Some would argue that 'Data loss' is the biggest of the three Ds ('Death' and 'Divorce' being the other two). But no matter how you rank them, few things in life are capable of inducing that same gut wrenching feeling you get from realizing you just deleted a group of files you weren't supposed to, or nuked the wrong partition. Oops!
Lucky for you, several companies have stepped up to the plate with programs that promise to recover your data when you can no longer do so on your own. How can that be? Well, whether you deleted a file or hosed an entire partition, your data isn't actually destroyed, Windows just no longer knows where to look for it. Your files remain until their location is overwritten with new data. For this reason, you'll want to install a data recovery app on a separate drive than the one you're trying to recover data from.
We put eight different data recovery apps to the test -- six of them free, and two that will set you back half a C-note -- and we'll tell you which ones are worth your time and, if applicable, your money.
Getting hands on with SoftPerfect's File Recovery left us feeling as though we had just engaged in a one night stand. We've heard this rap before - support for FAT12/16/32, NTFS, NTFS5, USB flash drives, and CF and SD cards, among other storage media - but in the end, the program finished doing its thing almost as quickly as it started, leaving us completely unsatisfied. So that's what it feels like being on the other side.
Usually we'd spend some time talking about the options, but there really aren't any, save for the ability to limit searches by manually inputting file names or types (*.jpg, for example). Just don't try to list more than one search query at a time, because that causes File Recovery to roll over and fall asleep. You're probably better off not narrowing searches anyway, as File Recovery found 100 files on our 200GB test partition (on par with every other program's quick scan setting), but lacks an option for a more in-depth scan, which can potentially uncover hundreds more missing files.
On the plus side, File Recovery doesn't require an installation and only takes up 268KB, so it doesn't hurt to carry it around on your thumb drive when you're out and about and in need of a quickie.
Get used to starting at the screenshot above, because you'll be seeing that popup any time you try to enable what little advanced options eDATA has to offer (at one point, the popup entered into an endless loop, forcing us to resort to the three-fingered CTRL-ALT-DEL salute). We don't think it's asking too much to be able and scan for photos, but OctaneSoft disables the functionality in its free version of eDATA, probably realizing the loss of digital pictures is a major reason why consumers seek data recovery programs in the first place. That's either genius or bunk, and so is preventing end-users from performing a 'Full Scan' without first shelling out $32 for eDATA Professional.
The 'Quick Scan' option (the only one available in the free version) uncovered 101 files instantly, and found just 25 files on our USB key (File Scavenger and Handy Recovery found 901 and 876, respectively).
You can sort found files by size, folder, type, or name, but good luck on the latter if you've recently deleted a file on a non-OS partition. The program struggled to correctly label files it found, even if we had just deleted them. That's a deal breaker if you're looking for a specific file among many, unless by some cryptic voodoo you manage to recognize $RYN3BQB.MP3 as an Eazy-E track (welcome to mid-life if you know who that is).
Between the sparse interface, gimped options, sub-par USB scanning, and having to sort through potentially hundreds of files to find what you're looking for, you're better off just looking elsewhere in the first place.
It becomes apparent right away that this isn't just another cookie cutter freebie utility. When you first load PC Inspector (PCI) and pick a language, you're presented with three different options: Recover deleted files, find lost data, or find a lost drive. We appreciate PCI's straightforward approach, which lists what options are available in each category.
PCI continued to impress us with a bit of advanced functionality typically reserved for paid programs. Instead of being limited to scanning partitions, you can also sweep through an entire hard drive. Not only that, but PCI will also attempt to find lost partitions or hard drives, which can come in handy if you've since formatted the drive or are having problems getting Windows to detect it.
An instant scan found all of our recently deleted files (a more in depth scan, in which you can designate a beginning and end cluster, took just over an hour long), but like almost every other software we tested, it had trouble coming up with non-cryptic file names when searching on a non-OS partition for deleted entries. And while we dig the tree view format, you can't automate the task of restoring files to their original folder structure on your hard drive.
Sometimes you just need someone to tell you everything will be okay, and that's what Recuva attempts to do. From start to finish, Recuva holds your hand through the process of getting your data back with a user-friendly Wizard. The first prompt asks what type of files you're looking for (pictures, music, documents, video, or all files), followed by where you want Recuva to look. If you don't know, select 'I'm not sure' and Recuva will rummage through your entire computer. Alternately, you can limit searches to the Recycle Bin, My Documents, a media card, or any other specific location you specify.
Using the Wizard, Recuva did a serviceable job finding 102 files right off the bat, but power users will want to switch to the Advanced mode to unlock the program's full potential. Inside you'll find additional scanning options (after enabling these, Recuva uncovered 397 files), a handy preview pane, and a setting to restore a file's folder structure during recovery. On the other end of the file recovery spectrum, Recuva offers to permanently delete files using a secure deletion method of your choice, ranging from a simple overwrite (1 pass) to the Gutmann method (35 passes). This ensures those incriminating photos you thought you got rid of will not come back to haunt you.
Considering Piriform packs a powerful scanner wrapped up in a user friendly interface with a few useful advanced features sprinkled in, we have no trouble recommending Recuva as our favorite free file recovery app.
Holy time travel, Batman! We haven't seen an interface this retro since Win 3.1. This program's GUI looks like it was designed during kindergarten art class. If we were rolling with an old school 16-color EGA monitor, Undelete PLUS would look exactly the same. You get the point.
