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One of Windows’ biggest flaws could be your rescue, should you ever accidentally delete an important file: The Windows file system does not actually delete files. Until they are overwritten, deleted files can be restored.

So you just completed that thesis paper and accidentally sent it to the land of erased files and destroyed dreams? Maybe you lost all of the photos from your three-month summer vacation – not quite as devastating as a deleted thesis paper, but painful nonetheless. Or perhaps the file you deleted wasn’t so important but you want it back anyway. The files may not be in your Recycle Bin but there’s still hope for you yet.

For those of you on Windows, there are some tools out there that can restore deleted files and do so with a pretty good success rate, so take a deep breath and relax. Give these tools a go and see if you can’t bring your lost data back from the grave. Not on Windows? There are platform-specific tools for you, too, but Pandora Recovery will be the only option on this list that pertains to you.

NOTE: The best way to guard yourself against accidental deletion or lost data is to keep regular backups of your important files. At the very least, you should be backing up to three independent sources (e.g., email, cloud, and flash drive) and backups should be stored weekly if not daily. Backups may be a pain in the butt, but when the day comes and you need to restore something lost, you’ll thank yourself a million times over for being diligent about them.

How File Deletion Works In Windows

It’s interesting that a deleted file – one that’s gone beyond sitting in the Recycle Bin – can be recovered, isn’t it? For those accidental deletions, it’s a lifesaver, but it’s an eye-opener when you realize that something you thought was gone for good could actually still be recovered. Why is this possible?

It has to do with the way that Windows handles its data on the file system. Logically, one would assume that deleting a file results in Windows clearing out the section of the hard drive (or solid state drive) that the file was occupying, right? If that were true, recovery would be extremely difficult if not impossible. However, what Windows actually does is flag that portion of the drive as “ready to be overwritten.”

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Windows will perceive that section of the drive as empty, but the actual data is still there. As your computer uses up more space, whether through downloads or file copies or just general maintenance, data will be written to those free sections. It’s at that point when data goes from “deleted” to permanently gone.

A restoration program, then, works by going into the hard drive and attempting to restore these deleted-but-not-really-deleted files back to a state that the system will recognize. One frequently asked question is how one can permanently delete files to get around this and there are programs for that, but this post is all about restoring those files before they’re gone for good.

Restore Previous Versions

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Starting with Windows 7, the operating system comes packaged with a tool called Restore Previous Versions. In order for it to work, you’ll need to enable the System Protection feature which automatically creates restore points on a set period. These restore points are used for tracking file versions.

The great thing is that this feature also tracks the history of folders, not just files. In order to restore a deleted file, you can go to the folder where it used to reside and revisit a past version of said folder in order to file a previous version of that file. For a more detailed look at this process, check out Yaara’s overview of Windows 7’s Restore Previous Versions tool How To Recover Deleted Files Using Windows 7's Restore Previous Versions Tool How To Recover Deleted Files Using Windows 7's Restore Previous Versions Tool We all know the importance of backups. If we've it heard once, we've heard it a million times. Always have backups, always save after every change, always use Dropbox (or something similar) to save previous... Read More .

Recuva

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When it comes to third-party file restoration programs, Recuva is probably the most popular out there. It’s no surprise seeing as how it’s one of the many products put out by Piriform Piriform's Suite of Tools Puts You In Control Of PC Maintanence [Windows] Piriform's Suite of Tools Puts You In Control Of PC Maintanence [Windows] Individual tools such as CCleaner and Defraggler have received their fair share of attention here at MUO, and deservingly so. As a bigger picture, Piriform (the brains behind those two pieces of software and others)... Read More , the development team behind hits such as CCleaner and Defraggler, both featured on our Best Windows Software page.

Recuva has a straightforward interface, is easy to use, and works extremely well at restoring deleted files. It works by scanning one of your drives and displaying all of the lost files that can be recovered, and recovery is as easy as clicking a button. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

Recuva even comes in a portable version so you can take it with you anywhere you go. And if you want to go the opposite way – delete files without leaving potential for it to be recovered – Recuva can do that as well. Recuva is free for personal use but comes with no support. You can pay $24.95 for priority technical support and $34.95 for business-level technical support.

Pandora Recovery

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When Tim deleted 17 GB worth of files by mistake, he used Pandora Recovery Recover Lost Data For Free With Pandora Recovery [Windows] Recover Lost Data For Free With Pandora Recovery [Windows] Last night I inadvertently deleted 17GB of data with a mis-press of Shift+Del, causing a classic "oh sh*t!!" moment. I’d chosen to "permanently delete" the folder, skipping the Recycle Bin and instantly freeing up some... Read More to bring those files back from the dead. Not to be confused with the Internet radio app, Pandora Recovery is a tool that allows you to restore deleted files either by searching for a particular file or folder OR by browsing the file system for data that can be recovered. Search criteria include file names, file sizes, file creation dates, and file last accessed dates.

It may not be the fastest recovery program – it took Tim about 45 minutes to recover the 17 GB that he lost – but it is effective. One cool thing about Pandora Recovery is that you can preview a file (if it’s an image or text) before you recover it, which is great for making sure you’re getting the intended file.

