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How to Recover Lost Data

Updated on March 11, 2010

Accidently deleting important files or photos can be very stressful.  However, with a little understanding of the way computers work and some luck with timing, the chances of being able to recover lost files are pretty high. When a file is deleted, intentionally or by accident, the actual file itself is generally untouched.  Instead, what happens is that the pointer with information about the location of the file on your hard drive is removed. The operating system now considers this space on the hard drive as available for new files. If the pointer to the old file isn’t restored before new information is written to the space where the old file is located then that file will be permanently lost. This is the key part of attempting to recover lost data from a hard drive or from a memory card.

How to Recover Lost Data

There are two approaches you can take in trying to recover lost data. The first is to hire a company that specializes in disaster recovery. Hiring a company to do this for you is appropriate if the information on the drive is extremely important and warrants the potentially large expense. For example, legal documents or several years worth of lost pictures might be reason enough to pay for this service. This approach may be expensive, but these companies have highly specialized equipment and software tools that greatly improve your chances of getting your data back by providing hard drive crash recovery services.

If the permanent loss of your data is not important enough to hire a data recovery service, then you should consider investing approximately $35 - $100 and buy software designed to scan your internal hard drive, external hard drive, or memory cards for files that are intact or partially intact but have had their associated pointer deleted. A file may become partially intact if a portion of that file is overwritten before you attempt any restoration. This is particularly apparent when trying to recover lost photos because digital photos tend to be relatively large and therefore have a greater chance of being overwritten to at least some extent.

The file recovery software field is fairly mature. Vendors are competing against one another in areas such as varying levels of features, ease of use, and price. Here are some features that I insist on having:

  • Ability to recover lost files, photos, and possibly email
  • Ability to scan internal drives, a hard drive dock, and memory cards
  • Ability to scan NTFS drives which is the file system that Windows uses most often
  • Allows restored files to be saved to a user defined location

Be very careful if you’re facing a situation where you need to install file recovery software. If you attempt to install a program on the drive where the lost file is located, you run the risk of permanently overwriting that file simply by adding the new program to your hard drive. My preferred approach is to install the recovery software on another computer, one of your own or even borrow a friend’s computer. If you have a laptop, you should then remove your laptop hard drive, place it in a hard drive enclosure, and attach the enclosure to the other computer. This will minimize the chances of accidentally and irrevocably deleting any files are you trying to restore. Once you have the software installed and the hard drive safely attached, you are free to recover your files to safe place. I would implement some sort of backup solution as a final step to prevent this kind of accidental data loss in the future. Alternatively, you could just get a 1tb hard drive and never delete anything. With that much space you wouldn't need to.

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