Does anyone recall the olden days when there were no PCs around and you did all your saving in actual touchable folders and files? And remember how you had to archive them for years and years to come?
So, 10 years later you'd send your secretary to the archive and tell them to discard years from 1961 to 1970. And what did they do - throw 'em away? Sure they didn't - you could use the folders again, if emptied. Now, did they empty them right away? No, they didn't. They just ran along the shelf and tore off the labels so that everybody knew those were the folders to be used again next.
When you opened one of those folders all its content was still in perfect shape, readable and all, and if you'd made a mistake and you'd need one of those folders i.e. its content, you just had to be quick enough...
That's the way MS Windows handles your data. They're written to your hard disk, kept there according to your wishes and once you decide to get rid of them, all the space your data occupy on the hard disk is marked for reuse, just like tearing off the labels of those nostalgic folders.
File recovery relies on the fact that when a user deletes a file (or empties the wastebasket or recycle bin) the contents of the file aren't physically obliterated on the disk, but rather the file is simply flagged as deleted. More precisely, the space it occupies is marked as available for writing. This means that the older the file, the less chance there is of successful recovery because it’s more likely to have been overwritten by another newer file.
File recovery software works best when the deleted files are recovered to another drive. That's because the very act of recovery involves writing to your drive, and you don't want to write over other files that still need to be recovered. The "other" drive can be another hard disk, another hard disk partition, a networked machine, or an external USB device.
Recovery programs operate more successfully if they are installed before any file recovery is attempted. If the file you want to recover is on your “C” drive, the simple act of installing one of these programs onto that drive may obliterate the target file you want to recover. Remember that recovery software cannot undelete files that have been written over.
Recovering data from physically damaged drives is also beyond the capabilities of most free recovery tools. There are tools that will attempt partial recovery, but generally these are expensive commercial products or services.
However, if you have just accidentally emptied your wastebasket (recycle bin), or explicitly deleted a file, and realized you've made a mistake, file recovery is a very real possibility. The golden rule is “don’t write ANYTHING to the disk, or reboot”. Just immediately run your recovery software.
Go straight to the Quick Selection Guide
Until recently, file recovery was one of the few categories where the main commercial products really outshone the freeware alternatives. But the picture has changed dramatically. You now have some excellent freeware choices.
I have tested the software on lots of different media including USB Flash, SD, MMC, SM,CF, MS, Micro SD, SSD, Hard disk in SATA, IDE as well as SCSI which contained office documents, photos, quickbooks backup and large Outlook psts. I have deleted those and filled the drive with different files. I have deleted those and emptied the recycle bin and quick formatted the drives. All tested software, except PC Inspector, managed to recover all files without fail.
Time taken on the other hand was quite different. After that I have filled half of the disk with another directory of mp3s. All software failed to recover any deleted files on normal recovery modes. At this point I have formatted the drive and tried deeper recovery options that tested software comes with. That's where the true colours came out as the results were very different.
MiniTool Power Data Recovery (Free Edition) is my top pick as it proved to be way ahead of the competition. It comes with a very intuitive interface which is suitable for all users. It has recovered 1GB in 85 seconds and managed to recover all 106 files after the disk was formatted.
I found MiniTool very easy to use with superb results. Help files are very good explaining most of the recovery methods step by step. A must have for any computer.
UPDATE: Though this is a free tool it has a limit of 1GB recover. If you wish to recover any more than the 1GB you will need to purchase the full version
Recuva is a very easy to use file undelete utility from Piriform which does exactly what it says on the can. Interface is very user friendly and it only took couple of clicks to get my data back. It has recovered 1GB in 87 seconds.
However, it only works great on straight forward recovery. I found that after formatting the disk deep scan could only locate and recover 19 files out of 106.
Test Disk is an open source software loaded with features. It has recovered 1GB in 83 seconds, a time which was beaten only by commercial software. Test Disk is a cross-platform application which is pre-installed on a few Linux distro live CDs. It has many useful options like restoring DE type partitions which is very useful for Dell computers. It does not need to be installed and overall is very powerful.
On the down side it does not have a GUI and is targeted for more advanced users. It does have a good step-by-step guide for all recovery options. There are good detailed guides online, simply search Google for TestDisk Step by Step.
PC Inspector File Recovery is another free file undelete utility. It does have a decent GUI but did not live up to other contenders. It has recovered 1GB in 15 minutes which felt like ages. Logical drive selection felt somewhat confusing.
Sector scan looked a promising option but it has failed to recover any of the deleted files after the format.
You might want to check out these articles too:
MiniTool Power Data Recovery
PC Inspector File Recovery