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The Golden Rules
Of Successful File Recovery

How successful you'll be at recovering files you've accidentally deleted will be determined by a number of factors.

The primary factor is the lapse of time that occurs between the point where you realise you've erased a file (or files) that you really wanted to keep and the time it takes to begin a file recovery operation.

Because of the way Windows handles file deletion (see introduction at right), the longer the time lapse between these two points the greater the risk that the deleted file has been over-written by your operating system and made unrecoverable.

That's why it's a good idea to have a trusted file recovery program already installed on your PC.

That way you can begin file recovery the instant you realise you need to do it (nothing could be worse - or more ironic - than installing a file recovery program and having it overwrite the disk space occupied by the file(s) you want to save!)

A second factor that can also come into play is the amount of fragmentation on your hard drive.

If you have a badly fragmented hard drive then an erased file may be spread over many parts of it. This can make file recovery slow (in a best case) and may mean that not all parts of a file can be recovered (in a worst case).

Solution? Defragment your disk regularly - perhaps by using some of the excellent defraggers we've also reviewed.

A third and final Golden Rule is to put the recovered file onto some other drive if at all possible to avoid causing cascading undeletion errors (ie you recover one deleted file but it then erases another file that you wanted to recover on the same disk).

This probably wouldn't be a problem if you were recovering a single file. But it could very likely be a real problem if you need to recover multiple files and/or directories.

Other File Recovery Resources

File Recovery
Background: Almost everyone who uses a computer has accidentally erased a much-needed file at some time or another. But file recovery software will usually allow you to recover deleted files if you act quickly. How? By taking advantage of the way that DOS, Windows and many other storage devices handle file deletion.

Contrary to what some people think, most computer files that are deleted aren't instantly erased from the hard disk or other media they're stored on (well, not unless you use an industrial-strength file wiper they aren't).

Instead, Windows "loses" the file's name by flipping some bits on the file's entry in a master File Allocation Table. This bit-flipping marks the space occupied by the "deleted" file as being free.

And this - in turn - gives the operating system permission to overwrite the space formerly occupied by the deleted file with new data the next time it needs to save a file (at which point the "deleted" file generally becomes unrecoverable).

This system of deleting files and reusing disk space has existed since the days of DOS and it's worth noting that it's not shared by most modern versions of Unix (which really do erase a file that's been deleted).

And while it might not be the most efficient way to handle file deletion (because some "deleted" files can wind up staying around for a long time if there's plenty of free disk space available), this system can be a blessing in disguise for most of us when we realise we've inadvertently junked something we really wanted to keep.

This week we've found 6 excellent undeletion programs that can recover files from a wide range of storage media (including damaged storage media) and whose capabilities range from quick, simple and fast undeletion through to heavy-duty industrial strength data recovery.

Which one you choose to use will probably depend on just how badly you need to recover a deleted file (or files). But the good news is that you can use them all if you need to. Why? Because they're all completely free.


Popular File Recovery Programs
Piriform's Recuva (which is pronounced "recover") is a simple Windows utility that will restore files that have been deleted from your computer's hard drive. This includes files that have been removed from Windows' Recycle Bin; files deleted from digital camera memory cards or MP3 players; and files deleted by bugs, crashes or viruses. If you've used any of Piriform's other great freeware products (eg: their very popular CCCleaner computer cleaner or Defraggler disk defragmenter) then you'll already be familiar with Piriform's simple, easy-to-use paradigm and close attention to detail. We think Recuva is another very worthwhile addition to the company's software suite. In our tests we found that Recuva retrieved recently-deleted files very quickly and efficiently and it was generally a delight to use. This makes it a good choice for an everyday file recovery utility. The program's secure deletion facility, though, isn't as thorough as some others we've tried. So if absolutely secure file erasure is a high priority for you, then you might prefer to try something else (eg: Eraser, which is also reviewed in computer cleaners). We've also heard reports that while the software is rated to run on Vista, some early users had difficulties with it on that platform (we should add that we ran our tests on Windows XP, where it performed flawlessly). However, the software is regularly updated so these problems may now be fixed. Recuva runs on all versions of Windows from Win98 to Vista and it's freeware. Get Recuva.


Undelete Plus
Phoenix Technologies' Undelete Plus is another highly-acclaimed file recovery tool that offers slightly more power and features than Recuva (above). Like Recuva, Undelete Plus will retrieve files that have been flushed out of your Recycle Bin. But it will also recover files that have been erased without using the Recycle Bin (eg: in a DOS window or in Windows Explorer). The software supports all Windows file systems for hard and floppy drives including FAT12/16/32 and NTFS/NTFS5 (which is very handy if you're trying to recover a file that you've stored on old media) and it will recover images from CompactFlash, SmartMedia, MultiMedia and Secure Digital cards too. In practice, Undelete Plus is blindingly fast at locating files (you can get it to scan your entire drive or filter the scan using a variety of criteria to get it to search for just an individual file or group of files). And the software's recovery abilities on recently-deleted files are quite impressive too - it can recover not only deleted files, but also entire directories along with their contents. Undelete Plus also includes a wipe utility if you want to permanently erase a file and we found that this feature was fairly robust as well. The software itself is very simple to use and most people will have no difficulty getting productive with it within minutes of firing it up. So it's not surprising that this software has won many awards - we think they're well deserved. Undelete Plus runs on all versions of Windows from Win98 to Vista; supports multiple languages; and is distributed as freeware. Get Undelete Plus.


