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.”
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
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.
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, 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.
When Tim deleted 17 GB worth of files by mistake, he used Pandora Recovery 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, 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.
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