Way back in the 90s when I was an undergraduate, I worked as a lab assistant in a campus computer lab. Primarily my work there consisted of scanning lab users’ 3.5-inch floppy disks for viruses, assisting with file conversions between Mac and PC file types, showing users how to map their computer to the campus servers to retrieve their fancy new electronic mail, and a whole host of other, now entirely obsolete, tasks.
Unfortunately for all of us, one unpleasant duty of the lab assistant remains a part of all our lives today, dealing with lost work. Short of having to tell local vagrants that if they weren’t students they could not sleep in the 24-hour computer lab, consoling those who’d lost work due to viruses, file corruptions, computer shutdowns, or save errors was definitely the most difficult part of that job.
And somehow, despite all our technological advances over the last decade-and-a-half, we are still losing work. A colleague told me just the other day that he’d lost six hours of work in Powerpoint. His tale of woe prompted me to look into the advice I might give here at DiYiT beyond the old computer lab assistant standby of “save early and save often.”
First I want to explain the important distinction between autosave and autorecover. When you are working in Microsoft Word, Excel, or Powerpoint you might notice that every few minutes a little symbol appears at the very bottom of the screen stating, ever so briefly, that Word is “Saving autorecovery file my_whole_darn_dissertation.doc.” That message might fill you with confidence. It seems to imply that your work is safe and sound somewhere in the bowels of your computer. You might have even ventured into Word’s options menu, found the “save” section and set the autorecover save time to every 1 minute so that you’d always have a near complete backup of your work.
However, the autorecover feature only safeguards your work against one type of loss, sudden unexpected program crash. If Word stopped working because the program failed, the operating system froze, or the computer lost power, the next time you opened Word, you’d see a dialog box asking if you wanted to look at the recovery file.
If, on the other hand, you shut down Word normally but had not saved the file, you’d have no such option because Word erases the autorecovery files when you close a file normally. And I’d venture that there isn’t anyone out there who has never once mistakenly chosen the wrong answer to Word’s prompt “Do you want to save the changes?” Perhaps you were in a hurry. Maybe your finger on the mouse or trackpad slipped at the last second. You might even have a cat or young child whose random interaction with your keyboard resulted in the perfect set of commands to close your file and not save it. (By the way in Windows that combination is Alt+F4, tab, Enter.) Either way, you’ve lost any work done since the last time you manually saved the file. Fortunately there are some options to help prevent this type of disaster.
Solutions in the Latest Version of Office
For Windows users, Office 2010, the latest version of Office, includes two new features that help with save issues. The first saves the last autorecover version of your document if you happen to close it without saving. You do need to turn this feature on. By default it is apparently off. Here are Microsoft’s own instructions for turning it on.
Choose the File tab, Options, then choose Save in the left hand index. In the save documents section you’ll see the Autorecover options, with a time interval of every 10mins by default. Just under this you’ll see the new checkbox for “keep the last autosaved version if I close without saving.” Tick this box to do just that.
In addition, the software saves each autosaved version of your document separately while you have the file open. While working with the file, you can go back to any particular version saved since you opened it that you want. Once you save and close the file, however, the older versions are deleted. If you closed without saving, the program only keeps the last one. This way the software doesn’t have to store a separate copy of your file for every ten minutes that you ever had it open.
Because I’m a poor graduate student, I’m still using Office 2007 on my desktop and Office 2003 on my netbook. Therefore, I’ve got no first-hand experience with the features I just described in Office 2010. If you are an Office 2010 user and you think anything written above needs correction or clarification, please feel free to leave a comment below.
Also, I tried to find out if Office for Mac 2011 has these features as well. Unfortunately I found enough contradictory info out there that I simply can’t say for sure. If you are a user of Office for Mac 2011, let us all know in the comments below whether these features work for you.
What about Older Versions of Office?
If, like me, you happen to use earlier versions of Office for Windows or Mac, then you aren’t protected in the same ways that users of the latest version are. Don’t fret, however. I do have some advice for you beyond simply writing “SAVE” on a post-it and sticking it to your monitor. It turns out that with a Dropbox account and a little tweaking of the settings in Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, you can change their existing autorecover feature into a full autosave feature.
If you are a regular reader of this or any other similar blogs, you probably already have a Dropbox account. That service allows you to keep a designated folder synced between two or more computers. We’ve discussed its value to academics in general and as a way to sync and store your Zotero database. If you still haven’t signed up for this free service, you can do so here.
Even if you are a long-time user of Dropbox, you may not be aware that the service saves previous versions of all the files you keep in your Dropbox folder for 30 days. Users of Dropbox Pro can also purchase an add-on called Pack Rat that keeps files indefinitely. At the Dropbox website you can view an online version of your folder and call up previously saved versions of any file. To do this, you simply click the arrow that appears to the right of the file when you mouse over it. The drop-down menu that appears allows you to move, copy, rename, download, delete, or view previous versions of the file. Selecting “previous versions” brings you to a page that lists the saved versions by the date and time that they were saved, tells you what computer made each change, allows you to preview the files, and gives you the option to restore them.
This feature even works for files that you have deleted from your Dropbox folder. When viewing your files at the Dropbox website simply click the “show deleted files” button located in the menu right above the list of files. That button will reveal files deleted from your folder at any point in the past 30 days. They appear in gray to set them apart from the current files that appear in blue. For these files, the drop-down menu allows you to undelete, permanently delete, or view previous versions of the file. Clicking on any grayed file will also take you to the listing of previous versions for that file.
It is this ability of Dropbox to keep a 30-day version history of any deleted file that will allow you to change Office’s autorecover system into an autosave system. All you need to do is tell your Office programs to save their autorecover files in your Dropbox folder. To do this for Word, click the Office symbol menu button at the top left corner of the Word screen. Click the “Word Options” button that appears down at the bottom of that menu. Next, click “Save” in the left hand navigation bar of the dialog box of options that just opened (shown below). Finally, click the “browse” button beside the field called “Autorecover file location.” You want this field to point to your Dropbox folder or a subfolder in that folder so these files don’t clutter up the rest of your files. You can create a new folder directly from the dialog box or create it ahead of time and simply point Word to the right place.
Once you save these settings, Word will begin to store its autorecover files in your Dropbox folder. While you have a file open in Word, the autorecover file will be present in your Dropbox folder, updating each time that the program autosaves. When you close the file, Word deletes the autorecovery file. But that deleted file along with its full version history for the past 30 days will be saved in your Dropbox account. When you need one of these files just select “undelete” from the drop-down menu at the Dropbox website and it will be accessible in your Dropbox folder.
You might notice that these autorecover files are not saved as .doc or .docx files but, instead, as .asd files. Unfortunately this means that the preview feature at the Dropbox website doesn’t handle them very well. Don’t worry, however. If you open one of these files in Word it will look just like a normal Word file and you can save it as a .doc or .docx file if you want to continue working with it.
If you are a Windows user and would prefer to keep your autorecover files in their default location, this very helpful page has instructions for teaching Windows to automatically send copies of those files to your Dropbox folder. I highly recommend that site, Groovypost.com, as it contains very clearly written and well-explained tips and tricks for computers, mobile phones, and other tech products. I derived much of the advice and info for this post from Mr. Groove’s post explaining his system for copying autorecover files to Dropbox.