Lost And Deleted Files Recovery

by Rod Dunne on June 30, 2010

in Articles, Data Recovery

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Sooner or later, every PC owner finds themselves in a situation where they need to recover lost data, whether through deleting files by error, accidental loss or formatting a drive. In all these scenarios it should be possible to recover data – although the success rates drop the more the computer is used. Here we’ll take a look at lost, deleted and formatted files recovery options.

Technical Background

A document is stored to your disk drive as several data clusters located on the disk. Lost, deleted or formatted files are never truly gone from the drive until the data clusters representing your file are overwritten. Deleting a file only causes the files index in the file allocation table (FAT) to be flagged as available for re-use, but the data clusters are left as they are.

It is only when the existing free space on the drive is all used up will Windows start overwriting the flagged data clusters.

It is worth noting that running a disk defragmentation utility will reorder the clusters on the disk and start reusing free space to reduce the amount of file fragmentation. This could make it  impossible to retrieve deleted files if the free clusters being used along to some of your lost/deleted documents.

Deleted Files Recovery

Check the recycle bin for the files. If they are present, then you simply recover hard drive data by right-clicking the file, hit ‘Restore’ and the files will be returned to the last folder they were located in. Do not fret if the bin is empty (or been emptied). It should still be possible to use files recovery tools (see below) to scan the hard drive for these files. See our post on deleted file recovery for more details on this process and factors affecting successful file retrieval.

Lost File Recovery

The simplest approach to effective lost file recovery is to use Google Desktop Search or Microsoft Search. Both these applications index all files on your computer in order to make them easily found. Check the recycle bin just in case the files have been deleted in error.

Alternatively, search each drive using the regular folder search for the specific file type you have lost and (to limit the results) some text you are certain the file contains. See our post on how to recover overwritten file contents for more details on lost file recovery.

Formatted Files Recovery

File recovery after formatting a drive is similar to deleted files recovery (above). The data clusters will still reside on the hard drive after formatting – only the FAT table index has been reset/cleared. File recovery software has to be used to scan & identify the data clusters.

Importantly, the software will try to recover formatted files without any help from the FAT which can often help consolidate the data clusters. For this reason, commercial software can often work better than free tools which are less able at consolidating clusters.

The one major setback with formatting depends on the formatting software that was used. If formatting also provides some form of ‘evidence wiping’ then the majority of data clusters will have been overwritten with random data, thus clearing out your files. Likewise, the change of being able to recover formatted data diminishes if the drive is used extensively, since the data clusters will begin to be over-written.

File Recovery Software

The majority of file recovery software solutions work in a similar manner; they read the FAT, scan the data clusters and identify recognizable files. The same tools can be used when recovering deleted data or searching for files on a formatted hard drive or doing Flash/SD card data recovery.

If your hard drive has developed a fault the file system type (i.e. fat 32/NTFS) to become corrupted then the drive will revert back to a raw format. Some programs can do raw recovery of documents but you must check them to see if they explicitly state that they are capable of doing this. It is impossible to recover corrupted files if the disk itself is mechanically faulty (due to scratches or motor damage).

The important thing to note with these applications is that they should never try to remove/relocate the clusters for you, as this could introduce drive faults. Instead, they should always copy the clusters to a separate location so that they may be reassembled into recognizable files for you to recover.

Of the current batch of tools on the market, Remo Undelete (all Windows OS) is well-known, has a simple interface that is both capable of recovering deleted/formatted files from internal drives, flash card data recovery, external drives, USB data recovery and several other data storage devices.

At the very least these tools can scan your drive for free to establish if any data clusters are identifiable. Data recovery experts will have more sophisticated applications but the principals above (for data recovery) should still be the same.

Related Posts:
How to fix slow computer performance.
How to recover USB device data.
Recovering deleted files after the recycle bin is emptied.
Using the Windows XP recovery disk to repair/reinstall the OS.
Cheap hard drive recovery tools for fixing that sectors, damage to boot records, etc.

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