You know that sinking feel you get in your stomach the moment after you realized you chucked a winning lottery ticket in the trash with last nights leftovers? Or the palpable angst in the pit of your stomach after you flush your wedding ring down the toilet? You feel abject, embarrassed and annoyed all at once and then you gasp: “wait, can I get it back? Is the lottery ticket irrevocable? Can I call a plumber to fish out my ring? My spouse is going to kill me!”
Sometimes we have similar scares about our computers. Perhaps you fat fingered a key and accidentally emptied the Recycling Bin or maybe you pressed Enter too many times and unwittingly hit the OK button on the cautionary “Are you sure you want to permanently delete this file?” window. Whatever the conundrum may be, most people panic and then end up spending hundreds or, depending on how valuable the data was, thousands of dollars trying restore lost data.
In this guide, I’m going to show you not only how to recover most deleted files, photos and music but also how to do it for absolutely free.
There’s no reason to call a data recovery service or subject yourself to the chicanery of an unscrupulous salesman who will do anything to secure a cozy commission.
And although I can’t guarantee you’ll get all your files back, I can assure you that after reading this guide, you’ll greatly increase your odds of recovery.
Follow these two steps to a successful recovery:
- Pause your actions
- Get the right tools
Stop what you’re doing
Usually when you delete a file the Operating System doesn’t really delete the file; it simply marks the area occupied by your file as “Free” so that other files can overwrite it in the future. Therefore it’s imperative that you stop what you’re doing right after you realize you deleted something because if you accidentally overwrite the file it’ll become extremely hard to restore; in some cases it can actually become irrevocable.
Seek the right Software
Now you need to seek the software that will get your files back. There are dozens of free recovery tools out there but not all are created equal. Here are the top three I recommend based on their sheer ability to restore files and usability.
Using one of the above three will usually suffice; however, if one fails to restore your data use the next one in the list. Let’s quickly tour my favorite, Recuva, so you can get on your way to reclaiming your digital valuables:
Visit the Piriform website to download the free version of Recuva. The file is less than 4 Megabytes. Click Run to launch the setup utility.
Select your primary language then click Next
Leave the defaults which tells Recuva to add icons to your Desktop, Start Menu and context menu. The context menu option is really nice. Recuva installs a nice little option to Scan for Deleted Files whenever you right click a folder containing files you need to restore.
Click Install to get going
The progress bar fills to green in a few seconds
Leave Run Recuva checked and click Finish
Click Next to march through the wizard.
Pick the kind of file you wish to recover. If you’re not sure pick All Files and click Next.
If you can remember where the file was deleted select the appropriate radio button above. If you’re not sure, you can also leave the defaults; however, Recuva will a little longer to locate your files since it has to scan the entire hard drive.
Make sure you click Enable Deep Scan before clicking Start.
The disadvantage is that the scan will take significantly longer to find your missing files; however, the advantage is that you greatly increase the odds of finding them.
File Recovery is never an instant thing, it always takes time to complete so you might as well do a thorough scan. I suggest running it overnight and checking the results the following morning to analyze the output. I know this is an exigent matter because you urgently need your files back; however, you definitely don’t want to rush through this. Take the time to do it right and you’ll be rewarded.
After Recuva takes it’s odyssey through the files in your system, it displays a long list of files that it recovered. (or attempted to recover)
The results are verbose and informative.
There are six columns, in order from left to right they are:
- Last Modified
The Filename shows the name and extension. There’s also a colorful dot immediately to the left of the Filename that is meant to show you your chances for a safe recovery.
Green means there’s an excellent chance of recovery, Orange is acceptable and Red means that it’s unlikely that you’ll recover the file. In that case, make sure you continue your file recovery efforts with Photorec and DiskDigger (both free and reliable).
The Path column shows you exactly where the file is located on your computer.
Last Modified and Size are self explanatory.
State is the text equivalent of the recovery probability icon mentioned above: it tells you your chances of reclaiming the asset.
Comment elaborates where State leaves off and tells you why the file can or can’t be recovered. For example, all files that have an Unrecoverable State on my computer show this is because the file was overwritten.
The Bottom Line
Recuva can’t restore everything (no free data utility can do that) but if you ever unwittingly zap a critical document from the Recycling Bin or your best friend comes to your house and deletes all the family photos it’s nice to know there’s hope and all isn’t necessarily lost.