Can Data Recovery Software Help You?
The top performers in our review are Data Rescue PC 3, the Gold Award winner; Ontrack Easy Recovery, the Silver Award winner; and Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery Professional, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing data recovery software to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
There are plenty of ways for you to lose data. Most often the reason is accidental, which can include anything from deleting the wrong file to improperly disconnecting an external hard drive or device. In just a few missteps, your only copies of vital records or cherished family photos can be lost. And regardless of how it happened, you need the information back. Luckily, data recovery software is specially designed to help you recover your precious photos, documents and media files.
While recovery software is versatile, it often doesn’t work on multiple operating system configurations. If you’ve lost files on your Mac desktop or laptop, you’ll want Mac data recovery software that’s specialized to work with your Mac. Aside from being optimized for a specific operating system, the software has the same functionality and power.
You can help protect your important files by investing in data backup software or disk imaging software, which can essentially create copies of your entire system, or just specific files or folders on it, that you can keep in case your computer crashes or you somehow lose important data.
We tested a wide range of data recovery programs and gleaned a lot about how they work, and how they don’t. There is detail on our testing and findings further down, but first let’s look at a few important takeaways that you’ll want to know upfront as you determine the best data recovery software for your particularly situation.
Speed Varies by System and Doesn’t Correlate with Efficacy
We found no correlation in our testing between how fast a program works and its recovery rate. It’s tempting to think it matter, but all else being equal, slower isn’t always more thorough, and faster isn’t always less so. Of course, these variables are also dependent on the system they’re running on. A good rule of thumb is that if you have an old computer or older components, you may experience slower scan and recovery times. Furthermore, if you have a large drive packed with various files that you need to scan, that will take more time than if you had a small one with few files.
Safety and Time-Saving Features Are Useful
Many of the best data recovery software packages have features to help reduce the amount of time you’ll spend scanning and to make the overall recovery process easier. A feature like disk imaging goes a long way to keep you from further damaging the data. Primarily with solid-state devices, each scan can damage the data. Also with mechanically failing devices, you do run the risk of it failing altogether simply because the scanning process is so intense. Creating an image of your drive or device gives you a scannable bit-for-bit copy that allows you to scan time and again without worrying about permanently affecting your data.
Because scanning can take so long, pause and save features give you time to take a break from watching a timer and file counter, and let you resume whenever you have more time to do so. In most cases, you can also save your progress. Other features can also reduce the time you’ll spend waiting by letting you search for a specific file or files with filters for file types, names and even dates. While these extras don’t necessarily improve the success of the recovery, they can help make your process more manageable.
Recovery Software Success Varies by Data Loss & Drive Type
In all, our testing revealed that no product excelled at all recovery challenges. We found that some did better at recovering lost pictures and video files, while others did remarkably well at resurrecting reformatted Microsoft Office Suite files. Some were more successful at recovering from hard disk drives, while others were surprisingly adept at solid-state drive recovery.
As expected, most software packages had little trouble recovering a fair percentage of lost files in our tests. Among all the software we tested, the average recovery rate for lost files was close to 100 percent from both hard disk and solid-state drives. The average rates for recovering files from a reformatted drive were less consistent across the devices we tested, with the average recovery being 50 percent of the files from a HDD and SSD.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that the recovery rates within each product varied greatly depending on which storage device was being scanned and the type of data loss being recovered. This means that the best choice can largely depend on what, exactly, you need to recover, and from where.
Not All Found Files Are Recoverable
It’s not uncommon for software to claim to have recovered thousands of deleted files, but many of them are actually empty or unusable fragments. Quite often, the files returned in our testing were zero-length, meaning they were little more than a header without content. Some pictures that opened would only be half complete. Others simply wouldn’t open at all.
If You Don’t Succeed, Try Again
One thing that was consistent in testing the performance of these data recovery products was that they were not consistent in their results. We frequently found different results with each recovery attempt. A few did produce nearly identical results to their previous test runs, but never on more than two consecutive passes. A few on the lower end of our review returned no files in one scan for lost files only to report finding 100 percent on the next. To mitigate the inconsistencies, we ran several rounds of testing on each program in order to report its average recovery rate.
