Recover Missing Files

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ZyrrahXD asked the Utilities forum for advice on recovering missing files.

If a file, multiple files, or a folder goes missing from your hard drive, you've got a pretty good chance of getting it back. And the better your computing habits, the better your chances.

But first, a warning: Every time you write to your hard drive, you reduce those chances. So avoid using your computer for anything other than file recovery until you've either successfully recovered the files or given up.

The file might not actually be missing. It may have accidentally been moved to another location. To find out, use Windows' search capabilities to look for the file name. If that doesn't help, try searching for a word or phrase that you know is in the file, but not likely to be elsewhere.

In Windows 7 or Vista, you can use the Search field in the upper-right corner of any Windows Explorer window. In XP, select Start>Search.

If that doesn't pan out, try the Recycle Bin; there's a link to it on your desktop.

When Windows "deletes" files, it actually places them into the Recycle Bin for easy recovery. If the file hasn't been missing long, it should be there.

Of course, if the Bin has been emptied, or if for some reason the file bypassed the Bin, you'll need to look elsewhere.

And the best elsewhere to look is your backup. That is, of course, assuming you regularly backup your files. If you don't, read How Do I Backup? and start building some good habits--even if it's too late for those habits to help you this time.

If you don't have a good backup, you'll have to try a file recovery program. And you want to use a portable program--one that doesn't have to be installed.

Why? As I said above, you don't want to write to a hard drive that you're hoping to recover files from. You can download a portable program from another computer and save it to a flash drive. Then run the program off of the flash drive on your computer.

And the program I recommend is Recuva Portable. It's easy to use, free, portable, and effective.

If software doesn't work, you may need to remove the hard drive and take it to a professional (or have the professional remove it). There's probably a local shop where someone who knows what they're doing can search the drive more thoroughly. Or, if you're really desperate, you can send it to a company like Ontrack or DriveSavers, where they can take the drive apart for a significant amount of money.

Kind of makes you wish you'd backed up, doesn't it?

Read the original forum discussion.

Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes about technology and cinema. Email your tech questions to him at, or post them to a community of helpful folks on the PCW Answer Line forum. Follow Lincoln on Twitter, or subscribe to the Answer Line newsletter, e-mailed weekly.

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