OS X Lion: Using Auto Save and Versions

Apple’s completely changed the way that saving a document works in Lion. In Snow Leopard, you hit Command-S, and you were done for the day. If the program crashed or if you didn’t save before you quit, you were mostly out of luck. Ah, the good ol’ days! It’s not nearly so simple now—“Save a Version”? “Browse All Versions”? Calgon, take me away! I promise to let you in on all the secrets I could uncover for this article, and I’ll even attempt to be entertaining while I do so. No promises on that, though.

The first thing to understand is that you don’t even have to remember to save anymore in programs that support Auto Save, which currently includes TextEdit, Preview, and the iWork applications. As programs add compatibility, you’ll be able to use this feature in more places. I admit I shudder just a little to imagine the Office suite implementing this and the inevitable chaos and world-ending destruction that will follow.

So how do you use it? As I noted, you don’t have to save, so what DO you do? Well, you can open and quit your program at will—or don’t, and even reboot your machine—and your Mac will save your current document state automatically, even if you’ve never chosen to name your file or put it anywhere. That’s pretty awesome. 

If instead of quitting the program, you’d like to just toss out the current unsaved document, you can do so by clicking on the red button at the top-left of your window or by hitting Command-W. You’ll then be taken to the oh-so-familiar “Save As” dialog box.

Choosing “Don’t Save” from that seems to be the fastest way to dismiss a document that you don’t want anymore, seeing as how programs with Auto Save will helpfully continue opening your file again and again and AGAIN until you do. I know, I feel your pain. In System Preferences > General, there’s a tick box you can turn off labeled “Restore windows when quitting and re-opening apps,” but that only changes the default behavior for files that have already been saved to a location on your hard drive. Your Mac assumes that until you take the steps above, you’d just like to continue opening that unsaved file until the end of time or so.

So we’ve established that a file in progress gets preserved automatically through the new Auto Save feature. Check. We’ve learned how to get rid of an unsaved document that you don’t need anymore. Check. Now let’s talk about saving the document to a location on your hard drive, as you can’t actually take advantage of any of the features of versioning without doing so. 

When you hit Command-W, Command-S, or choose File > Save on a new document, your Mac will ask, naturally, where you’d like to keep your work. Tell it where, and afterward, a new drop-down arrow will appear when you hover over your document’s name in the title bar. Clicking there is how you access your different versions of a file. (And as in my screenshot below, if you’ve saved a document previously but have made changes since you did, you’ll see “Edited” appear beside its name.)

Look at all the new options we have! From there, you can choose first to lock the file, which prevents it from being changed without your permission. This is great if, for example, you’d like to create a template, but you have a serious problem with overwriting your templates once you’ve made them. I’ve never done that, I swear. You can also choose to duplicate the file, which again is quite useful if you’re using templates—or if you’re like me and just like to scatter several versions of a file across your hard drive, never to be seen again by the eyes of man. 

The last two options, though, are brand new. “Revert to Last Saved Version” will erase all of the changes you made since the last save, and you’ll get a stern dialog box warning you of that (and giving you other choices) if you attempt to do so. 

“Browse All Versions” is where things get spacey. Literally. Click that, and you’ll be taken to a Time Machine–like interface, where you can check out all of the saved versions you have of that file.


Your current document appears on the left, and all of the versions you have are stacked on the right.


You see, every time you hit Command-S while you’re working on an already-saved file or choose File > Save a Version, you’ll be keeping a record of the changes you’ve made. And Lion keeps track for you, too—every hour that you’re slaving away on that file, an automatic version will be created. Apple’s documentation also says that Lion will make a new version every time you open a saved document, but this only seems to be the case if you’ve actually edited the file, which I think is pretty smart for them to do.

So within that space-time continuum view, there are tons of ways you can manipulate things. Browse through all of your versions by clicking on any of the multiple title bars shown (each one represents a version) or by scrolling through the timeline on the right to pick the exact date of what you want.

If you’d like to return to a previous version of a file, choose it from your timeline and hit Restore. Hold down the Option key before you do so, and the “Restore” button will switch to “Restore a Copy,” which is crucial if you find that you don’t want to overwrite your current document. And when you want to remove a version entirely, click on the file name in the title bar of that version. Look, hidden choices!

You can even access your program’s menu bar by moving your cursor to the top of the screen, and it’ll pop down.

What? This is interesting, goshdarnit. It’s the MENU BAR. ON A SPACEY BACKGROUND.


When you’re finished browsing your versions, just click the “Done” button. I understand that’s surprising behavior, but I think that we can all comprehend it if we really try.


A couple of things to keep in mind:

When you copy files over to another machine (or share them using AirDrop, or e-mail them, or put them up on a file-sharing site), none of the versions go with them. Only the final documents you’re sending are included. Whew! 

If you send your files to the trash, pulling them out before you empty it means that the versions will be retained. But it appears that if you delete a file and then empty your trash, all of your versions go with it. Permanently. Even if you grab the file out of Time Machine, it doesn’t bring any of your older versions back. No can undo on this one, my friends, so you’ll want to be careful.


So now you’re up to speed on the practical aspects of Auto Save and Versions in Lion. Don’t you feel better now? I know I do. We can all go forward with our lives, secure in the fact that our documents will be saved regardless of whether we actually remember to do it ourselves. It’s a brave new world.