Data recovery is a process involving the retrieval of deleted files from a device hard drive. This can entail data that was stored on workstations, laptops, mobile devices, servers, cameras, flash drives – anything that stores data on either standalone or mirrored/arrayed drives, whether internal or external.
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In some cases, the files may have been accidentally or deliberately removed, and in others the medium or the partition it contains is damaged, failing or failed. In any case, the process of recovering the lost information can provoke anxiety and uncertainty, especially involving mission-critical data of significant value.
The best mechanism of data recovery involves directly restoring files either from the recycling bin or from a backup. Cloud storage options such as OneDrive, Dropbox and Google Drive offer reliable and comprehensive restore features to keep information safe, and multiple versions of files can be obtained. Servers should be routinely backed up, and tools such as Windows Shadow Copy permit point-in-time copies to be restored. If such options aren’t available because the recycling bin was emptied, the device in question was working offline and thus no file backup occurred, or data was maliciously erased, then data recovery software is the only remaining solution.
What is data recovery software?
Data recovery software analyzes a hard drive, whether fully operational or in a deprecated state, to determine what data it can salvage from it and then do so if the information remains intact. The software must be able to access the drive in order to perform, and the drive must be at least semi-functional. In many cases, the operating systems involved must be able to recognize the partitions and volumes, but that’s not always 100% required depending on the product in question and its abilities.
A dead or destroyed hard drive cannot work with data recovery software, and thus a professional data recovery company (e.g., ACE Data Recovery Service, DATATECH Labs and SALVAGEDATA Data Recovery Service) should be consulted for assistance. These options are understandably time-consuming and expensive, and like all data recovery strategies offer no guarantee of success.
How does data recovery software work?
When a file is deleted under normal conditions (as opposed to intentionally wiped or otherwise securely deleted using tools or special software), the operating system doesn’t actually delete it per se, but simply removes the file’s icon or appearance in a directory display listing and marks the space on the drive in which the file resides as reusable. That data effectively becomes a tenant in a residence that can be evicted without warning at any moment.
Time is of the essence when it comes to successful data recovery. The more recently a file was deleted, the more likely it is that it has not yet been overwritten by the operating system. Similarly, you have a better chance of recovering a small file than a large one since there is less of a chance that the real estate it resides in on the hard drive was reused.
In my experience, data recovery software has the best likelihood of success if it’s running on another hard drive and not the one from which you want to recover data. When I’ve noticed I’ve lost data I can’t find in the recycling bin, I’ve always immediately shut down the device in question, removed the hard drive, then attached it to another system on which I then installed the data recovery software and attempted a restore of my data.
Running this software on the same drive – especially installing it anew – makes it more likely that the desired data will be overwritten. This strategy isn’t always available or feasible (depending on the device in question and the technical knowhow of the individual involved) but if it’s a possibility, I highly recommend it. At the very least, if a portable version of data recovery software is available you may try downloading it from another system, putting it on a flash drive and accessing it from the flash drive after plugging into the device in question if applicable.
For mobile devices, if you can access the file system by connecting them to a computer via USB cable, your best option would be to do so then attempt data recovery from that computer.
Here are eight of the best data recovery software options I’ve come across. Some are free, and some are commercial versions. The paid products all have free trials available, though they have less functionality than the full versions; only recovering a set amount of files or invoking a file size limitation as to what they can recover.
Best data recovery software
Recuva is a good, basic data recovery software program that is easy to use and can quickly tell you what your chances are of retrieving your file or set of files. It works with just about any type of storage medium including damaged CDs or DVDs assuming these are in decent enough shape to pull files from. Recuva can perform quick scans or deep scans, the latter being more time-consuming but also yielding a better shot at data recovery.
As shown above, a green icon next to a file means it can be recovered whereas red can be interpreted as “all signs point to no” (you can still attempt it anyway).
A portable version of Recuva for Windows is available for download.
Platforms/operating systems: Windows
Price: Free for personal use, $35.95 per computer per year for commercial use (a discounted price of $28.95 per system for more than 11 licenses is available).
Wise Data Recovery
Wise Data Recovery operates in much the same vein as Recuva. It’s a no-frills product that scans and identifies recoverable files. The paid versions claim to be able to repair corrupt or distorted videos and photos, feature automatic product updates, offer premium tech support and come with a 30-day money back guarantee.
A portable version of Wise Data Recovery for Windows is available for download. There is also a version for Mac.
Platforms/operating systems: Windows and Mac
Price: Free to recover up to 2Gb of data, $59.96 for a one-year license for one system, or $74.99 for a one-year license for three systems.
Ashampoo operates via the typical scan-and-recover methodology and works in a speedy and reliable fashion. The makers tout the ability of the product to work with all manner of partitions including those using active NTFS compression or encryption, but this is a fairly standard feature for any data recovery software that can access any type of file system.
A portable version of Ashampoo for Windows is available.
Platforms/operating systems: Windows
Price: $14.99 for a lifetime license (now featured at $7.99 as of April 2022)
Ontrack is the first product in our roundup that I would consider wholly business-based due to the efficacy and breadth of the software. There is a free version with basic functionality and an array of paid versions that can not only recover files (Free and Home versions) but create disk images/recover data from CDs and DVDs and monitor hard drive health (Professional version), repair photos and videos and clone drives (Premium version), work with RAID arrays and recover entire volumes, whether corrupt, damaged or deleted (Technician and Toolkit versions).
