You've lost some important files – maybe you didn't back them up, or maybe a program crashed before you could save the file. Thankfully, the information may still be on your hard disk – all you need are the tools to restore it.

In the past, data recovery was an expensive business, but these days you'll find it's possible to recover files quickly, easily and for free.

The best free data recovery tool we've found is Recuva, which we're covering in this tutorial. Two versions are available: a standard version that you install on to your hard drive in the usual way, and a portable version, which enables you to run the program directly from a USB flash drive, ensuring files aren't written to your hard disk prior to attempting data recovery.

1. Install Recuva

If your lost file is stored on a different drive or partition from Windows and your programs, simply install Recuva from the cover disc using the default settings, which installs it to your system drive. Once installed, leave Run Recuva v1.38 ticked and click Finish. Jump to step three.

Recover lost or deleted files: install recuva

2. Install portable version

If you have a USB flash drive, select Recuva Portable from the disc. When prompted, click Continue followed by Browse. Select your USB flash drive from the list and click OK ➜ Extract ➜ OK. Once complete, double-click Recuva (64-bit Windows users should double-click Recuva64 instead) to launch the program.

Recover lost or deleted files: install portable version

3. Select what to look for

Ninety per cent of deleted and lost files can be recovered quickly. If you know the name of the file you're looking for, click Cancel and jump to step 13; otherwise, click Next to either select the type of file you're looking for, such as pictures, music, emails or documents, or Other to search for all files. Click Next again.

Recover lost or deleted files: select what to look for

4. Choose where to search

If you know where the lost files resided – in the Recycle Bin, Documents or on a removable drive or media player – choose the appropriate option. If you know the exact drive or folder, pick In a specific location and click Browse to select it. Otherwise, leave I'm not sure selected and click Next.

Recover lost or deleted files: scan for files

5. Scan for files

Recuva tells you it's ready to search for your lost files. You'll see a deep scan option is available – this can take hours to complete, and shouldn't be attempted until you've discovered whether the quick scan is able to detect your files, so leave the option unticked and click the Start button.

Recover lost or deleted files: scan for files

6. Sit back and wait

Recuva now starts the scanning process. This can take some time, depending on whether it's searching a specific location or not. If you have more than one drive or partition attached, each is scanned and analysed separately. The progress bar keeps you informed as to the scan's progress.

Recover lost or deleted files: sit back and wait

7. Review results

A list of matching files is displayed – if your file is among these and is marked yellow or green, tick the box next to it and click Recover. Select a different drive to save the file to and click OK twice. Try opening the file in Windows Explorer to see whether it's been recovered successfully.

Recover lost or deleted files: review results

8. Recover emails

Recuva can find lost and deleted emails in Windows Mail, Outlook Express and Thunderbird. If any are found, they're collected together into a single zip file. Tick the box and save this to a different drive. Once done, quit Recuva and extract the contents of the zip file to a folder.

Recover lost or deleted files: recover emails

9. View recovered emails

All recovered email messages are stored inside the folder as separate messages in EML format, which can be opened and viewed in any email program. Look for an option on the File menu to open a saved message; browse to the folder containing your recovered messages to access them.

Recover lost or deleted files: view recovered emails

10. Use Deep Scan

If no files are found, you're prompted to scan again using Deep Scan – click Yes, then be prepared for a long wait. If files were found, but yours wasn't among them, close Recuva, then go through the wizard again, this time ticking Enable Deep Scan before clicking the Start button.

Recover lost or deleted files: use deep scan

11. Use advanced view

More results should appear in the list – many of which are marked as red, indicating they're just file fragments that contain no recoverable data. To get more detail about recovered files before you decide whether or not to attempt recovering them, click the Switch to advanced mode button.

Recover lost or deleted files: use advanced view

12. Preview files

The window changes to reveal more options and a Preview pane (see the annotation on the previous spread for a guide to using Recuva in advanced mode). Select your file to see if anything appears in the Preview window, or click the Info tab for more details about the file before recovering it.

Recover lost or deleted files: preview files

13. Find a specific file

If you know the name of the file you're looking for, the quickest way to find it is to type all or part of its name into the Search box. Select the drive you think the file is on from the dropdown menu (or choose All Drives if you're not sure), and then click Scan.

Recover lost or deleted files: find a specific file

14. Explore your results

If you can't find the particular file you want to retrieve, or don't remember its name but do know which folder it was in on your hard drive, right-click inside the list of files and then choose View mode ➜ Tree View from the pop-up menu that appears. You can now browse the results according to their location on your computer.

Recover lost or deleted files: explore your results

15. Search damaged or formatted disks

Recuva only searches for deleted files by default. To force it to search for 'lost' files – which include files on corrupt or reformatted disks, you need to click the Options button, switch to the Actions tab and tick Scan for non-deleted files… Click OK, then click the Scan button to update the results.

Recover lost or deleted files: search damaged or formatted disks

16. Data recovery complete

With a bit of luck you'll have found and recovered the files you lost or accidentally deleted. Recuva makes the process as simple and as straightforward as possible, and by following our tutorial, you'll have discovered how to rescue data from your computer without spending a penny in recovery fees.

Recover lost or deleted files: data recovery complete

First published in Windows: The Official Magazine issue 52

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