How to Recover Deleted Files withFree Software Adam Pash —Ack! The computer ate my term paper! Weve all been there at some point. You delete animportant file, somehow it skips your Recycle Bin altogether, and for all practical purposes, itsdisappeared into the ether. But before you hit the big red panic button, theres a very good chancethat your file is still alive and kicking somewhere on your hard drive—you just need to know howto find it. With the right tools, finding and recovering that deleted file can be as simple as a fewclicks of your mouse.Part I: The OverviewOk, so youve lost an important file. Dont panic. Take a breath, and lets see if we can find it.Before you go into full-on file recovery mode, make sure you double-check the folder you hadsaved it in and the Recycle Bin or Trash. Still nothing?1. Stop What Youre DoingWhen your operating system deletes a file, all it really does is mark the space on your hard drivethat your file occupies as free space. Its still there, but your computer is now perfectly happy towrite new data on top of it—at which point the file recovery process becomes a lot more difficult.That means you should do as little computing as possible until you find the file youre looking for,
since every time you save a new file—every time your computer writes information to your harddrive—your chances of recovering the file go down.2. Find the Right File Recovery ProgramWindows: Youve a lot of really great freeware options for file recovery if youre runningWindows. Notable apps include Undelete Plus (original post), PC Inspector File Recovery(original post), and Restoration (original post). Undelete Plus is the most user-friendly option ofthe bunch, with advanced filtering options that make it easy to find your needle of a file amongthe haystack of deleted garbage, but in my tests I found both Restoration and PC Inspector FileRecovery to be more effective at recovering files. (Of course, your mileage may vary.) As an addedbonus, the bare bones Restoration is portable, which makes it an excellent addition to your thumbdrive.UPDATE: Per several readers advice, you may also want to check out Recuva (original post),another freeware Windows file recovery tool.Mac: If youre on a Mac and arent afraid to lay down a few bucks in the name of data recovery,the $99 Data Rescue II is the go-to application for file recovery with a friendly graphical interface. All Platforms: If youre not afraid to crack open a terminal window or command prompt, the free, cross-platform command-line tool PhotoRec (original post) is a crack shot at recovering photos (as the name implies) as well as virtually any other file type from your removable media or hard drives. 3. Recover Your Files
Once youve picked a tool, its time to scan your harddrive for your lost file or files. This process variesdepending on the app youre using, but its basically thesame for all of them: Just point the program at thehard drive or folder that was holding your missing fileand start your scan. Once the scan is complete, youregoing to see a big list of jumbled file names. Often mostof these files are nothing more than system files thatyour operating system has created in the course ofbasic operation, and you wont need to worry aboutthem. Youre just looking for the file type and namethat matches what youve lost.Once you find what youre looking for, saving it is amatter of right-clicking the file and choosing where tosave it.Went through steps one through three and still arent having any luck? It might be worth tryingagain with a different application, since there can be a lot of variation between apps. If youre stillnot having any luck, part two discusses a few other ways you can try addressing more specificproblems when your data goes missing.Part 2: More Specific ProblemsAbove you got a basic overview for recovering deleted files from your computer. Now well take acloser look at some more specific problems, methods of data recovery, and tools that may be ofhelp in your quest for your elusive lost data.Recover Files from a Wiped or Unbootable Hard DriveSo you didnt just accidentally delete a file or twoand empty your Recycle Bin prematurely—insteadyouve got a whole hard drive worth of missingdata. You can still use many of the applicationsmentioned above to recover files from thesedrives as long as you have or can get the harddrive into a bootable computer. For more details,check out how to recover files from a wiped harddrive with PhotoRec (original post) or how torecover data from a crashed hard drive with PCInspector File Recovery (original post).If you cant or dont know how to get yourunbootable drive into another computer, a Linuxlive CD can be perfect for rescuing files. If theLinux route scares you off, give the popularBartPE (original post) a try.Finally, if none of these options can even read your hard drive, you still might be able to get itworking for just long enough with a few tricks of the data recovery trade, like putting the bustedhard drive in the freezer.Recover Lost Photos
If you need to resurrect photos from a damaged flash memory card from your digital camera, youll be happy to know that most of the applications listed in part one above will do the trick—you just need plug in your camera or insert the card into your computers card reader before running your data recovery application of choice. That said, you can find other applications, like Zero Assumption Digital Image Recovery (original post), that are focused specifically on image recovery that you may want to add to your data recovery toolbox.Recover Lost Word DocumentsIf your lost dissertation was saved as a Word document, youve got a few more interesting optionsfor getting to your lost or deleted documents—read more about them here and here. Recover Data from Scratched or Corrupted CDs and DVDs If your munged data is sitting on optical media like a CD or DVD, the recovery process can be slightly different. Freeware application CD Recovery Toolbox (original post) is made specifically to read the portions of a CD that are readable in an effort to rescue as much data as possible from a damaged disc. If that doesnt work, you may want to give a look at the 30-day trial of shareware application CDCheck, as recommended by a reader. Then again, if scratches are the issue, you may be able to get away with simply fixing your scratched CD or DVD yourself. Part 3: Dont Let This Happen AgainWhatever the cause of your lost file, the best method of data recovery is a good preemptive databackup plan. If youre on Windows, weve taken you step-by-step through how to automaticallyback up your hard drive so that this sort of thing never happens again. If youre running a Mac, doyourself a favor: Get an external hard drive and flip the switch on the easy-to-use Time Machine.Linux users should check out backup options like FlyBack, TimeVault, or the time-honored rsync.Have you ever raised deleted files from the hard drive graveyard? What software did you use to doit? Tell us your tales of file recovery victory and woe in the comments.Adam Pash is a senior editor for Lifehacker who early in life learned to love the backup. Hisspecial feature Hack Attack appears every Tuesday on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Hack AttackRSS feed to get new installments in your newsreader.