Have you ever accidentally deleted a file on your computer, removed a file from a network drive or even formatted a camera memory card? Or maybe you can’t find your music collection after a system crash or a malware infection compromised your hard drive? Fortunately, the lost files and folders can often be recovered by using data recovery software on your home computer (opens in new tab). But how does this software work?
When you delete a file on your computer the first place it goes is to the recycle bin. Emptying the recycle bin makes the file far less accessible, but doesn’t actually remove it. What really happens behind the scenes when you “delete” a file is that the computer’s file system removes the path to access that file, and designates the space that the file is using as being available for future use when needed. The ones and zeros that make up the file are still there on your computer, hidden until they are overwritten with another file. Parts of the file may stay on your hard drive for years, while other traces may be replaced within hours. Depends how large the HDD or SSD is on your laptop (opens in new tab).
Getting your files back
One way to visualize this situation is with a book representing the file. Let’s say you decide you don’t want the book anymore, so you put it in a bin to donate it to a paper recycling company. When you first 'delete' the book it is still very much intact and easy to get back simply by pulling it out of the recycle bin. When the recycling company picks up your pile of books and takes them to their facility (emptying the recycle bin), they rip off the cover and put the pages of the book in a pile of other paper to be recycled.
The text and pages of the book (the contents of your file) are still there, but without the cover they’re much harder to locate, and as the pages get turned over you might lose a page or two. As the recycling facility gets more paper in they have to shred the book to make more room for others. Once the pages are shredded it is beyond repair, but up to that point there’s still the possibility of getting the book back; it just takes more work than you’re probably willing to sacrifice for one book.
In our analogy, data recovery software essentially saves you from going to the recycling facility and sifting through the piles of paper to find the pages of your book. The software can do all of that for you, and even rebind the book for you. The process requires special tools and costs time and money, but ultimately it’s worth it if you have to have that book back for some reason – like if the book is a novel you spent years on, a hand-written journal or even a family photo album.
So while deleted files are inaccessible and are in danger of being overwritten, you can often recover them completely with professional data recovery tools. Data recovery software is designed to scour the drive and locate any recoverable data, piecing it back together and providing it in a salvageable format. The best data recovery applications provide a preview of recovered files, filtered and searchable results, easy file restoration and additional tools.
File recovery programs can be used to resurrect files of any type or size, from pictures, music and videos to documents and spreadsheets. Data recovery software can locate and restore emails, executables and compressed files. The best file recovery software can even maintain the folder organization of your files, and it may be able to recover a complete partition or drive.
Where can I recover files from?
File recovery software is also broad in scope, equipped to recover files from all sorts of storage media, regardless of how they connect to your computer or what file structures they use. Most data recovery needs are for files on the hard drive or a USB jump drive, but you can also recover files from CDs, DVDs, camera cards, MP3 players, external hard drives (opens in new tab) and more.
Of course no data recovery software is perfect; if a file has been partially overwritten or otherwise compromised, the chances of any usable recovery are low, even with the best recovery software. But if it hasn’t been too long since you accidentally deleted the file, the chances of complete recovery are pretty good.
So what if you have some sensitive data that you don’t want anyone to ever recover? If you need permanent removal that can’t be recovered even with data recovery software, take a look at our reviews of the best privacy software (opens in new tab) suites; they include professional file shredders.