How To Choose the Best Disk Recovery Software
The top performers in our review are Data Rescue PC3, the Gold Award winner; Ontrack EasyRecovery, the Silver Award winner; and Stellar Phoenix Professional, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing disk recovery software to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Data loss is among the most distressing experiences of digital life. You might have accidentally deleted a file and emptied your Recycle Bin, or followed a prompt to reformat a drive after plugging in your external hard drive. Before you realize it, you can destroy your only copies of cherished photos, important documents or your favorite music and movie files.
Disk recovery software can help you recover your missing data. Of course, it doesn’t always succeed in retrieving 100 percent of your lost files, and some programs may not recover much at all, as our evaluations of 10 recovery programs reveal. But the best recovery software gives you a decent shot at getting back at least a good portion of the data you’ve lost. To learn more about disk recovery and data-loss prevention, see our articles on disk recovery software.
Data Loss: How It Happens and What to Do About It
The most extreme cause of data loss is physical damage to your drive. Typically, you’ll have plenty of signs that something is wrong, such as a subtle ticking sound coming from your computer or obvious external damage. Be aware that if you’ve lost files because a disk has been physically damaged, hard drive recovery software cannot help you. If your computer simply refuses to go past the BIOS system screen during startup or is making unusual noises during operation, it needs to be repaired by a professional hard drive recovery service. And such repairs can be quite expensive.
However, there are plenty of data loss scenarios that don’t involve physical damage. These are generally referred to as logical data loss, and they include files that are lost because of accidental deletion or a reformatted drive. In both cases, your computer has simply lost its reference to where the files are stored on the drive. The data is still on the drive.
Frequently, this is a user error issue. It begins with deleting a file, thereby dumping it to the Recycle Bin. The problem then comes when you clear the bin. This action removes your computer’s reference to where the file is stored. In the industry, these are commonly referred to as lost files since their reference to the table has been lost. Depending on the type of device where these lost files were stored, most recovery software programs should be able to find them, so long as they haven’t been overwritten. The files are still there but your computer just doesn’t know where to look.
When your system loses the reference to where files are stored on your device, your computer recognizes the space where your file is stored as available for new data to be written, and so it may end up storing new data over the old. There is an excellent chance of this happening if more than a few minutes of running time has passed since clearing your Recycle Bin. Yes – it happens that fast.
The greatest threat to a successful recovery is when a file is overwritten with new data, as an overwritten file cannot be recovered completely. Only the portions of the file that have not been fully overwritten are recoverable; even then, the partial recovery is useless with most files types. As such, it’s critical that you stop using your hard drive immediately as soon as you recognize that data loss has occurred.
Finally, data loss can happen when there are files left behind on a disk that was later reformatted. This can happen when your device becomes corrupted if, for example, you disconnect it from your computer without first telling your computer to eject it. At this point, the data is only lost, but the situation is made worse by clicking the “Yes” button when the computer asks if you would like to reformat the drive. Loss like this also happens if you format a drive to repurpose it, only to realize you reformatted over the very files you now need. Disk recovery software can help with these more difficult recovery scenarios, though with varying degrees of success.
Faster Does Not Equal Better
In regards to disk recovery software, we found that just because a program can complete a scan faster than others, it doesn’t mean that it successfully found and recovered more files. Likewise, a software that has slower a program runs is not necessarily more thorough. Of course, speed can vary partially depending on the system the software is running on, as old computers and older components are apt to run slowly in any regard. Speed is also dependent on the quantity of files you need the software to scan; a large drive with tons of files is going to take more time to process than a small drive or just a few folders.
One thing that was consistent in testing the performance of these recovery software applications was that they were not consistent in their results across multiple scans. We ended up with slightly different recovery results with each recovery attempt. A few programs produced very close results in comparison with their previous runs, but a few lower-end products even 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 and took an average of the results from each to produce the number you see on our comparison chart above.
Disk Recovery Software: What We Tested, What We Learned
Because different drive and device types store information differently, each storage medium provides a unique challenge for recovery software packages. For example, a hard disk drive will store a file until it’s been deleted, allowing it to be overwritten when new data is saved, but a solid state drive will erase the block upon which the data was stored before overwriting it. Because of these differences, we tested each piece of recovery software on both a hard disk drive (HDD) and a solid-state dive (SSD).
In establishing our methodology, we wanted to mimic common types of data loss that we could test in a timely manner. Disk recovery is rarely a quick process. In fact, even the fastest program we tested would have taken 55 hours to complete a full scan of a 1TB drive. To manage these concerns, we created partitions on our various test devices, so each program could be tested on a smaller amount of data.
