Our electronic data are something we usually take for granted until we accidentally delete it, physically lose it, or it deteriorates (datum = singular, data = plural). This post will go through best practices, and list tools/procedures on how to recover lost electronic data. The programs mentioned in this guide are mainly for Windows systems, but you may search Reddit for the best data recovery programs if you use another operating system platform (e.g. Mac / Linux)
How it feels to lose data
1) What to do immediately
A) Lost Data – With the exception of physical deterioration or physically losing the SD card or device, what you must do when your data are lost is to immediately stop using the storage device. If it is a laptop hard drive or a storage media card, turn it off/take it out. The reason behind this is any new file downloaded or photo taken will overwrite “available” space on your storage medium. If it is a hard drive, you will want to take it out and plug it into an external hard drive enclosure to use it as an external hard drive. For this you will need an appropriate enclosure (e.g. 2.5″ or 3.5″, SATA or IDE), and another computer to plug it into to try to recover files from.
B) Disk Deterioration – if you notice frequent clicking noises, or freeze-ups, time is of the essence. I would follow two steps:
- Immediately identify and back up your important files (files you can’t download, such as family photos or school work) to either an online cloud storage provider, or ideally a USB device, whichever would be faster to access and transfer files to.
- Then secondly, back up anything that you are able to download but would be a hassle to (e.g. your iTunes Library, software settings).
In both cases, an additional step I would recommend is that you create an exact image of your storage device, sector-by-sector. The benefit of doing this is it gives you something that won’t deteriorate, and something that you can restore to a new storage device to work off of, as many times as you want.
Two free tools you can use to create an image of your drive:
- DriveImage XML: http://www.runtime.org/driveimage-xml.htm
- Todo Backup Free: http://www.todo-backup.com/home/
I’ve listed creating an exact image of your storage device last, because in the case of disk deterioration, imaging your disk may be too much for it to handle and may accelerate its demise. You’d want to first back up essential files.
2) Recovering Lost Data
Again, to reiterate, once you have identified your data as being lost, damaged, or formatted, it is best to treat the storage device as “read-only”. Do not format it again or write any new files to it. If you plug in a USB device and are asked to format it or told it is in “RAW format”, don’t do it.
Assuming that you’ve created an exact image of your storage device, feel free to load/restore that image onto a new storage medium (e.g. USB drive/external hard drive). And then we can proceed with recovering any lost data.
Recovering data is a funny thing. There are many different data recovery programs out there, some of which are more effective than others. Some (or rather, most) of the programs out there are demos/ad-filled.
For corrupted documents, you may wish to check out DocToText (free) – http://silvercoders.com/en/products/doctotext/
Below is a list of free data recovery programs that I would recommend in order from ease of use (easiest to use first):
- Recuva (free) – https://www.piriform.com/recuva
- Zero Assumption Recovery (demo, but its photo recovery module is free and unrestricted) – http://z-a-recovery.com/zar-data-recovery-software.htm
- PC Inspector File Recovery (free) – http://www.pcinspector.de/default.htm?language=1
- TestDisk (free) – http://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/TestDisk – an extremely powerful tool that lets you repair disk partitions, as well as restore deleted/formatted files. For a guide, please read http://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/TestDisk_Step_By_Step (scroll to the bottom for guides on how to recover files based on what disk format you use. In most cases, it would be NTFS.). For two other excellent guides, please read:
And below are some paid programs (if the above don’t work for you):
- EASEUS Data Recovery Wizard (paid) – http://www.easeus.com/datarecoverywizard/
- Kroll Ontrack EasyRecovery (paid) – http://www.krollontrack.com/data-recovery/recovery-software/
- R-Studio (paid) – http://www.r-studio.com/
- Runtime GetDataBack (paid) – http://www.runtime.org/data-recovery-software.htm
The procedure to recover files is universal across programs:
- Download/install the data recovery program(s)
- Plug in/insert the storage device you wish to recover data from (if it is an internal hard drive, you will need an appropriate hard drive enclosure so that you are able to use it as an external hard drive)
- Open the data recovery program
- Select your storage device to recover data from
- (Optional) Some programs may ask you what type of file you’d like to recover (e.g. Recuva would ask you what file type you are trying to recover: photos, music, documents)
- It will then scan and analyze your selected drive, this may take some time
- Once it is completed, it will (hopefully) show you a list of files that you are able to recover. Ensure that you save any recovered files to a different drive than the drive you are recovering files from!
- If it didn’t find any files or the files that you’d like to recover, either choose to do a “deep scan” (e.g. Recuva has this option) or start from step #3 with a different program
In most cases, hopefully the above steps would recover as many files as possible and that you can skip to section #4 on steps that you can take to be proactive, rather than reactive, in protecting your data.
But continue on if your drive has deteriorated to the point where recovery is almost impossible.
3) Salvaging a Deteriorating/Deteriorated Disk Drive
If you really need files from your disk drive, but your disk drive frequently clicks and dies, then restarts again and repeats this process, you know you’re in a more serious situation. I’ve been there and it wasn’t fun. Because it would constantly die, you are unable to effectively create a disk image or navigate the drive’s folders to access and copy files off of it without it dying.
You can try flipping the drive on any of its other 5 sides, plug it in and see if that would help (it would if one or more of the bearings inside are bad).