Extra Features: A Blessing and a Curse
Some programs have features beyond the basic file recovery utilities. A few allow you to boot your computer from a pre-OS state, which allows you to start your computer and perform a recovery operation in a basic environment that won’t threaten your lost data. This does mean that you’ll need to start your computer from an external media source and be able to save your recovered information to a destination that’s considerably larger than your hard drive, such as an external hard drive or network-connected drive, as most data-recovery programs return several times the amount of the data lost on the drive. It was not uncommon for us in our testing to get our data returned as much as ten-fold.
Other programs, such as Data Rescue PC 3, Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery Professional and R-Studio, have complex tools for network recovery operations. For example, Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery Professional and R-Studio feature tools to help you manually re-associate file fragments with a disk and hex editor, respectively. However, if you aren’t familiar with using these types of advanced tools, there is a risk of irreversibly damaging your data. If your data loss is extensive, requiring work beyond your skill level, you should consider seeking the help of a qualified hard drive recovery service.
Data Recovery Software: How We Tested
We tested each recovery software multiple times on two drive types: a hard disk drive (HDD) and a solid-state drive (SSD). In establishing our methodology, we strove to mimic the common types of data loss. We constructed a set of files that consisted of photo, document, video and music files – as these are typically the types of files the average user stores on their Windows computer.
Disk recovery is not a quick process. In fact, even the fastest program we tested would have taken – minimally – at least half a day to complete a full scan of a 1TB drive. To manage these concerns, we created partitions on our various drives so each program could be tested on a smaller amount of data. For the matter of testing, it was important that each set be designed to limit the amount of free space between the data set and the partition wall.
We then set about recreating two types of data loss – specifically lost files and files on a reformatted drive. Making lost files to recover involved deleting the set of files and emptying the Recycle Bin. In testing recovery rates for data lost to reformatting, we intentionally reformatted our test devices before scanning them. Each recovery program was tested under identical conditions against the same data sets.
Each software package features raw data recovery, meaning it scrapes every bit of available data from the drive during the initial scan. All of the brands we tested have automated features that let you search for missing data by file type or other identifiers. We tested these automated features as part of our evaluation but found them to be mostly unreliable across the board. For our final results, we tested each software by its raw data recovery capabilities to get the best evaluation of its recovery rates. We ran several rounds of recovery with each piece of software, and our reported results for each program reflect the average recovery over multiple tests.
Our hands-on testing is designed to simulate typical, real-world experiences with data recovery software. For our tests, we obtained the units in our comparison either on loan from the companies or through retail purchase. The manufacturers had no input on our testing methodology, and our rankings were not shared with them prior to publication.
Data Recovery Software: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Three data recovery software programs – Data Rescue PC 3, Ontrack Easy Recovery and Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery Professional – rose above the rest in our review because of their ability to fully recover lost or deleted photos, documents and media files on standard and reformatted drives. These are the factors we considered to be the most important in our comparison and evaluation.
Data Rescue PC 3 stands out above all of the other products we reviewed because of its consistently top-notch recovery rates for all file types on both hard disk drives and solid-state drives, and even on reformatted drives, ensuring that you’re covered no matter what your setup is. The software also has a clean, well-organized design making it easy to use. Ontrack Easy Recovery also had strong recovery rates and is packed with advanced functionality and format compatibility. Stellar Phoenix is powerful and capable as well, and offers some unusual recovery options as well as cloning and imaging functions for future file protection.
While most programs on our lineup cost between $80-$100, there are a few budget-friendly options that can help you get your important files back. Both Wondershare Data Recovery and BitRecover Data Recovery come in under $50, and both performed comparably in our tests of the best file recovery software.
Disk recovery software can be costly in regards to both your budget and time, but a professional disk recovery service costs far more. While there may be times you may want to consider calling in a professional, you can save yourself a lot of money with do-it-yourself recovery software, provided the damage isn’t too great. Clearly, no single recovery application can do everything, and the best software choice will depend on your specific data recovery needs.