We also constructed a data set that consisted of picture, document, video and music files – as these are typically the types of files users need to recover, and we put an identical copy of this data set on each device we tested. For the matter of testing, it was important the set be designed to limit the amount of free space between the data set and the partition wall.
We then set about recreating the specific types of data loss mentioned above. Making lost files to recover simply involved saving files to the partition before deleting them and emptying the Recycle Bin. In testing recovery rates for data lost to reformatting, we intentionally reformatted our test devices before scanning them.
Each software package allows for raw data recovery, which means it scrapes every bit of available data from the drive during the initial scan. All of the brands we tested also 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 brand’s raw data recovery capabilities to get the best evaluation of their recovery rates.
Recovery Success Varies by Data Loss & Drive Type
In all, our testing revealed that few brands excel at recovering all file types. Some did better at recovering lost pictures and video files, while others did remarkably well at resurrecting reformatted MS Office files. Some were more successful when they were working with an HDD over a SSD.
As expected, most software applications had little trouble recovering a fair percentage of the lost files. Among all the software tested, the average recovery rate for lost files was close to 98 percent from both hard disk and solid-state drives. The average rates for recovering files from a reformatted drive was more consistent across the devices in our lineup, with an average of 86 percent of the files from HDD and SSD.
Clearly, no single recovery application can do everything, and the best software choice will depend on your specific data recovery needs. However, there are some that performed better across the board than others. We found the best overall recovery rate with Data Rescue PC3. Its data recovery engine worked best across each of our test devices. Ontrack EasyRecovery had the next best recovery rate overall, although it did slightly worse with reformatted drive recovery.
Not All That’s Found Is Usable
It’s not uncommon for software to claim that it recovered thousands of deleted files; however, the reality is that many of them are actually empty or unusable fragments. Frequently, the files returned in our testing were zero-length, meaning they were little more than a header without content. Some pictures that were found could only partially load. Other files simply wouldn’t open at all.
Extra Features: Ease of Use, Filters and Previews Matter
The best recovery software programs should be easy to use and have a clean and well-organized layout that is easy to understand and navigate. You’re already stressed with having lost your data – you won’t want to deal with a difficult program in that situation. One of the best features offered by most of the products on our lineup is a disk imager. This function allows the software to essentially create a copy of your computer’s hard drive – either partial or whole, depending on your needs – that you can save to another storage device or even to cloud storage. This means you’ll always have a backup copy of your important files, and you can update this as often or infrequently as you need. Additionally, these programs often let you to boot that copy you made in case your computer crashes, allowing you to get back to work quickly, as if the incident never happened.
Quality software should also allow you to preview files uncovered in a scan, letting you choose which ones you want to recover and see if they’ll be fully-functional before you spend time recovering them. That’s a critical feature that can definitely save you a good chunk of time, which is convenient if you’re in a hurry to get your files back. Furthermore, a good recovery program should also let you filter your recovered files by size and format, if not additional options.
Help & Support: Look for Remote Assistance & Detailed Information
When it comes to data recovery, you need a company that does more than stand behind its product. Most of these services offer great help and support, but a few companies go the extra mile by offering remote assistance for your recovery. This is a convenient option that sits somewhere between this DIY software and having to send in your hard drive to a professional recovery service, as a trained professional can access your computer remotely and try to recover lost files for you. Many companies also offer detailed user manuals and endless forums for help and support. These are companies that are willing to make their product work for you.
Our hands-on testing is designed to simulate typical, real-world experiences with the product. For our tests on disk recovery software, we purchased the software just as a consumer would. The manufacturers have no input on our testing methodology, and our rankings are not shared with them prior to publication.
Disk Recovery Software: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Three programs – Data Rescue PC3, Ontrack EasyRecovery and Stellar Phoenix Professional – rose above the rest in our comparison. Data Rescue stands out above the other programs because of its consistently top-notch recovery rates for all file formats on both hard disk drives and solid state drives even those that have been reformatted ensuring you’re good to go no matter your configuration. It also has a well-organized and intuitive layout that’s easy to use.
Ontrack EasyRecovery also has strong recovery rates and comes with tons of features and functionality. Stellar Phoenix is powerful and capable as well, and it offers some unusual recovery options as well as cloning and imaging functions for future file protection.
Data loss and disk damage can happen to anyone, whether you’re rich and famous or clinging to a tight budget. If you fall into the latter group, rest assured that you won’t have to break the bank in order to afford quality recovery software. Most of the software we tested costs between $80-$100. Wondershare offers an easy-to-use program with a high recovery success rate for half that price.
Disk recovery software can be costly, but a professional disk recovery service costs much more. While there may be times when 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. Though keep in mind that no single recovery program can recover 100 percent of all file types on all drive types, and the ideal software for you depends on your particular data loss situation.