How To Recover Deleted Files
Have you ever accidentally deleted a file, or trash binned a document only to later discover that you still need it? Maybe you let someone hop on your PC and they accidentally managed to wipe away an entire folder of precious files. Or perhaps you forgot to backup your data before reformatting. There are all kinds of crummy scenarios that can lead to deleted data that you might wish you could have back. Well, good news--sending a file to the Recycle Bin is far from permanent, even after you've emptied it.
When you delete a file in Windows, it doesn't actually get erased--it's not like sending a piece of paper through a file shredder and then setting the scraps ablaze. Instead, Windows keeps an index of where parts of a file reside on your hard drive. When you delete a document or a photo (or any data), Windows marks the sectors of your storage device that it resided on as being available for new chunks of data. Think of it as swapping out the "No Vacancy" sign for one that says "Vacant," without clearing out the space. This also applies to reformatting your drive--the data isn't necessarily gone for good.
What this means is that your deleted data is often recoverable, even when all hope seems lost. Unfortunately, the same isn't true for solid state drives that use TRIM, which involves a different method of recording and deleting data. For the purposes of this guide, we're going to focus on how to recover deleted data from a hard disk drive or portable flash drive.
Are you ready to get your data back? Then let's get started!
Start with the Recycle Bin
This one is obvious, but for the sake of thoroughness, let's start things off easy. If you've deleted a file and want to get it back, open up the Recycle Bin on your desktop and find the file. It's helpful to sort the contents by the "Date Deleted" if this is a file that was recently trashed, or by "Name" if it's buried in the Recycle Bin and you know the name of the file.
How many deleted files reside in the Recycle Bin is depends on how much space Windows has allotted it. You can change this by right-clicking on the Recycle Bin and selecting "Properties." Each drive and partition has its own Recycle Bin. Click on the one you want to change and then enter an amount in the "Custom size" field. Note that this is measured in megabytes, with 1,024 megabytes equivalent to 1 gigabyte.
Assuming the file you want to recover is not in the Recycle Bin, you're going to need to dig deeper. To do that, you need a file recovery program. We're going to recommend some, but first, a few tips.
Plan Things Out
There are many data recovery programs available, some of which are free and others that cost money. While results will vary from one program to another, they all take a similar approach, which is to scan sectors of your hard drive that Windows marks as available.
Before you install one of these programs, hook up a secondary drive to your PC, if that's an option. Every time Windows writes over a section of your hard drive that might contain previously deleted data, your chances of recovering it lessen. So, it's important to install a data recovery program on a separate drive to prevent that from happening.
The same applies to recovering files. If you're able to, recover deleted data to a separate drive rather than the one the data originally resided on, otherwise you risk overwriting other files before you have a chance to recover them as well.
Time is of the essence, too. Even though you might not be moving files around and installing more programs, Windows and your other applications might be downloading and installing updates on their own. All of this activity puts your deleted data at further risk of disappearing forever, so don't procrastinate.
Recuva is a data recovery program from the makers of CCleaner, a popular utility for managing Windows. There are two versions, a free one and one that costs $20. The latter adds support for virtual drives and automatic updates, and comes with tech support. For most uses, however, the free version is sufficient.
One thing we like about Recuva is that it's extremely fast. The total time it takes to run depends on a variety of factors, including the size of your storage device and the number of files you deleted. In our case, it whipped through a lightly used 3TB hard drive and found nearly 99,000 files in under 30 seconds.
Recuva does a good job of breaking things down by telling you the state of the deleted file you're trying to recover. If it says "Excellent," there's a good chance Recuva will be able to restore it. Your chances are lower if its says "Poor" or "Very poor," and "Unrecoverable" is self-explanatory.
Give this one a whirl first, and use the Deep Scan option if your initial scan doesn't find what you're looking for.
EaseUS Data Recovery
This is another undelete program that's offered in free and paid trim. The free version limits the amount of data you can recover to 2GB, so it's best for when you just want to recover a smaller file (or set of files) that you accidentally deleted, rather than an entire drive's worth of contents. Otherwise, you have to shell out $70 for the Pro version to recover as much data as you want.
EaseUS does a quick scan of your drive, then hops right into a deep scan. It's kind of a weird approach, as the deep scan should be optional, especially since it takes a long time to run. We gave up waiting after it spent a half hour scanning our hard drive with no end in sight. It isn't mandatory that you let it finish a deep scan--just hit the "Back" button and you have the option of stopping the scan and viewing the results.
