevant volume shadow copy lives. Simple, huh? Remember, Windows Explorer already has support for browsing the shadow copies built-in. It just needs a little help getting there. And this works on every version of Windows: Basic, Home, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise and Ultimate.
Time Traveler represents “Previous Versions” as it should be. Invisible until needed, then easy to access and use. It’s loaded by clicking on View –> Explorer Bar -> Time Traveler. Alternatively, you can hit Control + T to toggle the slider on and off.
When loaded, it subtly clues you into what previous versions are available via a convenient timeline. You can open that point in time by moving the slider bar. Hence the name, you “travel back in time.” Windows Explorer does the rest of the work.
But even if Time Traveler makes the navigation of shadow copies easier, that one simple action doesn’t justify the $20 that Bears on the Loose charges for it. I would say that it’s the program’s “other” feature that makes it valuable. Namely, it makes it really easy to configure and manage the Volume Shadow Copy Service.
While I am aware that managing the Volume Shadow Copy Service is possible with the Control Panel, I’m not exactly sure how it’s done. Frankly, I’m not even sure where to begin. I once found a few options when I was looking for something else, but I can’t remember where I saw them. Time Traveller, however, takes all of those available settings and puts them on the same configuration page. Want to change how often the computer takes snaphosts? You can do that. Want do change how much hard drive space is used to store them? You can do that too. Want to manually delete or protect old snapshots? The settings for that are also available.
Sure, Time Traveler isn’t what anyone would call groundbreaking software. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t valuable. It transforms Volume Shadow Copies from a system tool into a user tool, primarily by linking Microsoft’s own technologies together in a more cohesive manner. I hope that someone at Microsoft takes a good look at how Time Traveler works. It represents “Previous Versions” done right.