The safest option would be to unplug your drive, put it in an antistatic bag (if possible), store it away from wireless devices (e.g. routers, your phone), and contact a data recovery company. This would cost you between $750 – $1000. Unfortunately I am unaware of any because I did the freezer method for one of my disk drives that pretty much gave up on life. You can go through this thread on RedFlagDeals for ideas and names: http://forums.redflagdeals.com/hard-drive-data-recovery-1468271/
The Freezer Method
This technique involves the following:
- Take out your disk drive from your laptop/desktop/external enclosure
- Let it “sit” for a couple of hours (to let the heat inside dissipate)
- Wrap it in paper towel (protection against outer condensation)
- Put it in an appropriately sized Ziploc bag and ensure it is zipped up properly
- Put it in yet another Ziploc bag and ensure it is zipped up properly
- Put it in your freezer for at least 12-24 hours
- Take the drive out and plug it into an enclosure (preferably one that is not its original enclosure if it is an external hard drive)
- Plug it into your computer (ensure it is a decently fast computer, because as you will find out, time is of the essence here)
- Quickly open your file explorer, wait for your drive to appear, then quickly get in and copy files in order of importance
- Your drive will likely die again after a few seconds, minutes, or hours (because it would heat up again). You will need to refreeze it by following steps 4 to 6 above and repeat.
If you need basically all of the files from your disk drive, you may want to try out Unstoppable Copier. The default settings are great.
You will want to avoid adding stress to the hard drive. For instance, if it is in the middle of copying files, do not browse through the drive. This would unnecessarily cause more load on the disk spindle (as it would cause the drive to read files in multiple areas of the disk at once).
What’s the science behind freezing a damaged disk drive?
The running theory goes, your hard drive might be chugging it’s last death, clicking away its final moments, but there’s a chance you can save your data by freezing whatever parts are loosening up or losing contact together. You see, your hard drive contains a lot of moving parts. After spinning for so long, it’s only natural things can vibrate and get loose. Metal also expands as it gets hotter. Freezing the metal might just force everything back together again. (source)
Back in 2010, I had a 2 TB Western Digital hard drive that contained almost a decade’s worth of family photos and videos. And yes, there weren’t any copies of it. One day, upon plugging it in, it showed a much dreaded “The drive is not formatted, do you want to format it now?” message. Stomach and heart sinkage.
Instead of opting to send it off to a data recovery company, I opted to try a DIY (do it yourself) solution, which was the freezer technique. I took it out of the enclosure, wrapped it up, Ziploc’ed it and put it in the freezer.
I waited 12 hours, took it out, plugged it into a newly bought hard drive enclosure, and plugged it into a laptop.
To my surprise, I was able to access the files. But shortly after this surprise, I was surprised (at that time) when it suddenly *clicked* and died, and powered up again in the middle of copying files. I would have to wait for it to boot up again, start copying files again, and it would die. I would then put it in the freezer again for another 12 hours and try again, only to repeat this process over and over.
To describe this process, it’s like building a sandcastle close to the waters on a beach, only to have the waves destroy your sandcastle every minute.
So what did I do? I essentially gave up after a year, in 2011, and left it in the freezer for 2 years.
Just last year, 2013, I remembered about the drive. With great hesitation, I took it out, plugged it into an enclosure and plugged it into my laptop. It appeared in Windows Explorer and without any high expectations, I opened Unstoppable Copier, selected the folders to copy, and started copying. It would end up lasting over 4 hours, until all 1.7 TB worth of family photos and videos were copied. So this method worked (for me), it just took about 3 years.
What did I learn? To have multiple copies of the data. I don’t have just one copy, not even two: I have five copies of the same data. Four are two pairs of identical external hard drives, and one is a portable external hard drive. I am using CrashPlan to have a soon-to-be sixth copy of the data, but off-site. Regarding online cloud storage and privacy, all of my files are encrypted with a 76-character long alphanumeric + symbols password before they are sent from my computer.
4) Protecting your Data
There are a few steps you can take to protect your data:
- Do not physically move your external hard drive when it is in use. Do not place it at the edge of a table or atop movable objects, like a stack of books.
- Create multiple copies, regularly. Online cloud storage (e.g. Dropbox, Box.com, Google Drive, Copy), an external hard drive, and/or USB sticks. It is also important to consider making off-site backups as well (in case of home damage/theft), such as uploading critical files to a web server, or online backup services (e.g. CrashPlan, BackBlaze).
- Be organized. Keep everything in as few folders to avoid scouring and frantically finding your files in cases of emergency. Imagine knowing exactly which folder(s) to copy when you notice your drive is making funny noises. Again, time is of the essence in such cases.
- If you have a mobile phone, you may choose to have your photos/videos automatically sync to Google, Dropbox, or other services when taken. This is useful if your phone is stolen/lost/damaged. The most important files on your phone would have been your photos/videos.
- Set up a home NAS/RAID storage array.
When making copies or uploading data to different services, you may wish to encrypt them. The quick and easy, but not necessarily the securest option would be to simply zip them up in a password-protected archive. For the more ideal and secure methods, check out TrueCrypt (their guide) or my guide on encrypting your files on online cloud storage providers.
A last point: when buying a new external hard drive and before putting precious data on it, you will want to see if it has any existing disk issues. For this, I use Seagate’s Seatools (it works on all drives, not just Seagate drives). Install it, plug in your external hard drive, start Seatools, accept the disclaimer, select your external hard drive from the list, then under Basic, do each of the following tests one at a time:
- Shot Drive Self Test (may take under 30 minutes)
- Short Generic Test (may take under 30 minutes)
- Long Generic Test (optional, but recommended; this took around 14 hours for a 4 TB drive)
If any of the tests return any errors, you may want to consider returning it or exchanging it, based on the store’s return policy.
In closing, I hope this blog post provides some insight on what you can do to recover your data to avoid paying someone else to do what you do yourself and be successful in most cases.