The cold sweat beading on the brow. The panic rising from the stomach. The shaking hand that scrolls the mouse in a vain attempt to locate that incredibly important, but absent file.
These symptoms will be all too familiar to anyone who has accidentally deleted a file, or found that a hard drive or USB stick they've been relying on has become corrupted.
While the Recycle Bin sometimes catches accidentally deleted files, it just as often doesn't, and Murphy's law dictates that you'll empty the Recycle Bin just before you notice your mistake anyway.
Article continues below
Luckily there is a range of software available that can trawl your hard drive and reconstruct lost files. While the programs themselves are rarely glamorous, it's a fascinating process that goes to show that very rarely is anything truly deleted or lost, except if you somehow drop the hard drive into a vat of acid.
While this has obvious security implications if you ever chuck out or give away an old PC or hard drive, it cannot be understated just how useful this software can be. This means it's incredibly important to make the right decision if you're going to trust a piece of software to recover your files.
As you'll see in our group test, while a lot of the products offer similar features and produce similar results, there are big discrepancies in price. We put eight file recovery programs through their paces to find out which ones you should trust.
Brian Kato's Restoration
Ubuntu Rescue Remix
PC Tools File Recover
Genie Timeline Professional 3
Price: £45 (TBC)
Brian Kato's Restoration
It says what it does, and it does what it says
Restoration is a quick and dirty data recovery tool. Options? Choices? Forget it. Everything it does is given to you on a single screen, and it's not very much at all.
Pick a disk. Enter a filename if you're looking for something specific. Decide whether or not you want to be bothered by files with a size of zero (in short, only their name still remains). Press the 'Search deleted files' button to scan your drive. Done.
In testing, Restoration turned up as many files as its competitors and offered a couple of advantages. It's only 400Kb in size, for example, and doesn't require installation. That makes it extremely convenient if you only have one drive and don't want to risk overwriting the very data you want it to pull back. It's also much easier to use than the various Linux alternatives, and is free - two things that never hurt.
The downsides are firmly interface related. There's no indication of how damaged files might be, no way to browse the tree of recovered files by directory, and searching is a slow process. Most frustratingly though, there's no way to restore multiple files at once. The list won't let you group-select anything or do a mass restoration of everything that's uncovered.
The cut-down approach also means that you can forget about restoring from devices like cameras. Even USB sticks are brushed off in the Readme as merely "a user reported that it worked correctly".
Finally, while there is a shredder utility, you're not likely to use it - it zaps all the deleted files it finds, with no targeting whatsoever. For what this is - a quick and dirty recovery tool - it works well enough. There's little reason to choose it over the more powerful utilities though, unless you're looking for a tool to go on a system-restoring USB stick. Even then, you're better off with something a bit more flexible. Like pretty much anything.
A data recovery tool that always meets its quota
VirtualLab is an extremely impressive performer, with one unfortunate twist - its pricing model. Unlike most, you don't buy it as an individual program. Instead, you pay as you go, and $40 is only worth a pathetic 100MB of recovered files. That's MB, with an M, and if that doesn't seem stingy, the next level up is $99 for 500GB.
Putting a fixed limit on how much you can recover is odd, but to jump from effectively nothing to half a terabyte is just plain bizarre.
The tools themselves are impressive though. While File Undelete is the obvious go-to, VirtualLab also handles standard partition recovery, supports Mac partition types, and will even have a go at recovering a RAID system.
As far as un-deletion goes, its regular scan is blisteringly fast and the tools it offers to search through what it finds are easily the best of all the programs here. You can browse the directory tree at will, search the recovered files for specific types, or look something up by name - and VirtualLab serves up results instantly.
Exploring further, most screens offer this kind of one-step-further care and attention. When recovering files for example, you can obviously save to a drive (as long as you still have storage in your quota), but this is the only tool here that also lets you output files to an FTP server instead.
On our test system though, we had trouble with the Photos side of the application. For some reason it turned up no images or MP3 files (also covered), despite having found plenty of both in a general File Un-delete sweep.
It's the pricing model that really holds this tool back though. You can try it out with a desultory 1MB of free recovery and see what it can save on your machine if you pay up. For practical use, you're looking at $100 for the 500GB version - 100MB these days isn't worth your time.
PC Tools File Recover
Get your data back without having to fight for it
File Recover is as simple as data recovery gets. Where others have several screens to wade through, here everything is provided on just one - the option to choose a quick scan, deep scan or physical scan, to only target specific file types, and not much more. It also offers a couple of less common options, like the ability to target a single filename, and to recover files from a directory to the right-click menu.
The latter may or may not be very useful though, as it only performs a quick scan, and deleted files are likely to have been moved to the Recycle Bin in any event, and therefore not show up in the search. It offers no support for cameras or other media devices.