PhotoRec

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PhotoRec, which is an abbreviation for “photo recovery,” started off as a tool for recovering photos that had been accidentally deleted. Nowadays, it has evolved to recover more than just photos and some would argue that it’s the best recovery tool out there. It comes in a two-set with TestDisk, a tool for recovering entire disk partitions, but you can ignore it if you never need to use it.

As effective as PhotoRec might be, it has one huge drawback: there’s no graphical interface for using it. It’s all console-based, which might be acceptable for you readers who are computer veterans, but it can be a bit tougher to learn if you don’t have much command line experience. The upside, of course, is that PhotoRec can be run on Windows, Mac, and Linux as long as you have admin or root permissions.

Want a deeper look? Check out Tim’s review of PhotoRec Recover Accidentally Deleted Files From Any OS With PhotoRec [Windows, Mac, & Linux] Recover Accidentally Deleted Files From Any OS With PhotoRec [Windows, Mac, & Linux] In June I switched over from a combination of Windows and Linux to pretty much using OS X solely, and being largely familiar with Windows software (and painfully aware of the lack of many Linux... Read More .

Conclusion

It all comes down to this: if you accidentally delete some files beyond the Recycle Bin, don’t freak out. You still have options. If you don’t want to install third party programs, you might give the Restore Previous Versions tool a try. If you want something simple and straightforward, I’d recommend Recuva followed by Pandora Recovery, but if you don’t care about interfaces and want straight up power, go for PhotoRec.

Have you used any of these programs? If not, can you recommend another one? Do you have any interesting stories about accidental deletions? Share them with us in the comments!

Image Credits: Two keys Via Flickr

  1. OS developer
    September 12, 2016 at 3:12 am

    It's kind of disingenuous to call this "one of Windows' biggest flaws." All major operating systems and filesystems behave the same way, they simply mark the file deleted in the file allocation table or similar database rather than overwriting the data as that would take a lot of time and do some (minimal) damage to the drive's medium. This isn't a flaw of Windows, it's intentional design, and it's common to OS X, Linux, Unix, FAT, NTFS, exFAT, ext, and on and on. Even many database designs will implement a delete flag rather than remove the data from the table when a user requests a deletion for the very reason to able to easily restore the data in the case of mistaken deletion.

    Flaw is just the wrong word choice to describe this functionality. It makes it sound like Windows is broken or poorly designed when this is desired behavior of the OS and filesystem, and how everyone implements file deletion. It's actually quite rare that you want a file deletion to be a secure delete, and why modern OSes have a recycle or trash bin from which you can restore deleted files if their sectors have not yet been overwritten. Secure deletion takes a toll on the media used to store your data, after an excessive number of uses, a sector can become corrupt and unusable. Thus making the drive unreliable and needing to be replaced. If Windows implemented secure file deletion for every file deleted *that* would be a flaw.

  2. Bruce E
    September 28, 2013 at 10:17 am

    1. Restore Previous Versions also existed in Vista Business, Enterprise and Ultimate.
    2. When recovering files on a drive, it is best to ensure that the drive does not have any write activity happening on it to try to protect the files from being overwritten. This can be accomplished by slaving it on another system or using different boot media.
    3. When recovering files, you should not try to recover them in-place as some tools do not simply rebuild the cluster chain (or do so improperly) resulting in cross-linked files in some cases or files you still want to recover may end up being overwritten by another file being recovered. Instead, recover the file to a different physical device.
    4. Some recovery tools have been known to irrevocably alter the FAT or MFT by clearing all metadata for deleted entries on exit. This means that once you exit the program, any files that were recoverable are now lost permanently (unless you want use a hex editor to try to get everything back manually) since the required information (filenames, sizes, starting clusters, etc) is now gone. Just be careful when choosing the tool you will be using. (I do not know if this applies to any of the tools listed above with the exception of Recuva - which doesn't do this - as I have not personally used them.)

    • Joel L
      September 30, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      Thanks Bruce. You made a lot of good and informative points!

  3. Paul P
    September 26, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    Vista Business editions also let you restore previous versions from the right click/context menu. If you have Vista Basic or Home Pro or Windows 8 you are out of luck without installing a previous version program but luckily these are freeware. First though "System Protection" has to have been previously turned on for the partition/drive (Control Panel -> System -> System Protection tab/link -> Choose each drive/partition that you want protected then click the Configure button. Apparently this might be turned on by default but I'm not sure.

    Here are the freeware programs: my program, Previous Version Recoverer, http://sourceforge.net/projects/vistaprevrsrcvr/, recovers previous versions of files one at a time like the Windows 7 context menu feature. Another one Shadow Explorer, http://www.shadowexplorer.com/, allows recovery of more than one file at a time, including whole folders of previous versions. However the drawback may be you have to know or explorer manually which system restore point has a different version of your file as apparently there is no built in feature to let you know automatically search for previous versions that are different from what you presently have.

  4. LovesFLSun
    September 26, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    PhotoRec saved my tuchas!!

  5. Miles Levy
    September 26, 2013 at 10:41 am

    I have been using "ShadowExplorer" with great results. Works off of the restore point also.

    • Joel L
      September 26, 2013 at 7:12 pm

      Hadn't heard of ShadowExplorer until now. Looks interesting. Thanks for sharing!

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