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Data recovery, the final safety net

No matter how many times we are told to back up that important document or family photos we all one day inevitably face that sinking feeling of having that file, folder or entire drive disappear. If you have lost important files you may one day turn to data recovery software to save the day. There are some basic principles to follow, which can make the difference between a successful data recovery or not.

1. Isolate the hard drive from new data

When you delete a file, or suffer data loss, the general principal is that the missing data will stay on your hard drive (or other storage device like a camera card) up until such time as it is overwritten by new information. So you should straight away minimize the use of your computer. This is particularly important if the data has been lost from your C: drive, as this is where Windows does its thing and without you even knowing it Windows can be writing new data to the disk. Don’t save new files to your drive, take new photos on your camera card, or run any applications/programs that you don’t have to.

Your best option if you are trying to do data recovery from your C: drive is to turn off the computer altogether, remove the problem hard drive, and connect it to another computer as a secondary disk. This means that you can then install data recovery software on this other computer and use it to scan the problem secondary drive.

2. Is it a hardware or software problem?

The first decision you have to make is whether you think the data loss is the result of a hardware or software problem. If your drive has smoke and fire coming from it, then chances are it’s a hardware issue, an easy diagnosis. Otherwise the best method of diagnosis is to put your ear on the drive and listen to it. You should be able to hear and feel the drive spinning (there are disks inside the drive which spin at high speed). A constant humming sound is a good noise and means your drive has consistent power and data recovery software should work for you. A ghostly silent noise is not so great, either you have not plugged it in properly, or the drive has an electrical fault. A sharp clicking noise, or a grinding noise, is the worst sound of all. It means your drive has physically failed and the noise is the meeting of parts inside the drive which should never meet. You need to turn off the drive and a hardware data recovery service is your only hope (a greatly more expens
ive path).

3. Give it a go

Ask 5 different people about the possibility of data recovery and you are likely to get 5 different responses. The fact is, that there are so many ways to lose your data, you won’t know what you can get back until you try. So don’t listen to the naysayers who say that it’s lost forever. In the vast majority of cases data recovery will work.

If you Google data recovery software then you will find a great mix of recovery products, many promising the world. Choosing the right one is not easy, but here are some rules to follow:

i. You get what you pay for. Data recovery is not a simple procedure. You should expect to pay between $30 and $100 for quality data recovery software.

ii. Don’t purchase data recovery software until you know that it can recover your files. The best data recovery software will allow you to run in evaluation mode and show you the files that can be recovered (not just the names, the actual content of the missing files).

iii: Watch out for data recovery programs that charge to save by file size. If you are recovering an entire drive, the cost can add up.

iv. If the data recovery software does not look simple to use, then move on and find one that is.

v. If you have trouble, ask for support. Good data recovery software will be used hundreds of times per day, so chances are your exact problem has been encountered many times before. Get some tips on how to best tackle your problem.

vi. Good things come to those who wait. Data recovery means scanning the disk at a low level. A large disk means a long wait. But follow the instructions, watch the video tutorials etc. for tips on how to run the best and fastest search.

My recommendation for data recovery software is Recover My Files from http://www.recovermyfiles.com/ , as it fits these criteria.

4. Understand data recovery principles

There are essentially 3 ways to get data back. You can:

i. Recover an entire partition (drive letter). This is usually applicable when an entire drive has been lost (usually it becomes a “RAW” or “Unallocated” disk). The entire partition with all file and folders can be quickly recovered.

ii. Recover a file or folder name. This is usually applicable to a situation where Windows has been reset, a drive has been formatted, and/or a new version of Windows has been installed. What data recovery software looks for in this case is a table near the start of the disk (called the Master File Table in NTFS systems, or the File Allocation Table in FAT systems) which contains a list of all the file and folder names. Stored with a file name is information to detail the location of the file data on the disk (the disc sectors in which the file is stored). So once you find the file name, you follow the pointers to the file data to recover the file.

iii. The third method is the fall back position if methods one and two fail. If there is no partition, MFT or FAT because it has been overwritten or destroyed, then there is no longer any file names. However, the file data still remains on the disk. Good data recovery software has the ability to sequentially search the disk to find the header and footer of specific file types. For example, a Microsoft Word .doc file will always start and end the same way. The file content can therefore be found by the header and footer of the file type and “carved” out of the disk. These are often referred to as “data carved” or “lost” files.

5. Once you have used data recovery software to scan your disk and locate your files, the files should be saved to another storage media. The best method is to buy a USB hard drive and save the files to it. Remember rule number 1! Good data recovery software should not let you save the files back to the original drive (once you overwrite the problem drive with new data there is no second chance). Save your files and test them to make sure they are open OK. Once you are happy with that, then you can put them back in the desired location – and you may want to take a backup!

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