Understanding Lion’s Autosave

David Sparks
24 January, 2012
View more articles fromthe author

We all have the same story, the one about the time we were working on a document but forgot to hit Save and then something happened and we lost all our changes. Or after spending hours working on an important document we closed the file only to realise that we’d forgotten to save it. All that hard work down the drain. Eventually, it happens to everyone. It’s an all too familiar story, and an experience that we could well do without.

Now, however, thanks to Mac OS X Lion’s new Auto Save, Versions, Resume and Time Machine, not only are your documents thoroughly protected from inadvertent loss, but you don’t even have to lift a finger to keep them safe. If you’re using a program that’s compatible with the Auto Save feature, no power cut or momentary distraction will ever rob you of all that hard work again.

That said, Auto Save does take a little getting used to. For many of us, pressing c-S once in a while has become second nature. You may also have developed workflows built around the Save As command to, for example, create new files based on old ones, preserve specific versions of files (say, saving Proposal v1.0 as Proposal v1.1) or quickly copy files to new locations.

Fortunately, you can use Lion’s Auto Save and its associated commands to do all of that for you. You just have to get used to the new way that Auto Save names your files.

Goodbye, Save and Save As

To take advantage of Auto Save, you first need to use an application that supports it. Of course, Apple’s own programs, including the iWork suite, iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand and TextEdit, are compatible, but a number of third-party programs also support the feature. These include Flying Meat’s Acorn ($51.99, www.flyingmeat.com), Literature & Latte’s Scrivener ($46.99, www.literatureandlatte.com) and The Omni Group’s OmniGraffle Pro ($209.99, www.omnigroup.com). Microsoft says it will add Auto Save in a forthcoming update of Office 2011. Still, many other Mac applications don’t yet support it.

Assuming that you’re working in an Auto Save-compatible program, you’ll notice that the Save command is still available, but only when you’re working on a new, unsaved document. As soon as you save the file and give it a name, it will disappear and Auto Save will kick in, saving a new version whenever you pause, as well as every five minutes.


The new Save A Version command replaces Save in the File menu. If you want to take a snapshot of your document at a particular time, (right before you start really hacking at it, for instance), simply select File > Save A Version.

Versions is all about the changes you make. Accidentally deleted a paragraph from your art history essay? Versions can get it back for you. Want to go back to the second draft of that report? No problem. Later decided maybe you didn’t want to go back to that earlier version? Versions is there for you, again.

Whenever you make significant changes to your document, Versions takes note of it. What’s a significant change? Pretty much anything, it turns out, from deleting a paragraph to adding a line of text or inserting a picture. Versions also saves a snapshot of a file when you open, save, duplicate, lock, rename, or revert to a previous version. And all of this happens in the background.

The old, familiar c-S shortcut still works, but you’ll be creating different versions of your document. If you want to access one of those older versions of a file, you can do so in two ways. You can open the File menu and choose to revert to either the last saved or last opened version of it or you can click on the disclosure triangle that appears when you hover the cursor over a document’s title bar, which opens the Versions menu.

If you try to duplicate a file that’s been changed, Mac OS X Lion will ask what you want to do with the original

There, you can opt to lock or duplicate the document, revert to the last saved version, or browse all versions. That last option moves you into a Time Machine-style interface showing two versions of your document: the current one on the left and the most recent saved one on the right. Behind the latter, older versions stretch back into space (just like Time Machine).

To select one of those older versions, you can click on its title bar to bring it to the foreground, or use the history slider on the  right to find a version by a time and date.

At the bottom of the screen you’ll see two buttons: Done and Restore. The first exits the Versions interface and puts you back in your application without making any changes; Restore replaces the current version with the older one you’ve selected.

Duplicate command

Lion has done away with the Save As command. Instead, you use the Duplicate command in the Versions drop-down and the File menu to create a new copy of a document. One problem with the old Save As workflow was that it was all too easy to wreck your original document by forgetting to choose Save As before you started making changes. The new Duplicate command helps you avoid this issue.

Selecting Duplicate creates a fresh copy of the original file, leaving that original in a separate window where you can never overwrite it. A duplicate is a new document that you can save wherever you want. Once you’ve saved the duplicate, Save A Version once again replaces Save.

However, what if you decide to duplicate a document when you’ve been editing it for a while? At that point, Lion’s Auto Save has already saved your changes to the original file. Fortunately, Lion has a solution for this problem too. When you click Duplicate in a document that you’ve changed, Lion asks whether you would like to save the original document in its altered state or let it revert to the version you first opened.

If you choose to let it revert, Lion makes a duplicate copy with all of your changes saved in it, and the original goes back to exactly the way it was.

Change your mind about an edit? In most Apple programs, and in some other apps updated for Lion, that’s no longer a problem. You can find or revert to older versions of your file by accessing the new Version menu

Adapting yourself to use Duplicate when you’ve been used to using Save isn’t really that hard. Whether you want to create a new document based on an old one, use an incremental file name for different versions or save a copy of a file in a new location, you can use Duplicate to do it all.

Final version

If at any point you’ve got a document just the way you like it, you can prevent changes from being made by selecting Lock from the Versions drop-down menu. A little padlock will appear next to the document icon in the title bar (and in the Finder) and the word Locked will appear in greyed-out text in the title bar. If you try to make any changes to a locked file you’ll be prompted either to unlock it or to duplicate it and work from the copy.

Adjusting to Auto Save

One tricky bit about the transition to Auto Save is that not all applications have it. As you get used to programs saving files for you, it will become easier to forget to save in the applications that don’t. You’ll need to pay extra attention to avoid any big ‘oops’ moments.

Taken together, Auto Save, Time Machine and Versions should provide a pretty big safety net for data loss. That’s not to say that you should stop taking extra precautions, such as offsite backup or using services like Dropbox or Apple’s iCloud to maintain copies of critical documents. However, for less experienced users who wouldn’t know where to start, Apple’s made protecting your data easier than ever.


2 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. steven says:

    Verisons? Don’t you mean versions?

  2. Ian Binnie says:

    The main problem with versions is that Apple is keeping it a secret. For those that frequent MacWorld it is OK, but the Help system comes up with nothing to help use them.

    I am quite happy to save versions, but I could do without Auto Save. Word has (had?) an autosave “feature”, but the first thing I did was turn it off. Unfortunately Apple does not offer the same, so it is necessary to manually delete all the unwanted saves.

    If you do try to restore it is very difficult to find the right version. If only manually saved versions were presented it would be much more useful.

    I did once lose a document under Win98, but I have never lost more than a couple of minutes work (on a named document) due to crashes or operator error, and Auto Save won’t help.

    If anything Auto Save will give users a false sense of security.

Leave a Comment

Please keep your comments friendly on the topic.

Contact us