How to Recover Deleted Data from HD

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Have you deleted files by mistake and are desperate because you don't know how to recover them? Has one of the hard drives you use for your backups stopped working, or is it "acting up", and you want to know if there is a way to recover the files it contains? No problem, I may be able to help you, but you must act in time and avoid using the hard drive on which the files you want to recover are located.

As I have explained before, when we delete files from our computers (or even our smartphones or tablets), they are not really deleted. More simply, the portion of the disk that houses them is marked as "free" and then prepares to accept new data in place of the deleted ones. This means that if you act in time, i.e. before the portion of the disk is occupied by new data, using specific software, you can recover some of the data you thought had been deleted.

As for damaged hard disks, for example those that make mistakes when copying files or no longer allow access to certain partitions, the situation is more difficult but not necessarily hopeless: even in such cases, if you act in time and use the right solutions you can recover, at least in part, the files. So what are you still doing standing there? Roll up your sleeves and find out how to recover HD data with the guide I'm about to give you.

Precautions and operations

If you want to increase your chances of recovering the files you have mistakenly deleted, you should minimize the use of the hard drive on which they were stored. This means that if you need to recover data from your PC's internal hard drive, you should download the data recovery software from a different computer, copy it to a USB flash drive or other external drive and run it directly from there. If you have a secondary drive inside your PC and a system running through it, you can also use it instead of the external drive.

Another important thing: if you want to recover data from a hard drive that no longer works properly (i.e. a drive that, for example, gives error when copying files or does not allow access to certain partitions) create an image file of the latter and try to recover deleted files directly from the obtained image. This way, you will avoid stressing the disk more than you should (data recovery can be very stressful for the disk) and, in case the disk fails permanently, you will have a way to recover your files anyway.

To create a hard disk image file, a file containing the exact contents of the source disk, you can rely on DataRescue DD: a free software for Windows and MacOS that works with internal and external drives formatted with all popular file systems.

To download DataRescue DD to your computer, go to the program's website, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the Windows version if you're using a Windows PC or the OS X version if you're using a Mac. When the download is complete, if you are using a Windows PC, extract the zip file containing the DataRescue DD and run the drdd.exe executable to start using the program (which does not require installation). If you are using a Mac, instead, open the zip file you downloaded from the DataRescue DD website, open the dmg package extracted from it and drag the DataRescue DD icon to the macOS Applications folder. To run the software, right-click on its icon and select Open from the menu that appears.

Now, select the disk on which you want to create the image file from the Source drop-down menu (top left), press the Browse button, select the folder where you want to save the disk image file and click the ▶︎ button to start the file copying process.

In case of read errors, if the program crashes, you can use the Start, Size, End, Sectors and MB fields to tell DataRescue DD which areas of the disk to start, end and restart the data copy. This way you can skip bad sectors and still get an image of your disk.

HD data recovery programs

You should be ready to act now. So take the time you need and find out how to recover data from internal and external HD with the software I'm going to recommend.

PhotoRec/TestDisk (Windows/Mac/Linux)

PhotoRec and TestDisk are two free and open source programs that allow you to recover deleted files: the former focuses on recovering deleted files from hard drives, USB sticks, memory cards and other media; the latter is mainly designed for recovering data from damaged hard drives and/or lost partitions. PhotoRec has a very handy graphical interface that makes it extremely easy to use (although only on Windows, on MacOS and Linux it works only as a command line), TestDisk works as a command line on all operating systems.

That said, to download PhotoRec and TestDisk to your PC, please connect to the program's website and click on the item related to the operating system you are currently using, such as Windows for Windows and Mac OS X Intel for MacOS. When the download is complete, open the zip package you downloaded from the PhotoRec and TestDisk website, extract the contents to any folder and run the qphotorec_win.exe executable (in this tutorial, I will focus on the Windows version of the software, which has graphical interface).

In the window that opens, expand the drop-down menu at the top to choose the disk you want to recover files from, or select Add a raw disk image if you need to recover data from an image file (the one created by DataRescue DD, for example).

Then click on the entry related to the main partition of the selected drive (e.g. "Recover files"). NTFS, FAT32 or exFAT), check next to the FAT/NTFS/HFS+/ReiserFS/ item or next to the ext2/ext3/ext4 file system item depending on the file system the drive is formatted with and choose an option between Free: Search documents only in unallocated space or Full: Extract documents from entire partition depending on whether you want to search for deleted files in the unallocated space of a drive that is still working properly or if you need to treat a damaged drive and therefore want to recover data from the entire partition.

