There is a large amount of both commercial and free software for data recovery available.
So what should you be looking for when choosing disk or data recovery software?
Free software for data recovery can work, however the wrong product can also do more harm than good.
Be wary of free software for data recovery which is available as an executable version only file downloads and that is not digitally certificated.
Executable or Install Versions of Disk and Data Recovery Software
Some disk & data recovery software (free and commercial) is available as both executable only and installable versions. Usually, the installable versions are preferable. However, executable versions can be better if you have absolutely no choice but to download a product onto the same drive that you need to recover lost files from. This is because there is less additional disk activity as associated with a typical installation process. Thus the likelihood of being able to restore lost data is maintained.
Any good disk or data recovery software should be able to work from a different disk drive or device than the one containing the lost data. For example, in the case of lost data on a PC, it should be possible to download the data or file recovery software using a different computer onto a USB memory stick or CD. The memory stick (or CD) can then be plugged into the computer containing the lost data and the data file recovery software used from there.
Any good disk or data recovery software must allow you to save recovered files to a different disk partition or device than the one they are being recovered from. Until a ‘lost’ file is recovered and saved, the area where it exists is always in danger of being overwritten by a new file. The very act of saving a recovered file to the same disk as the lost version could destroy the very data you are trying to recover!
Some, but not all, free software for data recovery will only work on the same drive they are run from. This can cause lost data to be overwritten permanently. Good data and file recovery software should be non-destructive!
Good data recovery software tools should be able to work on USB devices and removeable media such as camera cards, MP3 players, iPods etc.
Commercial data and file recovery software should enable you to verify whether your deleted files can still be seen and what condition they are in before you commit to a purchase.
The best file recovery software products usually include a preview thumbnail of files that can be recovered. This gives you a greater degree of confidence that the recovery software will actually retrieve your file(s) before making the purchase.
The better disk and data recovery software products provide different levels of disk analysis. Many recently deleted files are easily detectable using a ‘quick scan’ of the logical device (e.g. your C: drive or E: drive etc). Other cases may require a full cluster level scan of the disk and/or a search of the physical drive instead. There is usually a trade off between the degree of analysis, the number of files found and effectiveness versus the time taken to find files.
One or two disk and data recovery software products include the ability to scan disk images. This can be useful where your disk is in imminent danger of physical failure. this functionality allows you to recover lost information from a bit-by-bit copy of the disk in question. If the product includes the ability to create a disk image too, then this is a bonus well worth having.
Some data and file recovery software use more advanced algorithms which improve the chances of file recovery by using file signatures to identify fragments of lost data on the disk.
Amongst the large amount of commercial and free software for data recovery available, there are a few excellent products as shown on our best file recovery software products page.