Re­cover deleted files

Free file re­cov­ery soft­ware can get back deleted photos, doc­u­ments, and more, re­veals Mike Bed­ford

Tech Advisor - - Contents -

Delet­ing files by ac­ci­dent is ex­tremely easy to do. It’s a sick­en­ing feel­ing when you realise what you’ve done. For­tu­nately, you might be able to get them back with­out spend­ing any money. Even though Win­dows may not be able to see a file that you deleted ac­ci­den­tally or was the vic­tim of a disk fail­ure, it’s quite pos­si­ble that the data could still be there. There are many free ap­pli­ca­tions that will at­tempt to re­cover deleted files, but you need to be care­ful be­fore in­stalling and us­ing them (we’ll ex­plain why be­low). In this tu­to­rial we’re us­ing Disk Dig­ger (diskdig­ger.org), but most file re­cov­ery util­i­ties work the same way, and we’ll rec­om­mend some al­ter­na­tives if this doesn’t work for you.

Look in the Re­cy­cle Bin

The first thing you should do is check the Re­cy­cle Bin if you’ve just deleted some­thing you didn’t mean to. When you se­lect a file and press the Delete key (or right-click and choose the Delete

op­tion from the menu), Win­dows makes no at­tempt to delete it at all. In­stead, it moves it to a spe­cial folder called the Re­cy­cle Bin, which has its own icon on the desktop. Restor­ing a file from the Re­cy­cle Bin is a sim­ple mat­ter of dou­ble-click­ing on the desktop icon to dis­play the con­tents and then right-click­ing on the file and se­lect­ing Re­store from the menu.

If the Re­cy­cle bin icon is not there, search in the Start menu for ‘Show or Hide’ and you should see a short­cut to the set­tings where you can tick the box next to the Re­cy­cle Bin and make it ap­pear.

Don’t rely on the Re­cy­cle Bin as a safety net, though: it has a size limit and once you ex­ceed that, older files will be deleted per­ma­nently and au­to­mat­i­cally. The de­fault size is more than ad­e­quate for most peo­ple, so there’s a good chance that any files you want to re­store will still be present in the Re­cy­cle Bin. To check the ca­pac­ity or al­ter it, right click on the Re­cy­cle Bin and choose Prop­er­ties. There are oc­ca­sions when you’ve emp­tied the Re­cy­cle Bin too hastily, or per­haps you’re overly fond of the Shift-Delete short­cut, which by­passes the Re­cy­cle Bin and ac­tu­ally deletes the data. (We’re still ty­ing to wean our­selves off this un­help­ful habit.)

If your files were on an SD card or USB flash drive, there is no Re­cy­cle Bin func­tion, so delete re­ally is delete in this case.

But be­fore re­sort­ing to file re­cov­ery soft­ware, it is still worth check­ing other av­enues. Have you shared the file or doc­u­ment via email? Have you saved or syn­chro­nised it with a cloud stor­age ser­vice? Or have you been sen­si­ble and made a backup of the files on an­other hard drive? No? Well fear not, be­cause there are plenty of ap­pli­ca­tions in­clud­ing Disk Dig­ger and PC In­spec­tor File Re­cov­ery (pcin­spec­tor.de), which might be able to bring them back. There are lots of oth­ers, too: Re­cuva (tinyurl.com/kw6g2u8) Paragon Res­cue Kit 14 Free (tinyurl.com/jk6p5jp) CGSe­cu­rity Pho­toRec (tinyurl.com/zdbpjx5) Mini­tool Par­ti­tion Wiz­ard Free Edi­tion 9.1 (tinyurl.com/huf952f)

Un­delete pro­grams

They work by look­ing on the disk to see if the data is still there, even af­ter a ‘per­ma­nent’ dele­tion. All that Win­dows re­ally does when it deletes a file (per­ma­nently) is scrubs out the in­for­ma­tion about where it was stored on the disk. It’s a bit like cross­ing out the ad­dress on an en­ve­lope: the con­tents are still in it, but a post­man wouldn’t know where to de­liver it.

