April 13, 2012

The Tricky Business Of Recovering Lost Files

You lost an important file that you need. Strike that — it’s a file that you really, really need. Don’t panic just yet. The calmer you can stay, the better you’ll be able to come up with solutions to recover your missing files.

Verify The Missing File

The last thing you want to do is go on full-recovery mode over a file that isn’t really missing. So double-check the folder where you remember storing the file to make sure it really isn’t there. Additionally, use Windows’ search feature to find the file. For all you know, you could have moved it to a different folder or drive, then forgot entirely about it.

Halt All Computer Work

When a file goes missing, it’s usually been deleted. However, the level of deletion varies depending on whether the space it was stored on has already been overwritten or wiped clean. That’s why the best file recovery tools check many aspects of the storage hardware when bringing data back from the dead.

The more things you do on the computer after a file is deleted, the greater the chances that the space holding it will get overwritten. So if you want to maximize the odds of recovering a file completely, freezing all work on your machine while you sort things out is the smart way to go.

File Recovery Software

The amount of options in file recovery software will vary depending on what platform you’re using. For Macs and Linux, there are offerings, although they could prove a tad limited. Windows users, though, have no shortage in options — both free and retail — for file recovery applications.

If you don’t own a file recovery utility yet, then trying out one of the freeware options, like PC Inspector, Restoration and Recuva, is not a bad idea. While most of them don’t quite get into the nitty-gritty as more thorough commercial programs do, they could suffice, especially if the file has only been recently lost. Check the various shareware and freeware download sites to get a list of titles to try out.

In case the free versions don’t quite pack the immense recovery abilities you so desperately seek, then forking out a little cash for one of the commercial titles won’t be a bad use of your budget. Remember: this isn’t likely to be the last time you lose an important file, especially if you depend heavily on a computer for various things, so any cost should pay for itself over time. You should check out our listings of retail file recovery software, which include proven titles like PC Tools, Remo Recover Pro and Undelete.

While most free software are designed to handle specific file systems and media, most of the commercial alternatives are rigged to handle most anything you throw at it. They also tend to do the work faster, using sophisticated algorithms that go beyond scouring your hard drive bit by painstaking bit. This last feature can really make a huge difference if you’re running the application on a large hard drive, where recovering a single 100KB file can take you a long time.

The processes and user interfaces involved in file recovery will vary depending on the program you’re using. Most of them are rather intuitive, though, so don’t worry about it too much. Chances are, you’ll be able to figure out what’s going on and what to do after a couple minutes of using the software. Just make sure to pay attention to the messages and dialogs, so the recovery process goes smoothly.

External Media

The same procedures apply for restoring files from external media, like USB drives, SD cards and external HDDs, regardless of whether you have songs, pictures or other file types missing. Just hook the storage up to your computer and run the recovery software on it.

Backing Up

More important than learning to recover files is actually making a habit of backing up your files. All recovery software will have a threshold for failure — there really are just some files they won’t be able to piece back together. If you backup with any regularity, on the other hand, you can avoid this problem entirely.

Some of the paid recovery software we listed above also come with free backup features that allow you to create a data backup plan for various files in your computer. We suggest making use of them (or other backup solutions), so you have another avenue to look into when files in your computer end up disappearing. Investing in an external hard drive and a backup software could end up being one of the best decisions you make to ensure stress-free computing.

Recovering Data From A Wiped Hard Drive

Say, your baby sister accidentally formatted your PC’s hard drive, deleting all files in there. You’re screwed, right? Well, not quite. While you can’t restore the drive back to its previous condition, you can probably salvage a good chunk of the data files you have stored on there.

If the wiped drive isn’t the boot drive of the PC, then you should be able to start the computer as normal. Run your recovery software and manually select which files from the wiped drive to restore.

If the wiped drive is the boot drive, then you’ll need to take it out and hook it up to a machine that works. In case you have desktop computers at home, you should be able to easily open it and use a spare SATA connector to plug into your hard disk. For laptops that you don’t want to pry open, you could buy an external case for the hard disk and connect it to the PC via USB. In both cases, the same procedure applies: just run the recovery software for the wiped drive and manually pick out the files to recover.

Recovering Data From Optical Media

I used to back up a lot of my files on cheap rewritable DVDs. Things went fine for a while, until I needed a file from a year-old backup. Turns out, cheap optical media is cheap for a reason — some files just ended up unreadable after a while. Besides that, CDs and DVDs can get scratched easily, which could lead to the same problems of irretrievable files.

None of the freeware file recovery programs I’ve seen can restore lost data off corrupted optical media. Some of the commercial ones can, although most of them won’t be able to. Chances are, you’ll need to get a separate recovery software specifically designed for CDs and DVDs, which will try to piece together the original file based on the bits and pieces it can salvage.

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