Pandora Recovery
Pandora Corporation's Pandora Recovery is similar to Undelete Plus (above): that is, it will recover files that have passed through your Recycle Bin as well as files you've deleted without using the Recycle Bin at all. However, the software will also let you browse, search, preview and recover files deleted from NTFS and FAT volumes and it not only supports hard drives, but flash drives and memory cards as well. Pandora Recovery can successfully handle archived, hidden, encrypted and compressed files and what makes it particularly impressive is that it can scan Alternate Data Streams and drive clusters to pick up files whose MFT record has been reused, damaged or recreated by the operating system. This gives it the ability to retrieve files from formatted drives (not always, but often enough to be amazing) and to restore many types of files that some other undelete programs simply can't (so if you've tried to restore a file using an everyday file undeleter and failed, then this software is a great fall-back resource). Pandora has a Windows Explorer type interface with its own toolbar and because it scans deeply, it's a bit slower than some other file recovery programs. But to compensate, it has interface wizards, hints and context-sensitive help which can speed up the recovery process by allowing you to focus in on what you want to retrieve rather than the entire disk. It also has a preview function for many common image formats which will allow you to see what you're likely to be able to restore. Pandora Recovery runs on Windows (2000, XP, 2003 Server and Vista) and it's freeware for personal use. However, if you want to use it in a for-profit organisation or recover data from a computer that doesn't have Internet access, the company also has a portable commercial version available for US$20. Get Pandora Recovery.


CD Recovery Toolbox
While most file recovery programs will recover deleted files from hard drives and memory cards, specialise in providing dedicated commercial file recovery tools for particular file types that are prone to corruption (eg: Outlook mail boxes, spreadsheets, Zip and RAR files etc). And one of these tools - which is freeware - is CD Recovery Toolbox which specialises in recovering files from CDs, DVDs, HD DVDs and Blue-Ray disks. You can use the software to restore information lost as a result of some mechanical damage to a disk (eg: scratches, chips, spots on the surface etc) or damage caused by incorrect recording. And while not all files may be recoverable, CD Recovery Toolbox will find any that are and allow you to retrieve them to another drive. If you use this software, you should be aware that because of the amount of data a CD or DVD can hold and the errors that incorrect recording can produce, this isn't a quick program to use (a deep scan can often take several hours to run). And at the end of such a process some badly-damaged CDs or DVDs may simply be unrecoverable anyway (which can be immensely frustrating). But if you really, really need to recover data on a CD or DVD and are prepared to wait then this program will often do it for you. CD recovery Toolbox runs on all versions of Windows (from Win98 to Vista) and the company's commercial products are worth inspecting if you need to restore other types of files too. Get CD Recovery Toolbox.


Unstoppable Copier
If you have to recover data from a damaged floppy or a hard disk with bad sectors, scratches or other problems that cause errors when you attempt to read data, then Roadkil.Net's Unstoppable Copier may be the right tool to use to recover your files. Unstoppable Copier will attempt to recover every readable piece of a file and put the pieces together. Using this method, most types of files can be made usable even if some parts prove to be unrecoverable in the end - and in some instances, recovering at least part of a file is better than losing it completely. Unstoppable Copier also lets you set the level of data recovery from very intense (which can take a long time) through to skipping damaged files completely. The data recovery process can also be paused and resumed (handy if you have to take a break on a long recovery operation) and logging can be enabled to record details on transferred files, their integrity and the offsets of any errors. Multiple directory structures or single files can also be dragged and dropped into the software for transfer. Unstoppable Copier is available in English, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Turkish and it's frequently upgraded. Unstoppable Copier runs on all versions of Windows (Win98 to Vista) and it's freeware. Get Unstoppable Copier.


EASEUS Deleted File Recovery
Finally, if you think you might need to recover files from a wide range of storage devices and feel more comfortable using recovery software that has a commercial counterpart, EASEUS Deleted File Recovery is worth your inspection. EASEUS is the freeware version of the US$69 EASEUS Data Recovery Wizard and it will perform most of the everyday undeletion tasks most people need without any fuss. What sets it apart from the other programs listed on this page are the wide range of storage media that EASEUS supports (FAT and NTFS hard disk drives, compact flash, Memory Stick Duo, Memory Stick Pro, Memory Stick Pro Duo, miniSD, MultiMediaCard (MMC), SD Card, SmartMedia, xD Picture Card, Digital Cell Phones, PDA, Zip Disk, PCMCIA PC, floppy disk, micro drive, any compact flash, any memory stick) and its easy-to-use, non-technical approach to file recovery (which can quickly put you at ease if you're not naturally a technical person). The software also has a previewing feature for recovered files too. EASEUS runs on Windows 2000, XP, 2003 and Vista and the freeware version can be upgraded to the more highly-powered commercial version at any time if you ever need to expand your capabilities. Get EASUS Deleted File Recovery.


This page last updated: 10-Dec-2008


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