How­ever, it pays to un­der­stand the lim­i­ta­tions of this method. First of all, as well as re­mov­ing the ‘pointer’ to the file, Win­dows also marks the ar­eas of the disk oc­cu­pied by the file as avail­able for re­use, Win­dows will even­tu­ally over­write them with new files and, once that’s hap­pened, your data is gone for good.

So the sooner you realise you’ve ac­ci­den­tally deleted a file, the bet­ter your chances of re­cov­er­ing it. When you no­tice your loss, don’t save any­thing to the disk and don’t even down­load or in­stall a file re­cov­ery util­ity if the file was on your PC or lap­top’s hard drive as it might over­write the very files you’re try­ing to re­cover.

Some re­cov­ery soft­ware can run di­rectly from a USB flash drive, but you must down­load it us­ing a dif­fer­ent com­puter. Even brows­ing the in­ter­net to find an un­delete util­ity causes files to be writ­ten to your disk so use a dif­fer­ent PC to down­load the util­ity.

Un­delete util­i­ties only work re­li­ably with se­quen­tial files. If your disk is rea­son­ably full, Win­dows of­ten has to split the file across spare blocks around the disk and in this case, a deleted file is very dif­fi­cult to re­cover. Plus, dif­fer­ent types of drive use dif­fer­ent file sys­tems and any un­delete util­ity will work only with par­tic­u­lar types of file sys­tem. Hard disks in Win­dows PCs use the NTFS file sys­tem but USB flash drives and mem­ory cards usu­ally use some vari­ant of FAT (FAT16, FAT32 or exFAT) and you should se­lect soft­ware with the nec­es­sary sup­port for all your me­dia.

NAS drives

An­other draw­back with most un­delete util­i­ties is that they won’t work with net­worked stor­age, in other words NAS drives. The disk(s) in a NAS drive are un­der the con­trol of the drive’s own op­er­at­ing sys­tem (usu­ally a Linux vari­ant), so soft­ware run­ning un­der Win­dows isn’t typ­i­cally able to at­tempt a re­cov­ery. If you’ve ac­ci­den­tally deleted a file it might just be in the NAS drive’s own re­cy­cle bin (if en­abled) in which case you might be able to re­cover it, so first check the doc­u­men­ta­tion. If the file is prop­erly deleted, though, there are only two op­tions.

So long as you don’t mind get­ting to grips with the in­sides of the NAS drive and your PC, it might be pos­si­ble to re­move the disk(s) from the NAS and at­tach them di­rectly to your PC. Now it be­comes pos­si­ble to use a Win­dows un­delete util­ity but with two pro­vi­sos.

First, your NAS drive might use a dif­fer­ent file sys­tem from the drive in your PC so you’ll have to check the NAS drive’s doc­u­men­ta­tion to se­lect suit­able soft­ware. Se­condly, if your NAS drive uses a RAID ar­ray, your file might be dis­trib­uted be­tween more than one phys­i­cal disk.

Some re­cov­ery soft­ware is able to han­dle RAID ar­rays but, again, you need to bear this in mind in mak­ing your se­lec­tion.

If you don’t fancy dis­man­tling your NAS drive and se­lect­ing suit­able soft­ware, the other op­tion is to send your ar­ray off to a pro­fes­sional data re­cov­ery com­pany.

How to re­cover cor­rupt files

An­other way files can be lost is if they be­come cor­rupted. This could hap­pen, for ex­am­ple, if a power fail­ure oc­curred while a file was be­ing writ­ten, leav­ing the disk direc­tory in an un­pre­dictable state. As with ac­ci­den­tally deleted files, the data could all be there but Win­dows wouldn’t know where to find it. Of­ten this sort of prob­lem will man­i­fest it­self by Win­dows re­port­ing some sort of er­ror when you try to open a file or, con­ceiv­ably, files could just have dis­ap­peared, even though you’re pretty sure you hadn’t deleted them.

