An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, the cliché declares, but there are times when even the best of us slip up. The most reliable way to ensure that you’re protected from data loss is to back up regularly and constantly. But as Murphy’s Law so blatantly reminds everyone, if something can go wrong, it definitely will. Even the most vigilant of people will occasionally find themselves in a bind. A hard drive crash, hardware incompatibility, software upgrade corruption – all these and more random factors can cause unexpected data loss.
But don’t worry. It is possible to retrieve your data, although it must be done quickly and with the right tools. One wrong move and you can kiss your beloved files goodbye permanently.
A simple online search will yield more than a dozen choices of file recovery freeware, right there for your taking. All of these freeware claim that your lost data can be recovered in a few short clicks, saving you time and money.
The truth may not be as rosy as their claims, however. There are a few things you might want to consider before naively entrusting the fate of your missing data in the hands of these file recovery freeware. As mentioned earlier, data recovery is a tricky thing to do; you only have a small window of time to regain your files, and the slightest misstep could delete them forever.
Here are five of the most popular file recovery freeware on the web, and several reasons why you should stop and reconsider before you hit that download button:
Pandora Recovery (Windows)
Pandora offers a very easy to use interface that allows the user to browse, search and preview deleted files before recovery. The freeware wizard conducts a scan of all your hard drives to find and reveal deleted files. It is user-friendly, and allows a quick scan and the recovery of data in an instant.
However, the performance of Pandora is largely hit-and-miss. When it works, it works. It works very well on smaller drives, but cannot help with restoring files for crashed or corrupted hard drives. It lacks deep scanning and an advanced search feature. Pandora also suffers from compatibility issues, and has yet to present an alternative for Windows 7 users.
Overall, Pandora Recovery works well as a file recovery tool for smaller drives such as flash drives and memory cards. The user-friendly interface is also a great touch for less computer-savvy users. All in all, however, Pandora can’t handle bigger hard drives and won’t be a handy tool for dealing with a significant amount of data loss.
TestDisk and PhotoRec (Windows/Linux/Mac)
These two products handle two distinct kinds of data loss. PhotoRec is designed to retrieve deleted image files, specifically from memory cards (used with digital cameras). TestDisk, on the other hand, helps fix deleted partitions and recover data, but only if these problems were caused by user error, viruses or faulty software.
TestDisk is powerful enough to restore partitions and PhotoRec does retrieve photos even from formatted memory cards. However, the DOS interface can be very intimidating for first-time users and may cause more problems due to the unfamiliarity of the freeware and the lack of easy to understand documentation and usage instructions. This is particularly problematic, as a misstep in using TestDisk can have negative effects on the other existing and uncorrupted partitions.
As far as file recovery freeware are concerned, Recuva offers one of the most user-friendly and clutter-free interfaces. The wizard walks the user through the process and there is an advanced search feature for users who need more information prior to the actually process of data recovery. It also offers the user the ability to select the new folder of location where the retrieved files will be saved.
However, Recuva’s ability to find deleted files seems to be spotty, sometimes missing even freshly deleted files. It appears to work best only with image files. Also, a good portion of files recovered are corrupted and rendered unusable.
Data Recovery (Windows)
The usual problem with file recovery freeware is the need for installation, which can be tricky and problematic, especially while attempting to recover data. Data Recovery skips through this problem as it requires no installation. This freeware offers a simple to use interface that runs a quick scan and identifies missing files, allowing users to pick and choose what they want to restore.
However, the very basic and no-frills approach does have its drawbacks. The program lacks proper documentation and can be quite difficult for users to navigate. Moreover, it works best when used to recover files from a single directory, as it does not restore the data in an orderly fashion. More importantly, Data Recovery occasionally freezes, shuts down on its own, and crashes due to a runtime error as reported by several users on CNET.
PC Inspector File Recovery (Windows)
Although billed as a file recovery tool, it appears that PC Inspector works best with extracting data from bad or corrupted drives and memory cards. With regards to the retrieving deleted files, PC Inspector is able to scan and list these missing files but the chance of recovery is unreliable. User will have to retrieve files a few at a time, as trying to retrieve a large amount of files in one go will cause the program to either freeze or shut down.
Precautions & Alternatives
File recovery freeware can be useful when you just need a quick fix, or if there’s a very small amount of files you want to retrieve as painlessly as possible. For bigger data recovery problems, however, freeware won’t be enough. More importantly, almost all users of the five examples above complained of harmful “side effects” like malware, spyware, ad bots and toolbars showing up on their computer after installation, without consent. If you decide to try any of these free file recovery programs, make sure you scan the file with a reliable spyware program.
When you’re dealing with the loss of your precious and – more often than not – irreplaceable data, it might be best to leave Scrooge at the door and hire an expert or get a high quality, commercial data recovery program such as Paretologic’s Data Recovery Pro.