While File Recover has no trouble digging up an impressive number of files, if somewhat more slowly than many others here, its recovery screen is lacking. There's no way to filter the results of a scan after getting the list, nor to scan to see if it found a specific file.
Recovered files are colour-coded by how damaged they are, but that's all the detail on offer - no header information for example, as in Recuva.
Most frustrating though is that you can't resize the extremely small window, leaving the important matter of each file's location at the mercy of a scrollbar.
File Recover turned in a solid, but unexceptional performance. It's one of the easier tools to use, and while a bit slower than others, its recovery performance was up to scratch. You'll probably miss the options on offer elsewhere though, and it's worth noting that while the price is lower than many, it's a year's subscription rather than an outright purchase. That's something that makes sense for antivirus software, which needs constant updates. Here, it seems out of place - the basic techniques for data recovery don't change much in the course of a year, after all.
Genie Timeline Professional 3
Help put problems back in the bottle
Genie Timeline offers a different take on data recovery. It doesn't pick apart the detritus on your hard drive or try to salvage deleted files. Instead, it's a live backup tool similar to Apple's Time Machine. Install it, ideally point it to a spacious second hard drive, and it keeps track of and copies anything that you add, delete or change on your primary disk.
The main benefit of this is that you're not just protected against data loss, but far more common data accidents. Yes, Windows 7 has basic versioning support built in, but it's not particularly useful on a minute-by-minute basis, especially if you accidentally overwrite something you've been working on all day.
Genie Timeline also provides a disaster recovery disc creator for pulling files from a broken system, which could come in handy in a crunch. It can scan everything on your system, limit its actions to specific folders, or look for file types like pictures.
It can also make a pseudo-backup of your iPod or BlackBerry, though only by copying backups already made by tools like iTunes.
There are some oddities though. Files aren't restored to their original location, but to a directory of your choice. This makes sense when working with undeletion - the more you mess with a drive, the more you risk damaging files on it - but here, a simple 'put that back' button would be more fitting.
Backups also work on a surprisingly long timer - a minimum of three minutes in the commercial version - whereas tools like Dropbox work live. At the time of writing, this version was yet to be released, but its predecessor's 'Home' edition had an even more questionable 30 minute minimum. Provided you have a second drive, Genie Timeline is a handy way to keep a copy of your most important files, with the advantage that you get something out of it even if disaster doesn't strike.
Bring your data back with professional ease
Costing over twice as much as many of its competitors, not to mention facing off against free alternatives, O&O DiskRecovery 7 is on the defensive even before it's been installed. Its primary advantage is its ability to handle formatted and damaged partitions, and very powerful engine, regardless of whether you do a quick or deep scan.
It stumbles in some other ways though, especially post-scanning. This isn't to say that it's complicated to use. In most cases, you just point it to the partition you want to recover, pausing only to specify individual file types if you don't want everything, and whether you want to save files automatically or be presented with a list. One biscuit/ five-course dinner with mints later (depending on whether you used the deep scanner), and it's done.
Unlike many tools, you're not allowed to restore to the disk you're recovering files from - but that's good sense. Just make sure you have another ready. The catch comes if you're looking for specific files. You can't scan for them exclusively, or even target directories - only file types, with the option to add a couple of filters like size and date of creation.
The finished report offers no search box to help drill into it either - an unfortunate omission. The result is that while O&O works superbly if you have a crash or drive-wide disaster to take care of, it's not so effective for day-to-day deletions and recovering from smaller-scale accidents.
If you do end up needing its heavy lifting, there's not much that escapes O&O's eagle eye. It handles hard drives, flash cards, USB sticks and more. Its partitioning support is extremely useful, and the option for an 'Instant' installation if you're bringing it in to clean up is a handy touch.
For general home use though, you can get similar results more cheaply elsewhere.
Ubuntu Rescue Remix
Data recovery for the sysadmin crowd
Ubuntu Rescue Remix is the hardcore solution to bringing your data back to life - with one minor drawback. Specifically, unless you're comfortable with booting it up from a live CD and only seeing a blinking cursor, you should just stop reading now.
There's no GUI and no wizard to talk you through things - just a carefully chosen set of open source tools with the power to bail you out of trouble.
Those tools are split into three categories: Filesystem, Disk and Other. These include TestDisk, as seen separately here, along with Photorec for pulling back media specifically, and Magic Rescue for more general files.
Working as a live CD means that there's nothing to install, which in turn means that you can pull the plug as soon as you realise you've deleted a file and have a good shot at getting it back.
If you're not comfortable with live CD tools, avoid these like a solid chunk of bubonic plague. They're powerful, but choosing the wrong options and firing up the wrong programs can do more harm than your original accident. Together though, they can do far more than any individual program here, and make for an excellent emergency rescue disc for those in the know.