Soft­ware util­i­ties are avail­able to iden­tify and cor­rect this sort of er­ror and you’ll find that some un­delete prod­ucts also of­fer the abil­ity to re­cover from log­i­cal er­rors in the file sys­tem. While some pure un­dele­tion util­i­ties are free, you’ll of­ten have to pay for those more fully fea­tured prod­ucts.

Some let you try be­fore you buy, though. With Re­cov­erMyFiles (re­cov­ermyfiles.com), for ex­am­ple, you can down­load the soft­ware in eval­u­a­tion mode and run it to see what files it can re­cover from your disk. If you like what you see, you pay a fee to al­low those files to be per­ma­nently re­cov­ered.

An ex­cep­tion to the rule that you get only what you pay is TestDisk which is free and open source and has earned a good rep­u­ta­tion. It’s avail­able for Win­dows, Linux and macOS. What­ever soft­ware you use, though, as with pure un­dele­tion pack­ages, don’t in­stall it to the of­fend­ing disk as do­ing so could ren­der your lost data per­ma­nently un­re­cov­er­able.

Also bear in mind that pack­ages will dif­fer in their abil­ity to re­cover lost data. It would be a good idea, there­fore, to try out sev­eral (so long as they have an eval­u­a­tion mode which will show what they’re able to re­cover with­out ac­tu­ally writ­ing to your disk) and choose which­ever has the best suc­cess. Al­ter­na­tively, if you don’t find any soft­ware that meets your needs, the op­tion of us­ing a data re­cov­ery ser­vice is al­ways avail­able, but it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a cheap op­tion.

Re­cover files from a bro­ken hard drive

Hav­ing dis­pelled the myth that deleted and cor­rupted files are lost for­ever, we now come to the prob­lem that all PC users dread – a hard disk fail­ure. This could man­i­fest in sev­eral ways but gen­er­ally Win­dows won’t start, even in Safe Mode, and turn­ing on your PC might be ac­com­pa­nied by un­healthy click­ing noises. What you stand to lose, there­fore, isn’t just a few of your trea­sured files but the en­tire con­tents of the disk.

It’s com­monly sug­gested that hard disks can be re­paired by putting them in the freezer. While this has been known to work, bring­ing the drive back to life for just long enough to ex­tract the most im­por­tant files, it’s ef­fec­tive only for cer­tain very spe­cific types of fault. Of­ten it won’t work and at­tempt­ing it might just prove to be the last straw for your ail­ing disk. Our rec­om­men­da­tion, there­fore, is that you don’t at­tempt this nor any other DIY re­pair.

In­stead, as soon as you sus­pect a hard­ware fail­ure, turn off your PC im­me­di­ately and make con­tact with a data re­cov­ery com­pany such as Kroll On­Track (krol­lon­track.co.uk). These com­pa­nies have vast stocks of parts that they are able to swap in their clean room to re­store a disk to a work­ing state. Once this has been achieved they’ll copy all the data they can re­cover to en­crypted re­mov­able me­dia such as a USB drive. This will work for fail­ures of most parts of the disk in­clud­ing the elec­tronic cir­cuit boards, the mo­tor and the read/write head, but there’s a limit to what can be achieved.

As the part on which the data is stored, if the plat­ter is scratched or shat­tered it’s nor­mally game over, though, for­tu­nately, this is rare. As al­ways, it pays to shop around be­fore de­cid­ing which firm to use and it’s also a good idea to choose a com­pany that will di­ag­nose the prob­lem for free. As guid­ance, if you were to go to Kroll On­Track, you’d pay a fixed fee of £599 as a con­sumer whereas charges for busi­nesses de­pend on ex­actly what’s in­volved.

If you’ve in­ad­ver­tently deleted a file it may be in the NAS drive’s own re­cy­cle bin

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