It’s bound to happen sooner or later: you delete an important file and now can’t find it anywhere on your system, including the recycle bin. Luckily, scouring your hard drive isn’t as difficult as you may think, and 9 times out of 10, the file still exists somewhere on your hard drive.
It’s a misconception that when you delete a file from your system, the file is immediately removed from your computer altogether. In reality, deleting that file simply tells your system that the space previously occupied by that file is now safe to be written over by something new. Even after you clear your recycle bin, the files are still sitting on your hard drive until something new that you save comes along to take its place. With that said, the most important thing to do when you delete an important file that you need to recover, is to stop using your computer. The more you use your system, the more likely it is that the file you’re trying to locate will be written over by something new.
The first thing to do is to locate the right tools. Luckily, there’s several tools available for Windows, Mac and Linux that will get the job done. If you’re running Windows, the best option currently available is Recuva. It’s very simple software, available for free, that was specifically designed to help recover files accidentally deleted. Recuva is nice to have in reserve as well because it’s also useful in recovering files that may have been deleted by bugs, crashes and viruses. If you’re running Mac, the best option is to use Data Rescue II. It costs $99, but is the go-to application for file recovery on Macs. If you’re looking for a free alternative, you can always use PhotoRec, which is a command line tool that will work on any platform. The only problem with PhotoRec, is that you’ll need a basic understanding of how command line prompts and terminal windows operate.
Once you’ve got your software found, downloaded and working properly, it’s time to start scanning. The process differs slightly from application to application, but in general, simply open the software and choose the hard drive or removable media that once held your lost file. In most cases, this will just be your “C:” drive, but it will also work for removable flash-based memory such as memory sticks and SD cards from digital cameras or MP3 players. Upon selecting your drive, the software should start scanning and listing all potential files that have been deleted but not yet written over. As the list populates, simply start going down the list and try to identify the file name of your lost file.
It may get confusing looking at the plethora of files the software will find. Most of the files listed will be system files that Windows writes during normal operation, but these will likely have jumbled filenames with no overall structure. Skip past these to look identify regular filenames and hopefully yours will be in the mix somewhere. If it hasn’t been a prolonged time since you deleted the file, chances are it’s still lurking around somewhere. If and when you find the missing file, simply highlight it, right-click and hit “Save.” Save it to your desktop or somewhere easily accessible this time, and there you have it- your missing file that you thought was gone forever is now safely back on your desktop.
Of course, this won’t work every time. To better your chances, it’s a good idea to use different software for the second and third scans, as different software might be better at locating the file than others. If you’re using a Mac, the options are somewhat limited, but Windows users can try Undelete Plus, PC Inspector File Recovery and Restoration. Each title is free to obtain and works relatively the same way.
If nothing else, losing a valuable file will prove how important backing up your hard drive really is. With an inexpensive external hard drive and an FTP server, you can quick and easily setup your Windows-based machine to automatically backup your files at pre-determined intervals without you ever having to remember a thing. No matter what might happen, all your important files and system settings will always be intact. It’s a simple preemptive task that could save you a lot of time, effort and anguish in the future.