Losing important files--whether they're business documents, precious photos, or even favorite videos or songs--is certainly distressing. The data isn't necessarily gone forever, though. Whether you've deleted files accidentally or lost your entire drive to a crash or a disaster, you can try to retrieve the data with help from the following utilities.
(For links to all of these downloads in one convenient place, see our "Downloads to Recover Your Files and Save Your Bacon" collection.)
Recovering a file that a user has simply deleted is a relatively easy thing to accomplish programming-wise, which is why you can find dozens of undelete utilities around. My favorite is Piriform's Recuva (free, donationware), which is stylish and easy to use. It's also available in a portable version. In addition, Recuva offers sector-based recovery.
What is sector-based recovery? When a hard drive crashes, or a PC produces error messages, or you can't boot into the operating system, you need something stronger than a mere undelete utility. If the crashed drive shows up in the Windows Disk Management console, and is still spinning and not making funny noises, you may be able to retrieve your data with one of the sector-based utilities below. It will probably cost you, though: All of these free demos will show you what they can recover, but you'll have to pay to get more than a minimal amount of data back.
Note: Never install a sector-based recovery utility on the hard drive or partition from which you're trying to recover data. You might overwrite the data.
If you have a recent backup and need to recover only one file (say, an important presentation you worked on all night), turn to Easeus Data Recovery Wizard ($70; free demo). The demo version will recover a single file for you--no matter the size. Data Recovery Wizard is also arguably the easiest recovery program to use, as it walks you step-by-step through the process.
The capable R-Studio ($80; free demo) has been my go-to recovery application for years because it works with every file system out there, including Linux and Mac. The interface and approach are a bit technical, but R-Studio does the job if the job can be done. The demo comes with its own boot CD in case you need to recover from a machine that can't boot to its OS; I always try to attach the ailing drive to another computer since Windows-based recovery is faster, but it's a nice feature. The demo recovers files of 64KB or smaller.
Active File Recovery is another of my favorites. Although I wouldn't describe the interface as dead-simple, Active File Recovery Standard ($35; free demo) makes it a tad easier to see what's recovered than R-Studio. Also, it's relatively inexpensive, and the demo recovers files up to 64KB. Companion product Active Partition Recovery ($40; free demo) has also delivered good results. In many cases, by restoring a partition you'll be able to boot to the OS again--and if not, you'll at least be able to use standard file-copy methods to recover your data. For the latter, you'll probably have to boot from a CD; any version of Linux that will run from a CD, such as Slax or Ubuntu, is suitable and free.
For only a little more money than the Standard version, Active File Recovery Professional ($45; free demo) combines both file recovery and partition recovery. Hint: Buy Professional unless you need a boot CD, in which case the Enterprise version ($100; free demo), which comes with a Windows 7-based boot CD, is appropriate. Again, the demo can recover files up to 64KB.
Other recovery utilities are out there, including the very pricey EasyRecovery ($200; free 30-day trial) from Ontrack, which I've used effectively as well; its demo can recover a single file. But the programs I've discussed above have worked for me consistently over the years. It doesn't pay to mess around or to try to cheap it out when your drive might be dying even as you recover data--so don't risk it.
That said, in my tests the sector-based recovery in the latest iteration of Recuva worked fine with IDE drives (though not SCSI). If you're sure that hard-drive failure isn't imminent--it can be when you start seeing errors--give Recuva a shot.