The Cheap Way to Recover Deleted Files

We Got a bit enthusiastic with SHIFT + DELETE & system builder : ended up getting them back without spending anything.

No matter how easy the process of backing up data is, and how many times the importance of keeping good backups is stressed, we have all suffered the experience of lost data. Sometimes it is down to something as simple as careless deletion or reformatting, other times it comes alongside that sinking feeling that a drive has died for good.

Getting lost data back can range from being a relatively quick and easy procedure, all the way through to costing more than your PC itself, as professionals carefully dismantle the drive and use fancy techniques to  access what remains on the platters. Given that a hard disk is a complex among them when you go to write new data to that mechanical beast, if it is physically damaged you’ll end up resorting to the latter, or making peace with the fact that your data is gone for good.

If your hard drive is physically fine though, there are several things you can do to try to get your data back through software. However, this can also be a costly procedure, involving the purchase of a custom suite designed to dig through your hard disk and recover fragments of lost files. As you’ll likely be aware, when one deletes a file from a PC, it doesn’t actually get removed from the disk – instead, the reference to its location is forgotten by your file system. Even if you reformat a drive, a similar process occurs, and your data will sit, invisible, until it is written over by new information.

This doesn’t apply to SSDs, due to the use of technologies like TRIM and Garbage Collection. These are used to stop the performance of an SSD degrading over time due to the nature of Flash Memory. When you erase the reference to a file on an SSD the data is still there, like a hard disk. However when you do to write new data to that section, the flash memory first has to be erased, and then written over. This process slows down the SSD, which led to the creation of the TRIM command. This is sent to the SSD by a supported operating system during idle times, and tells the drive to go ahead and erase the data from the flash memory marked as empty. While this has been crucial to the viability of the SSD as a storage device, it makes recovering data that much trickier.

lt is important to note that, while this applies to SSDs, it doesn’t apply to other flash storage devices like USB sticks and SD cards. That means these are similar to hard disks when it comes to recovering data, and accidental deletion or formatting can be undone.


A recent reformatting-without thinking episode had us searching around for suitable undelete tools online, and stumbling through a minefield of ‘free’ software that would find files and show us their existence, then instruct us to buy a full version to recover them. Other tools would let us grab files under 1MB, but have to commit to a full version to let us get our hands on bigger ones, Given that such an incident will never happen again because of certain lessons learned about regular backups, we didn’t want to drop a chunk of cash on software. Thankfully there are a few free options that are a good first port of call to see if you can get your data back before buying one of the more featured software packages. The two we found most useful are Photorec and Recuva. Photorec is an open source offering that started life as a tool to grab lost images from SD cards, and has evolved to work with a wide array of file types. The downside for some is that it uses a text-based interface, which can be a bit daunting for most users, and you’ll want a degree of knowledge about your file systems to make it work.


Recuva, on the other hand, is the free version of a commercial suite from Piriform, which also makes the very handy CCleaner program. We’d suggest Recuva as the first port of call, if only because it is wrapped in an easy to understand and user-friendly Wizard interface. Fire it up and you’ll be presented with a list of file types, enabling you to just search for pictures, video, documents and the like. You can also choose to show all detected files, and make the decision on which ones to grab once the search is finished.


It then presents you with a list of locations to search, handy if you know where the file once was. Otherwise you can choose to search everywhere on your PC. (Due to the nature of the software it doesn’t work with CDs and floppy drives, but it does work with USB sticks and SD cards.) The final option you are presented with is that of a deep scan, which is a good second step if the initial search doesn’t find the files you are after. This will uncover files lost during a reformat the downside is that the Search will take quite some time to run as it digs through your entire drive. The results will then show you which files it has located, and whether they can possibly be recovered.

It will also handily point out if a file has been overwritten since deletion – if this is the case, then it is gone for good, but you will at least have confirmation that you don’t need more complex software. From this window you can select which files you wish to recover. It is a sortable window, which makes it easy to find the larger files, sort by folder (if the folder they were in has been deleted it will be denoted by a drive letter and question mark) or find files by the date modified. Once you have ticked the checkbox on the files you want back, then hit the recover button, and select the destination to put the recovered files. It is best to put it onto a separate drive during the recovery (you can always copy it back later, but you don’t want to overwrite the files you are trying to undelete) – if your system only has one hard drive, then use a USB stick to be safe.


lf this initial search proves fruitless then you can move on to advanced mode, where you’ll find a bunch of extra options to enable. In the options pop out, under actions, you can set these parameters. Enabling ‘show zero byte files’ is a handy choice if you want to know if your deleted file is gone for good – it at least lets you know that the file is unrecoverable. This window also allows you to enable deep scanning and a very handy option to search for files lost during a reformat or due to drive damage.

lf your drive is damaged, the first port of call should be getting the existing files you need off the drive before running any of these processes. Once you run a deep scan with the extra options enabled, it will spend a fair amount of time poking through the entire disk. If your disk is in a particularly precarious state this could be enough to cause it to die for good, so you should approach this as if it was the last thing you will do to your drive before it becomes a non-functioning lump of metal. If this process doesn’t bear fruit, then youll want to look into some of the commercial suites out there. just keep in mind that if Recuva did find your file and say it has been overwritten, then it is unlikely these packages will be able to do any more.

Once the data is overwritten, then it is gone for good, and all that remains is the reference to the file that once existed. It is also worth knowing that if you are grabbing files from a reformatted drive, then you’ll likely end up with a list of randomly named tiles. This is because the actual file names were lost when the reformat happened, and while the data is likely to still be there, there is no way for programs to dig up the name. In this case your only real option is to open them in the supporting programs and then manually rename files – this can be somewhat painful, but you should still be able to get at the actual data within and that is ultimately what really matters.


This open source program comes with a more complex recovery tool called Testdisc, and can be found here . It supports a wider range of platforms than the Windows-based Recuva, and is o good second port of call for power users. Photorec is designed os o non-invasive recovery option, and writes any files it discovers straight to disc f which means you’ll need o second drive (this can be on external one) to put the recovered files on.

It also takes a while to run, whereas Recuva can knock through simple tasks quite quickly. If you do want to go down this path, then there are walk-through and explanations linked off the wiki page;just keep in mind that, while its non-invasive nature means you won’t accidentally ruin anything by using the software, it isn’t something appropriate for beginners.