To finish, click the File Formats button and select the file types you want to recover with PhotoRec (you can choose images, videos, Office documents, compressed files, applications and many other different contents); click the Browse button to choose the folder where you want to save the recovered data from the program and click the Browse button to start recovering data from the selected drive. When the scan is finished, you will find all recovered PhotoRec files in the folder you have chosen by clicking the Browse button.

If you had no luck with PhotoRec or for any other reason you want to try to recover files through TestDisk, start the executable program (which on Windows is testdisk_win.exe, on Mac is just testdisk and open it by right-clicking on its icon and selecting Open from the context menu) and proceed as follows.

  • Select the Create option to create a new log file and go to the TestDisk main screen;
  • Select the disk from which you want to recover data and select the Proceed item at the bottom;
  • Select the type of partition you want to recover data from (the correct option should be selected automatically);
  • Select the Analyze option to analyze the disk structure;
  • Select the Quick Search option to start searching for any hidden or missing partitions;
  • Select the partition you want to recover data from and press the P key on your PC keyboard to access the files it contains;
  • Select the file you want to recover and press the C key on your PC keyboard;
  • Select the path to which you want to export the selected file and press Enter.

This is just the most simple and "superficial" procedure for using TestDisk, which is an extremely powerful and versatile tool. If you want to know more, refer to the official documentation of the software.

Recuva (Windows)

If you need to recover deleted files from a hard drive, USB flash drive, memory card or any other drive that is still working properly, I can only recommend Recuva: one of the most intuitive and effective data recovery programs available on Windows. It is completely free and is made by Piriform, the same software house as the famous CCleaner, so you can be sure of its reliability. Unfortunately it doesn't support DataRescue DD image files, but you can't want everything in life, right?

To download Recuva to your computer, go to the program's official website and click on the Download Free Version button first and then on Free Download and When the download is complete, open the Recuva installation package (rcsetupxx.exe) and click the Yes button. Next, choose your language from the language selection menu (top right) and complete the setup by first clicking Install and then Run Recuva.

Now, start Recover, click the Next button and choose the type of file you want to recover from All files, Images, Music, Documents, Videos or Compressed files. Then click Next and choose the drive you want to recover data from by checking the In a specific location box, click Browse and select your hard drive.

To finish, click the Start button and wait for it to show you the list of recoverable files. The files will have a small icon next to them: those with the green icon can be recovered without problems, those with the orange icon are partially damaged but can still be recovered, while those with the red icon are irreparably damaged and therefore cannot be recovered.

Once you find the files to be restored, select them by placing a check mark next to their name, click the Recover button located at the bottom right and choose the folder to which you want to export them.

If Recuva's scan does not give you enough satisfactory results, try repeating it by placing a check mark next to Enable Deep Scan (before clicking "Start"). This will scan the disk more thoroughly and is more likely to find the files you are interested in.

DiskDrill (Mac/Windows)

Another data recovery software to take seriously is Disk Drill, which is compatible with both Windows and MacOS and also supports image files. Unfortunately it's not free - it costs €79, but is available in a free trial version that lets you find out which files can be recovered and allows you to preview them (on Mac) or limits file recovery to 100MB (Windows).

To download DiskDrill on your computer, connect to its official website using the links I just provided (depending on whether you use Windows or MacOS) and click the Download Free button. When the download is complete, if you are using a Windows PC, open the installation package named disk-drill-win.msi and click Next three consecutive times and then Install, Yes and Close to finish the installation. If you are using a Mac, open the dmg package containing DiskDrill and drag the program icon to the macOS Applications folder.

Now just start DiskDrill and select the drive to scan. If you want to scan an image file and use a Windows PC, click on the gear icon at the top right and select Attach Image from the menu that appears. If you are using a Mac, select Attach Removable Disk Images from the File menu.

Then click the Recover/Recover button to start the disk scan and wait for the list of recoverable files to be displayed. To recover files or preview them, just select them and click the Recover button or the eye icon.

Recovering HD data using a Linux distro

If your hard drive is not damaged, you have not deleted the files by mistake and your only problem is that Windows no longer boots properly, you can recover data from your computer's internal disk by simply downloading a Linux distro, for example Ubuntu, and booting from it. In this way, you will have a complete operating system at your disposal and you will be able to recover your files from your PC's internal disk with complete freedom.

If you don't know how to download, boot or use a live Linux distro, read my Ubuntu tutorial and there you will find all the information you need. Of course, the same operation can be done with other Linux distributions and Windows-based WinPE systems.

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