How to Recover (Almost) Anything

It's amazing how fast a single keystroke or mouse click can change your life. One false move, and bang! An hour's, day's, or even lifetime's work can slip away into digital oblivion. But not everything that disappears is lost forever. These tips will help you retrieve the seemingly irretrievable: from files long ago removed from the Recycle Bin, to hard drives you pronounced dead in years past, to text messages zapped from your cell phone's SIM card. Get it back, Loretta!

Use the 'When was it modified?' option of Windows search to find lost files that you've changed recently.
Use the 'When was it modified?' option of Windows search to find lost files that you've changed recently.
Recover a missing or deleted file: The file was there just a second ago--you'd swear to it! Before you panic and start shopping for a file-recovery program, make sure that you don't make things worse. If you're certain that you deleted the file, refrain from running any software designed to save files to the hard drive, a USB flash drive, or a memory card that the files was stored on; doing so may overwrite recoverable data.

In Video: How to Recover a Deleted File

Begin by checking the obvious. If the file isn't in XP's Recycle Bin, click Start, Search and use Windows' 'When was it modified?' option (if you don't see this option, click View, Explorer Bar, Search and in the left pane select All files and folders). In Vista, choose Start, Search, click the down arrow to the right of Advanced Search, and select Date modified in the Date dropdown menu on the left. Look for any recently created, altered, or renamed files. If you find the one you're looking for, save it onto at least two different storage devices.

If you come up empty, there's a good chance you can recover the file with an undelete utility. Two freebies--PC Inspector File Recovery and FreeUndelete--are well worth a try.

But what if you've accidentally reformatted a drive, for example? For situations where you need extra data recovery horsepower, QueTek's $49 File Scavenger offers many of the recovery capabilities of far more expensive programs. Meanwhile, Kroll Ontrack's $500 Easy Recovery Professional is the Cadillac of data recovery programs; it comes with Ontrack's high-powered data recovery tools and a suite of file repair utilities. Though it's too expensive for most individuals, it's not a bad investment for a small business or for a midsize company's IT department. Beware the fine print for Ontrack's stripped-down, $89 Easy Recovery Lite version, however; it allows you to recover only 25 files at a time--a major inconvenience if you have lots of data to recover.

Recover files from a dead or dying hard drive: Strange noises or an outburst of corrupted-file messages could very well portend the imminent failure of your hard drive. Copy important files to another drive or to a removable medium immediately. If you can't access some files that you simply must have, you may have to turn to an expensive data-recovery service such as DriveSavers. If you'd like to take a crack at restoring the files yourself (a much iffier proposition), watch our video, "How to Resurrect a Crashed Hard Drive".

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