Documentation is primarily provided in the form of manual pages on the disc itself, along with a cheat sheet, and tutorials on the web page that cover the basics. If you'd like to try this pack out without risk, the best way is with VirtualBox (a free virtual machine from www.virtualbox.org).
Create a new disk, mount the ISO and play in the knowledge that you can't harm anything on your real PC. If it proves too much, other boot CDs are available - like www.ultimatebootcd.com - which you may find more approachable. That one also includes TestDisk and Photorec, which are the main tools you're likely to use for regular file recovery.
A double-whammy of data recovery demons
We're putting these two open-source tools together, because united they can take care of both data-recovery extremes.
TestDisk is the broadsword. It works on whole partitions and non-booting disks, typically in the aftermath of virus attacks or major human error.
PhotoRec is the scalpel. It digs up individual files, from the photos that give it its name to video, documents and archives, and reassembles them as well as possible.
Both come from the world of Linux, so you shouldn't need to glance at the screenshot to expect utilitarian interfaces and the assumption that you know what you're doing. PhotoRec in particular is easier to use than it looks though, with menus to flag the file types you want, and a recovery process that spits everything onto a safe drive for you to sift through.
As the name suggests, it's as good at pulling information from memory cards as hard drives - an increasingly common feature in these tools, but still far from universal.
TestDisk is a much more complicated beast, asking for details like 'disk geometry' and throwing out a stream of jargon. It features analysis tools that will try to work out many of the details if you don't know them, but don't expect to just hit a button and bring back your disks after a crash.
Both tools are small, and neither requires any form of installation. That makes them perfect for emergency USB sticks and custom recovery discs, and together they're not even a megabyte. As a rule, they'll be the go-to tools on any Linux based disc anyway, including the Ubuntu Rescue Remix reviewed here separately.
They're not the ideal tools to try and learn while sweating at the thought of losing a vital file, but they'll definitely help keep you cool if you've already learned the ropes before disaster strikes.
A powerful, free solution that will help you avoid file deletion disasters - even if it can't spell
Recuva is an amazing tool with only one serious flaw: that it can't head back in time and install itself on your PC before disaster strikes. Beyond that, it does everything right. It's fast, it's easy to use and best of all, it's completely free.
As with all tools, you get a standard scan and a much slower deep scan. If you know what you want to retrieve, you can point Recuva towards individual file types (like pictures or saved emails), and destinations from the Recycle Bin to attached devices. Everything is presented in a simple list that can be sorted and searched at your leisure.
Files are flagged according to their quality: green for perfect, yellow for partially overwritten but possibly still of use, and red for unrecoverable. You might still be able to salvage something from these, but don't expect miracles.
You can select many files and recover them at once, with Recuva recommending you do so to a different drive. There's no direct way of putting them back where they came from as if nothing happened, although you can obviously do so by hand once you have them back.
As a bonus, you can also securely overwrite any files to prevent them being recovered (at least without more forensic tools), though their filenames can still be found.
The only annoyance is when searching through potentially recoverable files. This is done via a live search box, but the sheer number of files it churns through as you type brought our quad-core i7 test machine to a crawl. For smaller searches, like 'Pictures', you won't notice. On a full search, it's best to copy and paste queries instead of typing them in one letter at a time.
There's no good reason not to have Recuva on your PC. Other suites may offer more tools, but nothing comes close to its value, reliability and ability to save your bacon.
The award winners
While all of the products we've tested here worked well and did what they promised - which was to recover lost files - we were surprised just how well the free software fared against paid-for. With something as important as data recovery, it's often thought that splashing out on a paid-for app rather than a free one will give you more features and functionality, while delivering peace of mind.
Some people still mistrust free software, especially when trusted brands offer more expensive versions. After all, why would one company give away something that another charges for?
As you can see from this test, the free software excelled, while the paid-for tools just offered more of the same - but for a price. While the paid-for software gives you better presentation and support, but if you know what you're doing either of the two winners will serve you well - they're free and do a great job.
It's powerful, full of features, works incredibly well and is free. Is there anything not to like?
While there's usually a catch or caveat following a sentence like that, Recuva manages to avoid such pitfalls. The best thing we can say about it is that it works well, is easy to use and includes features that even some paid-for applications are missing. If you've lost a file and are looking for a quick and easy way to get it back, make sure you use Recuva.
When a free program scoops our Editor's Choice award, it can pose a bit of a quandary when selecting the winner of our Value award. Here we felt that while the TestDisk and PhotoRec applications offer amazing power and features for free, they don't match the user-friendliness of Recuva.
You might notice that Ubuntu Rescue Remix scored well, but was only awarded 2.5 stars overall. This is because although it's powerful, we can't recommend it to everyone due to its complexity and the harm it could cause if not used correctly.