But what you don't get are very many options, and the lack of a deep scan limits the program's usefulness. You can use a filter to narrow searches down by name, date, or size, but that's it. On the same partition we used throughout all testing, Undelete PLUS unearthed 102 files.
There's just not enough here to recommend using Undelete PLUS.
Avira makes one of the best free antivirus programs around, scoring an 8 verdict in our recent AV roundup, so we had high hopes the company would be equally successful with its file recovery app. But instead of again leading the freebie pack, Avira's UnErase Personal offers the least expansive program of the bunch (to be fair, Avira has discontinued this program).
Don't bother looking for any options, because there aren't any. You select a partition to scan and that's it. You can't limit searches to specific files, there's no deep scan option, and you won't find a preview pane. Instead, UnErase Personal takes a quick peek at your drive, including removable media, and finds about the same amount of files as every other program without the aid of an extended scan. But unlike the rest, Avira doesn't tell you where the files were located, nor does it offer a tree view or any other amenities.
With nothing but the bare essentials, we're left wondering why UnErase Personal even requires an installation routine. Save yourself the trouble and look elsewhere.
It appears Quetek put a lot of work into streamlining File Scavenger's interface and the end result is a program that's easy to navigate, even for beginners. You start off by making a selection in two pull-down menus. In the 'Search for' menu, you can opt to have File Scavenger scour your hard drive for all deleted files, or narrow the search to specific file types. What's most impressive is the amount of different file extensions you can choose from, each clearly labeled, which includes popular file types like JPEGs, MP3s, and ZIP files, to more obscure entries like Acronis Archives (.tlb) and Supreme Commander save game files.
Once you've narrowed your list down to one or more specific extenstions, you then select where File Scavenger should look. Single partitions show up in the 'Look in' pull-down menu, as do entire HDDs or removable storage, such as a USB key. With the 'what' and 'where' out of the way, the last thing you need to decide is 'how.' Performing a Quick search returned results instaneously, 56 files in all, almost all of which were recently deleted. This is less than the quick scan option the other apps turned up, but unlike the others, File Scavenger had no trouble remembering the original file names. Using the approriately titled Long Scan, which took 1hr and 6min to sift through our 200GB partition, File Scavenger returned 471 files.
File Scavenger updates the list of files it finds in real time, but don't bother trying to organize them until its finished. You can then sort the files by type, name, last modification date, location, or other criteria. Even better is the Tree View (similar to Windows Explorer), which presents the files and folder structure as they existed on the drive.
What separates File Scavenger from free alternatives is the ability to reconstruct a broken RAID array or spanned volume. While we didn't have a busted RAID array on hand to test this out, we appreciate that there's at least some hope should disaster strike.
If you're willing to pay for file recovery, this is your program.
Handy Recovery started off as freeware and it didn't take long for the developers to discover they could cash in on panicked users looking to get their data back. SoftLogica still offers the original program as a free download, but now in version 4.0, Handy Recovery will set you back $50. What you get in return is another user friendly interface with a few goofy quirks.
When you fire up Handy Recovery, it immediately lists all of the available partitions and removable drives, but unlike File Scavenger, it didn't give us the option of scanning an entire HDD, partitions be damned. Selecting a partition to 'analyze' returned instantaneous results, unless we chose our USB key, which took around 5 minutes. If you want to dig deeper, Handy Recovery offers an 'Extended Analysis' option, which took 58 minutes to scan our test drive, making it faster than File Scavenger for deep scans. Results are listed in an easily navigable tree view, but how many files were found we don't know. The only time Handy Recovery specifically told how us how many files it uncovered was when it poked around our USB key, which showed exactly 25 files less than File Scavenger managed to scrape up.
But while Handy Recovery usually kept the number of files it found hidden, it had no problem playing show and tell when it came to a file's contents. Rather than being forced to recover a file to find out if it's the one you're looking for, Handy Recovery includes a preview pane allowing you see the contents, be it a picture of dearly deceased Aunt Sally or an old love letter. It will even play media files. That's just groovy.
Other tricks up Handy Recovery's sleeve include being able to filter search results by keyword, date created, and minimum or maximum file size, find a file by keyword, or look for lost partitions on a disk that has since been formatted. You can also create an image of a drive or partition allowing you to open it later and recover files.
Every program in our roundup had no problem running in Vista 64-bit, which if you own 4GB of memory or more (and why wouldn't you, with today's memory prices?) is the only way to roll. Not only that, every program also proved capable of recovering data from removable storage. But that doesn't mean there weren't a few standouts.
On the freebie side of the fence, we were most impressed with Piriform's Recuva. The easy-to-follow prompts ensure panicked and inexperienced users will never feel overwhelmed, and the advanced options, including file previews, separate Recuva from the competition.
Looking at the paid programs, we give the slight edge to Quetek's File Scavenger. Both File Scavenger and Handy Recovery take data restoration to new heights with better scanning and by adding some options not found in any of the freebie apps, but File Scavenger's ability to reconstruct RAID arrays gives it added value. File Scavenger was also the only program in our roundup to correctly identify a file's original name and location after it had been deleted from a non-OS partition, rather than by the cryptic file name the Recycle Bin applies to deleted files. This has the potential to save you a ton of time if you're searching for a specific file.