10 essential tips for recovering lost files

Recuva is one of many free data-recovery tools available out there
Recuva is one of many free data-recovery tools available out there

Do you need us to tell you to back up your data? Hopefully not, but it doesn't matter how diligent you are, data loss can still occur if you're unlucky.

Perhaps a hard drive will have a problem, or a memory card will corrupt. Or maybe you've just deleted a file you simply didn't want to.

The key thing is to be prepared, so read on for our collection of essential tools and tips to give you a fighting chance of recovering lost, deleted and even corrupted data.

1. Build your recovery toolkit
The best time to install recovery tools on your PC is before you lose any data. Here is a choice of four free tools worth installing now which will be able to help you if something goes wrong: Recuva, PC Inspector File Recovery, SoftPerfect File Recovery and Undelete Plus.

2. Install to USB flash drive
Don't want programs cluttering up your hard drive, or already lost data on a drive? Fear not, Undelete Plus can be downloaded to and run directly from a flash drive; similarly, a portable version of Recuva can also be downloaded - extract the contents of the zip file directly to your flash drive.

3. File deletion
So long as the file hasn't been shredded with a secure data deletion tool, it may be recoverable. That's because the file itself isn't deleted even after emptying (or bypassing) the Recycle Bin; instead, the first few bytes are altered to tell Windows that the space used by the file is now available for writing to. The rest of the file is left intact until it's overwritten with fresh data.

4. Pick the right search
Most tools offer a variety of different searches depending on the nature of your data loss. Recuva uses a wizard that lets you look for specific file types - it's a quick search, so worth trying even if you suspect the lost data will prove hard to find.

5. Deep searches
File recovery tools offer more thorough (and much slower) search option that scans the drive cluster by cluster - this is useful for finding data from lost drives or partitions, but can also winkle out deleted files that don't show up under less intensive searches.

6. Data recovery outside Windows
Can't boot into Windows? You could recover your data simply by plugging the drive into another PC. Failing that, use a bootable rescue disc that gives you access to your files: try a Linux live CD or create your own BartPE disc here - you should be able to run data recovery tools from your flash drive in BartPE if necessary.

7. Recover data from CDs/DVDs
Data recovery from CD or DVD requires different tools, whether the problem is virtual or physical. Start with the free Unstoppable Copier, but if it doesn't work, try the free version of ISOBuster or check out CDRoller (US$29.50) instead.

8. Recover images from memory cards
You can even recover lost, deleted and corrupt photos from memory cards, so long as the card itself is visible in Windows. The trial version of Zero Assumption Recovery features fully functional image-recovery tools and enables you to preview your images before recovering them.

9. Recover corrupt files
You may recover the file, but find it's been damaged somehow. If this is the case, you may need to invest in third-party software such as PC Tools File Recovery (£29.95) or Recover My Files (£35). Both support a wide range of file formats, and the trial allows you to preview the results before you commit to a purchase.

10. Be prepared to pay
If your data is irretrievable, or your drive is physically damaged, ask yourself if it's worth the hundreds of pounds it'll cost to have the drive examined and any recoverable data retrieved by a data recovery specialist such as Ontrack.


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