Data recovery is a tricky business. There can be no going back for accidentally deleted data or a lost hard drive, and there's no guarantee your files are in a state to be successfully recovered.
However, there are some free tools available that can give you a chance of recovering documents, photos and other irreplaceable files that have been lost or deleted.
In this guide we'll show you how to recover deleted files using both Windows' built-in tools as well as free third-party tools. We'll also show you how to recover deleted files in Linux and Mac OS X - so no matter what operating system you're running, you should be able to restore the files you've accidentally deleted.
How to recover deleted files using Windows' built-in tools
Accidentally deleting a particularly important file – it's something we've all done. But erasing a file isn't the only thing that can go wrong with documents; it's also very easy to edit a document, save it and then later change your mind about the editing you've done.
The good news is that the Previous Versions feature of Windows can help to eliminate these problems by making it possible to automatically save snapshots of your hard drive, so you have the option of reverting individual files to an earlier version if necessary – or even restoring files that have been accidentally deleted.
Previous Versions is surprisingly easy to get up and running, and you never know when it might come in useful in the future so it's best to activate it as soon as possible!
1. Enable System Protection
To set up Previous Versions, begin by clicking 'Start' and then selecting the 'Control Panel' shortcut (or typing in 'Control Panel') to the right. Now click 'System and Security', then 'System', followed by the 'System Protection' link to the left of the window.
In the Protection Settings section towards the centre of the dialog that appears, click the entry for your C drive and then the 'Configure' button.
2. Configure restoration options
Select the option labelled 'Restore system settings and previous versions of files'. Use the slider that appears in the bottom portion of the dialog box to choose how much of your disk space should be set aside for previous versions of files and System Restore Points.
This will depend on the size of your hard drive. Once you've finished, click the 'OK' button.
3. Create a Restore Point
Windows automatically starts to create System Restore Points so you can return your PC to the way it was at an earlier date, and begin saving multiple versions of files for you.
Get started by clicking the 'Create' button on the System Properties tab. Enter a name for your first Restore Point before clicking 'Create'. The date and time are automatically added for you.
4. Accessing previous versions
If you discover that you've made and saved unwanted changes to a document, right-click it and select the 'Restore previous versions' option. Alternatively, you can right-click a file and select the 'Properties' option from the menu that appears before moving to the Previous Versions tab.
5. Check file contents
A list of previous versions of the selected file is displayed and you can then choose which one you would like to work with – click the 'Open' button to check the contents of a particular document.
Work through the list until you identify the file version that you would like to restore.
6. Restore previous version
Once you've decided which file you're interested in, click the 'Restore' button. Take note of the warning message that appears explaining that continuing will overwrite any existing file and then click the 'Restore' button if you're happy to continue.
Once the process is complete, click 'OK'.
7. Create a copy
To avoid overwriting an existing file with one you're restoring – which could cause a problem if you still need some data in the file or if you accidentally restore the wrong file – it's a good idea to use the option to create a copy of the older version of the file.
To do this, on the Previous Versions click the 'Copy' button, navigate to the folder you would like to use and then click the 'Copy' button again.
8. Restore deleted files
If you realise you've deleted a file by accident, it's no longer a problem – thanks to Previous Versions, you can get it back quickly and easily. Right-click the folder it was stored in and select the 'Restore previous version' option from the menu that appears.
You can then double-click one of the previous versions of the folder and create a copy of the file you're trying to retrieve.