A portable version of Ontrack EasyRecovery for Windows is available for download. You can fill out a form to obtain the version for Apple.
Platforms/operating systems: Windows and Apple
- Free to recover up to 1Gb of data and a maximum file size of 25Mb.
- Home version: $79 per year for Windows/$85 per year for Apple
- Professional version: $109 per year for Windows/$129 per year for Apple
- Premium version: $149 per year for Windows/$159 per year for Apple
- Technician version: $299 per year for Windows and Apple, maximum of three machines
- Toolkit version: $299 per year for Windows only, maximum of three machines
EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard
EaseUS can be considered another corporate data recovery tool and its other offerings include “Todo Backup” that can back up data for enterprises, thereby reducing the need for file recovery strategies. Its Recovery Wizard wizard allows you to scan and recover files, and you can save scan results to restore files later without having to undergo a brand new scan.
A nice additional feature includes the ability to recover data from RAW file systems whereby the partition table is damaged or the master boot record corrupted such that the operating system itself cannot access any data on it. But the Recovery Wizard can.
Platforms/operating systems: Windows and Apple (a separate product called MobiSaver can recover data from iOS and Android devices – the price of that product is identical to the main Data Recovery Wizard).
Price: Free to recover up to 500Mb of data, $69.95 per month for one license, $99.95 per year for one license, and $149.95 for a lifetime license.
Stellar Data Recovery
Stellar is probably one of the most popular options here (along with Disk Drill, which I cover below) with a wide array of file recovery capabilities. There is a free version with basic functionality and an array of paid versions that can not only recover files including from formatted or encrypted (APFS) drives and restore deleted emails (Free and Standard versions) but recover partitions, access unbootable or RAW drives, create disk images, recover data from CDs and DVDs (Professional version) and repair photos and videos (Premium version). The ability to restore deleted emails is valuable and unique.
A portable version of Stellar Data Recovery for Windows is available. There is a free trial for Apple.
Platforms/operating systems: Windows/Apple
- Free to recover up to 500Mb of data
- Standard version: $59 per year for Windows/$69 per year for Apple
- Professional version: $89 per year for Windows/Apple
- Premium version: $99 per year for Windows/Apple
Wondershare Recoverit claims a recovery rate success of 96% and touts the ability to access all manner of storage media including mobile devices and digital cameras or camcorders. The higher level version of the paid product includes a bootable toolkit that you can use to launch the product from a USB drive to access and recover files on a crashed or damaged operating system drive (the drive itself must be functional).
The free version is the stingiest of all products reviewed, allowing only up to 100Mb of data to be recovered. The paid versions are Essential (restore files and receive tech support), Standard (restore files, receive free tech support and create a bootable toolkit to recover files) and Premium (restore files, receive free tech support, create a bootable toolkit to recover files and recover/repair videos).
Platforms/operating systems: Windows and Mac
Price: Free to recover up to 100Mb of data. The Essential edition costs $69.99 per year for one device, the Standard edition $79.99 per year for one device, and the Premium edition $99.99 per year for two devices.
Disk Drill carries the standard array of versatile file recovery features including restoring data from corrupted and compressed volumes and also adds a few new and unique concepts.
The product establishes a Recovery Vault that is a sort of index referencing all deleted files, which can help attempt to undelete them. It also uses a Guaranteed Recovery mechanism (Apple only) that is sort of a “recycle bin for the recycle bin” meaning it can retrieve files emptied from the initial recycle bin location. This form of recovery is free; the paid product is not required. A drive backup utility is also included along with a drive temperature sensor to detect overheated drives.
The software also lets you create .ISO, .IMG or .DMG image files of recoverable data that creates a copy you can work with to restore information. This is very helpful because the original data isn’t placed at risk of being overwritten, and is a key element of forensic science. A drive backup utility is also included along with a drive temperature sensor to detect overheated drives.
The Apple version allows you to recover data from iPhones and Android devices.
Platforms/operating systems: Windows/Apple
Price: Free to recover up to 500Mb of data. $89 for the Pro version (one user) and $399 for the Enterprise version (10 users).
How to choose data recovery software
Out of the eight products I covered, Disk Drill consistently had the most positive reviews I came across, which speaks well to its ease of use, efficacy and customer satisfaction. Data recovery needs can vary from minor to major, so not every product is right for every user and some may have more or less features than are needed.
Many data recovery scenarios involve a single file. For this purpose simple choices like the free Recuva, WiseCleaner and Ontrack options should work quickly and easily (I would avoid Recoverit for a single-file operation if the file was anywhere close to the 100Mb limit, despite its impressive 96% lauded success rate), though I urge businesses to pay for the product purchase if the free software version does the job and restores the data.
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Disk Drill comes across as the most comprehensive option, especially for people with highly critical data protection needs, and Ontrack, EaseUS and Stellar are best designated for IT departments whose job responsibilities include managing and recovering data for a fleet of users. The tools provided by these options can help make or break business operations depending on their efficacy.
All in all, the eight products listed here are well-suited to help rescue precious data. The availability of portable, free versions that can easily help users evaluate the products and a plain and simple cost structure to set cost expectations are both welcome elements.