To make things easier, there are several pull-down menus at the top to sort through whatever files it finds by type, such as graphics, audio, documents, and so forth. You can choose specific file extensions within each one. This makes it a cinch to sort through potentially thousands of files for a JPEG, for example.
QueTek does not offer a free version of its File Scavenger program, though you can run a demo to see how many files it's able to dig up before commiting to a purchase.
One thing that is neat about File Scavenger is that you don't have to install it. You can download the program to a USB flash drive and run it from there, which makes it a great option for portable rescues. If you a keep a toolkit of programs to work on other people's PCs, this is a great one to have.
File Scavenger's isn't quite as user friendly as some of the other options, as the interface is fairly sparse. For example, instead of using pull-down menus or buttons to let you search for a specific file type, you have to type it into the "Look for" field. So for example to instruct File Scavenger to only look for any and all JPEG files, you would type "*.jpg" (without the quotation marks). Or you can leave the default "*" option to search for all file types.
As its name implies, FreeUndelete is a no-cost data recovery program, at least for personal use. Businesses are required to purchase a license starting at $69, but the program itself is the same, as opposed to tacking on more bells and whistles for paid customers.
Like File Scavenger, it is not the most intuitive program. However, it does a good job of rooting out deleted files. Just select the drive where you lost your file and hit the "Scan" button. If you want, you can filter search results by type, you just have to manually input them into the search field.
This is another program that can be run without installing. That means you can stick it on a USB flash drive and not have to worry about overwriting your main drive, which could potentially destroy your chances of recovering a file. To do that, click the "Advanced" option instead of proceeding with a full install. You will then see a "Run without installing…" button. Click on that and off you go.
Wise Data Recovery
Wise Data Recovery is one of the easiest data recovery programs to use. There is not much to running it, and it doesn't inundate the user with options. Once installed, just select a disk and hit the "Scan" button.
The scanning engine is extremely fast. Part of that is because it doesn't offer a deep scanning option like some other programs do. That also means it isn't likely to find as many files as some of the other programs, which was our experience. However, it's a good option for taking a mulligan on emptying the Recycle Bin.
We also like that Wise Data Recovery has a preview pane that allows you to view some image files. It was hit or miss in our experience whether it would actually produce a preview, even for images with a high probability for recovery. But when it works, it's a nice amenity.
In terms of the user interface, IObit Undelete is the most polished program of the bunch and one of the better options for less experienced users. This comes at the expense of advanced options, but if you're looking for a straightforward solution, this is the one to use.
IObit Undelete's main window breaks things down by file type, but not in a confusing manner. It presents users with six options: All Types, Pictures, Music, Documents, Videos, and Other types. By default, all six categories are checked. There's also tab to select where you want to IObit Undelete to scan.
While incredibly easy to use, IObit Undelete doesn't let you configure scans for files with a specific file extension. That's a bummer if you all you want to recover are JPEG or PNG photos, rather than all of the various file extensions that apply to pictures. IObit Undelete also lacks a true deep scanning option.
MiniTool Photo Recovery
Some data recovery programs are purpose built to scan for specific types of files. MiniTool Photo Recovery is one of them, and if you're looking to recovery photos and videos, this one does an excellent job of resurrecting them.
Once you start the scan, the main window will be populated with thumbnails of the images and other media files that it was able to find, in real time. This is a huge convenience, as file names are not always preserved when digging them up from the digital grave. Using thumbnail images takes the guesswork out of what you're recovering, and makes quick work of sifting through your photos and selecting only the ones you want to recover.
The scanning process is slow, presumably because it's doing a deep dive into your storage device. There is no quick scanning option, so you just have to be patient. If you're working with a large capacity hard drive, you may want to find something else to do while it works its mojo, like catch a movie or take a nap.
We saved this one for last because you'll probably only turn to it when the proverbial poo really hits the fan. Or more specifically, when you've lost a partition and Windows just shrugs as if to say, 'I don't remember there being a D:\ drive, are you sure there ever was one?' Well of course you're sure, but unfortunately yelling obscenities at Windows doesn't help. TestDisk can, however.
TestDisk is not meant for recovering individual files, at least not directly. It was designed to recover lost partitions and to make non-booting disks bootable again. And it's good at what it does, though it's not much to look at.
Rather than serve up a fancy GUI, TestDisk resides in a command prompt. The creators attempted to take some of the scariness away for less experienced users by breaking things down into menus, which you can navigate with your keyboard's arrow keys (not your mouse). Still, it's a bit intimidating.
If it's come to this, your best bet is to follow the developer's step-by-step instructions. They're pretty thorough, and with any luck your drive will back up and running the way it was before things went terribly wrong.