Recovering Data Files in Dropbox

Dropbox stores previous versions of data files (for 30 days) that you thought had long since gone to data heaven

I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog on Dropbox, but I’ve recently had a couple of queries from users who know it’s possible, but who can’t work out the mechanics. So, here’s how to do it.

The secret is to remember that your Dropbox files are available in two distinct ways – via the Dropbox folder on your computer and via a website interface. I think what happens is that we get used to using the Dropbox folder just like any other folder and assume that old versions of our files are stored in the local Dropbox folder – if only we could find them. This is not how it works. Only the most recent version (ie the “current” version) is in our local Dropbox folder. All the previous versions are “in the cloud” on Dropbox’s servers. However, providing that we have an internet connection, it’s easy to access them.

If you still have a “current” version of the file in your Dropbox folder, then click on the file to highlight it and then right-click on it. A menu then pops up as in Figure 1

menu for "previous versions"
Figure 1 – Menu for Previous Versions

The options on this menu will depend on what programs you have installed on your own computer, but somewhere on the menu you will see “Dropbox” with a right-pointing arrow. This arrow indicates that there is a sub-menu that pops up when you hover over the option. So, if you hover over “Dropbox” the submenu pops up that includes the option to “View previous versions”. If you click on this option, your web browser will open, take you to your Dropbox account online, and show you the list of previous versions of the file you initially clicked on (see Figure 2):

The List of Previous Versions
Figure 2 – The List of Previous Versions

Select the version that you wish to restore (ie the version that you wish to become the new “current” version). This is done by clicking in the round “radio button” next to the relevant version. Then just click on the blue “restore” button below. Be aware, though, that you don’t get any warnings or confirmations about what is about to happen. As soon as you click on the “restore” button it does just that: replaces the old current version with whichever version you selected to restore. You can, of course, repeat the process to restore a different version if the one you’ve restored is not the correct one.

What happens, though, if you’ve deleted the file?
Obviously, you can’t restore it by right-clicking on it if it’s not there!

  • In this case, launch the Dropbox website by right-clicking on the blue Dropbox icon in your taskbar (bottom righthand corner of screen) and left-click on the option that says (natch) “Launch Dropbox Website”.
  • Navigate to the folder where the deleted file used to reside
  • Click on the rightmost icon in the strip near the top of the screen that looks like Figure 3
Strip of Commands including "Show Deleted"
Figure 3 – Strip of Commands including “Show Deleted”

This is a dustbin, but clicking on it doesn’t throw things out. Rather, it displays the files that have previously been thrown out. In the example in Figure 4, the second file (diltest.txt) has been deleted.

Showing the Deleted Files
Figure 4 – Deleted Files Now Accessible

Click on the filename to reveal a list of versions that Dropbox is holding:

Showing the Previous Versions of Deleted Files
Figure 5 – Showing the Previous Versions of Deleted Files

Note that Dropbox can’t offer you the option of restoring the version that was deleted. It can only offer you the most recently saved versions. This may or may not be the same thing, depending upon whether you had made any changes between the last save and the deletion of the file. So, select a previous version by clicking in the round “radio button” and then click the “restore” button.

After all that, you might be saying “why not just look in the Windows recycle bin and restore the file from there?“. Fine, If it’s there, then go ahead and do that, but you may have emptied the recycle bin, or want a different version. The main advantage of having the Dropbox option is that it does keep all these different versions going back 30 days.

I don’t use Dropbox as my main method of backing up files. I’d feel a bit queasy about trusting any outside organisation to be in sole charge of the backups of my important data. However, knowing that Dropbox is adding an extra layer to my backup routines definitely makes me feel more secure about my data – and it doesn’t need me to do anything to maintain it.

Dropbox logoYou can get Dropbox for free. The free version starts you off with 2gb storage space. However, clicking this link to the Dropbox website will get you (and me!) an extra free 250mb of space.