Many Excel users have experienced frustration when trying to restore a previous version of an Excel file, only to find that the “Restore Previous Versions” option is grayed out or unavailable. There are several reasons why you may not be able to restore earlier iterations of an Excel document.
The main causes boil down to how Excel saves files by default, the lack of true versioning in Excel, limitations with the AutoRecovery feature, and the need for manual backups. Without taking additional steps, Excel files are overwritten with each save, making restoring a previous version impossible. While AutoRecovery can recover unsaved changes from a crashed session, it does not store multiple snapshots over time like versioning systems. This means once a file is intentionally saved over, older versions are lost for good.
How Excel Saves Files
Excel uses a single proprietary file format called xls or xlsx for Excel workbooks. When you save changes to an Excel file, it overwrites the previous version completely rather than saving each version separately. This means that only the latest saved state exists as a file on your computer or OneDrive.
According to Microsoft, “saving changes to a file in Excel does not create a version history or allow you to view or restore previous versions of the file. Only the most recently saved version will exist as a file.”
So unlike some other programs like Word or Google Docs, Excel does not have built-in file versioning. Each time you click Save, you are overwriting the previous Excel file content. Once saved, there is no way within Excel to view or restore unsaved changes from before your last save.
Lack of File Versioning
Excel files unfortunately don’t have built-in version control capabilities that allow you to easily revert to older versions or drafts. Unlike source code version control systems and Office 365’s document versioning, Excel files are overwritten each time you hit Save and previous incarnations are lost.
According to Microsoft, “Excel doesn’t have an automatic versioning capability” to track changes or save iterations as you modify the file. So there’s no way within Excel itself to view or restore earlier versions after saving over a file.
This lack of built-in version control makes it critical to implement your own backups and history tracking for important Excel files. Native Excel documents won’t preserve draft versions like other Office apps, but there are manual workarounds and third-party tools that can enable version control.
While AutoRecovery can help recover unsaved changes in some cases, it has significant limitations.
AutoRecovery only stores revisions from the past hour by default, with an option to increase to once every 10 minutes. So it can’t recover changes from further back, such as a few days ago. According to Microsoft, AutoRecovery maintains up to the 3 most recent versions.
Additionally, AutoRecovery won’t help if Excel encounters file corruption or if you accidentally overwrite/delete the original file. It relies on the original file still being available. As Microsoft documentation states, “If the original file is deleted, AutoRecover won’t work.”
AutoRecovery also gets reset if you close Excel normally. So if you close without saving, the AutoRecovered copies get deleted. And if you reopen an unsaved file after closing Excel, AutoRecovery can’t help.
Given these limitations, AutoRecovery is useful for short-term, minor recoveries. But for protecting important work or going back further, manual backups are essential.
Manual Backups Needed
Since Excel does not have built-in version control, it is recommended to manually save incrementally named backup files for version control. This involves saving multiple copies of the Excel file with names like “filename_v1”, “filename_v2”, etc. Each time a significant change is made, save a new numbered backup.
According to experts on Microsoft Answers, “I would recommend manually saving versions…Save the file normally, then choose ‘Save As’ and add a version number each time.” (Source)
Manually saving versions provides basic version control and backup capabilities. Though Excel lacks built-in versioning, incrementally saving files enables restoring previous states if something goes wrong.
Third-party Version Control
Since Excel lacks built-in robust version control, many users turn to third-party software to track changes and save previous versions of their spreadsheets. Popular options include Git, Mercurial, Subversion, and commercial tools like Smartsheet or Sablono.
These dedicated version control systems go beyond Excel’s basic AutoRecover by maintaining a full history of every change made to a file. They allow rolling back to any previous version, comparing versions, merging changes between versions, and more.
The downside is that version control software requires learning a new tool separate from Excel. However, for valuable spreadsheets, the advanced functionality can be worth the effort. As David Thomson states, “Version control software provides essential tracking of changes and the ability to roll back, which Excel does not provide natively” (https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-thomson-70a76b86).
Cloud Backup Benefits
Cloud backup services can help mitigate the issue of lost Excel file versions. Services like Google Drive, Dropbox, and Box automatically version files uploaded to the cloud.
With cloud backup, you can browse and restore previous versions of your Excel files from any internet-connected device. Unlike AutoRecover’s limited version history, cloud services retain file versions indefinitely. You can easily roll back an Excel file to any point in time.
The key benefit is accessibility. Since cloud backup services store file versions remotely, you can retrieve earlier versions of corrupted or deleted Excel files, even if your local hard drive fails. Cloud storage also enables easier sharing and collaboration on Excel files across devices.
Overall, using a cloud service alongside local storage provides an extra layer of protection and flexibility for recovering Excel file versions. Just be sure critical Excel files are continuously backed up to the cloud.
File Corruption Issues
File corruption is one of the main reasons why previous versions of Excel files cannot be restored. When a file becomes corrupted, the original data becomes damaged or unreadable. Some common causes of Excel file corruption include:
Power outages or improper system shutdowns while a file is open can lead to incomplete writes and data corruption. Viruses and malware can also infect Excel files and make them unusable. Over time, file headers and structures can become damaged, especially in older Excel versions like .xls files.
Large, complex Excel files are prone to corruption as well. Once a file is corrupted, Excel may struggle opening it or crash unexpectedly. Any previous versions are also likely to be corrupted if they are based on the original damaged file.
Unfortunately, Excel’s auto-recover feature only retains the last version, not older previous ones. And without intact previous versions to restore from, there is no way to roll back a corrupted file.
Advanced recovery software like Wondershare Recoverit sometimes can repair corrupted Excel files. But if the original data is too damaged, no solutions can restore a file or its previous versions.
When All Else Fails
If you’ve exhausted all other options for restoring a previous version of an Excel file, you may need to turn to a professional data recovery service as a last resort. These services have specialized tools and expertise to scan a computer’s hard drive and recover unsaved file versions that are still physically stored on the disk.
For example, Diskgetor offers an Excel data recovery service that can dig deep to retrieve lost or deleted Excel files. While data recovery can be expensive, it may be the only way to get back an important unsaved draft if all other versioning methods have failed.
The key is to avoid writing any new data to the disk that might overwrite the old file versions you want to restore. Once data is truly overwritten, no recovery service can bring it back. So the sooner you contact a specialist, the better your chances of salvaging that important unsaved work.
In summary, Excel does not have built-in version control or the ability to restore previous versions of files. While AutoRecovery can help recover unsaved changes from crashes, it only stores temporary versions periodically and has limits. The only way to reliably protect against data loss and have a robust version history is through disciplined manual backups or third-party version control software.
Excel’s lack of versioning capabilities is an inherent limitation of the program. While frustrating for many users who lose work, ultimately the responsibility lies with us to implement good file management practices. Frequent manual saves to new files as milestones are hit is tedious but necessary. Pairing Excel with specialized version control software can be a big help too. And of course, comprehensive backups, whether to external drives or the cloud, are essential.
With some diligence on our part as users, we can compensate for Excel’s deficiencies in versioning. But it remains a disappointing gap in Excel’s capabilities. One can only hope that Microsoft decides to finally incorporate true version control into a future update of Excel.