How to browse all the auto-saved versions of your Mac documents

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versions twin zebras
Like these twin zebras, the Mac auto-saves versions of your files. Twins!
Photo: Marta Miguel Martínez-Soria/Flickr CC

Did you know that your Mac keeps older versions of the documents you work on, auto-saving them in the background so you can go back to a previous revision, any time you like? It’s just like Time Machine, Apple’s Mac backup feature, only it’s for individual files. It even lets you compare old and current versions of your file, side-by-side. It’s called file versioning, and it’s pretty rad.

Some time ago (in Mac OS X Lion), the Mac changed the familiar Save As… menu item to duplicate your file instead of saving a fresh copy. Lots of fuss ensued, with various methods to get the old behavior back. But that missed the point of the whole file-saving revamp. Today, the idea is that you never save a copy of a file. You save a version, a kind of snapshot in time of the current state of the file. If you need to return to a previous version, you don’t have to go searching through a folder full of near-duplicates, checking each of them to find the one you want. Instead, you just use the Mac’s cool version browser.

Not only is it easier, but it’s arguably safer, because the automatic saves might catch an edit that you could have lost if saving manually.

How versioning works

Many apps on your Mac let you browse previous versions of your files.
Many apps on your Mac let you browse previous versions of your files.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Versioning is pretty simple, from a user point of view. You just create a document as usual in, say, Ulysses or Text Edit. Then, save it and give it a name as usual (if you’re reusing Ulysses, it does this part automatically). Then , keep working as usual. The app will automatically save a snapshot, or version, at regular intervals.

If you grew up using computers that were prone to crash, losing your unsaved work, then you may still be in the habit of hitting Command-S to save your work once in a while, especially before you leave your Mac. With file versioning, hitting Command-S saves a version of the file. If you knew nothing about versioning, this would make no difference. It would just seem like you saved the file. But if you do know about versioning, you can hit Command-S before a big edit, to make sure you have a safe “copy” saved.

Browsing old versions

Ulysses has great support for file versioning.
Ulysses has great support for file versioning.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Saving version is great, but how do you see them? After all, there’s no folder in the Finder with all your previous saved version in it. To see older versions, you’ll need use the app that created them. I’ll use Ulysses as an example, because I use it to write everything.

To view previous versions of a file, go to the menubar and click File>Revert To>Browse All Versions… in most apps, or just File>Browse All Versions… in Ulysses. This opens up the Time Machine-style view for browsing. On the left is the current version, the one you’re editing right now. On the right is the latest saved version. To go back in time, use the arrows, click the toolbar of a previous version, or use the date browser bar on the far right edge of the screen.

To restore a previous version, just click Restore. To exit without making any changes, click Done. If you do select a previous version, then the current version you replaced is saved as a version in the history.

Any time you switch to another version, the one you're working on is saved.
Any time you switch to another version, the one you’re working on is saved.
Photo: Cult of Mac

If you are woking in an unsaved document, then there is another option in the File> menu: File>Revert To>Last Saved. This does exactly what it says, and swaps the most-recently-saved version in place of the unsaved one you’re working on.

Copy text from older versions

There’s one other neat trick you can do with versioning: Copying text from previous versions of your document. You can’t edit the text in old versions while using the browser, but you can select and copy it, and paste text into the current version.

Versioning is a powerful tool, and arguably much cleaner, easier to use, and safer than the alternative, which is doing it all yourself, and littering your Mac with multiple, slightly-different copies. It’s tricky to get used to all the versions being hidden inside one document, and if you use Dropbox to share files with a PC, then the PC won’t be able to access the versions. But outside of these rarer cases, the new default is pretty great.

Not least because you can ignore the feature until you suddenly realize you deleted something important, and then it will rescue you.