Introducing Windows 8.1: What are Smart Files in OneDrive?

Windows 8.1 adds many changes and new features to the world of Windows 8. Some of the most important changes were made to OneDrive and the way it works. OneDrive in Windows 8.1 uses a technology named Smart Files, that helps users save precious disk space while providing access to all their files. In this tutorial, I will share what Smart Files is and how it works in Windows 8.1.

Smart Files Saves Your Disk Space

If you access the properties of the OneDrive folder or any of its subfolders in Windows 8.1, you will notice that its size on disk tends to be smaller than its actual size. For example, in the screenshot below, my OneDrive uses a few less GBs of space on my hard drive than its total size.

This is possible due to the smart files feature.

How Is It Possible to Save Disk Space?

When you browse the contents of your OneDrive, you will see all your files and folders listed. Also, if you pay attention you will see in File Explorer a new data column that's shown only when accessing the OneDrive. This column is named Availability and it displays one of the following values: Available offline and Online-only.

If you go to the OneDrive app (using its tile on the Start screen), you see that some files or folders have a special icon on the bottom right, showing a computer and a cloud. Most files won't have this icon. You will only see their name and the icon representative of their type.

When this icon is shown, it means that the file or folder is available offline. The files and folders that don't have this icon displayed are available online-only. What does this mean?

Available Offline vs. Online-Only

The files that are available offline are normal files, fully copied to your hard disk. They can be used anywhere and don't have any limitations.

Online-only files are placeholders for your files that have some of their properties, metadata but not their actual content. These files will display the appropriate thumbnails for their type and some of their original metadata. However, their full content is not on your hard disk but on Microsoft's servers.

When you need to use online-only files, you use them as if they were normal files. The only special thing that happens is that, before using them, Windows 8.1 downloads them from the OneDrive, to make them available for editing.

For example, when I opened a large text file, Windows 8.1 displayed a Downloading prompt with a progress bar telling me how long it will take to download the file.

When the download was complete, I was able to use the file just like any other file. Also, the availability of the file was changed from online-only to available offline.

How to Change the Availability of a File & Folder in OneDrive

The availability of a OneDrive file or folder can be changed both from File Explorer and the OneDrive app.

In File Explorer, go to the file or folder you want to change and right-click on it. Then, select one of the following options:

  • Make available offline - if the file's availability is currently set as online-only.
  • Make online-only - if the file's availability is currently set as available offline.

In the OneDrive app, right click or press and hold the desired file or folder. A contextual menu is shown on the bottom. Press "Make available offline" or "Make online-only" and confirm your choice, in order to change its availability.

OneDrive will change the availability of the selected item.

Conclusion

As you can see Smart Files is a useful feature in Windows 8.1 that can save precious disk space for users who need it. I think it will be most appreciated by tablet or ultrabook users, since their devices tend to have small hard drives. However, there is also an important downside - you need constant access to the Internet if you want to be able to work with any of your OneDrive files. Without an Internet connection you will only be able to work with the files that are set as available offline.