Few people ever truly understand the need to back up critical hard drive data until the worst happens. Catastrophic data loss can take many shapes: the sudden appearance of a lethal virus; a freak power surge; an operating system that suddenly decides not to operate. Any one of these terrifying scenarios can destroy the inner workings of your hard drive, erasing the last few years of your life in the sudden loss of documents, photos, videos, and email messages.
Alas, the world is full of woulda/coulda/shoulda types who’ll berate you for not thinking ahead. But what good does that do you now? Before you abandon all hope of seeing your precious files again, stop for a moment and consider the possibility that not all is lost.
Recovering Data from a Hard Drive Rescue Partition
The majority of pre-built notebooks and desktops contain hard drives that are partitioned in order to mitigate the loss of data in the event the operating system fails or becomes otherwise corrupted. They’re also partitioned to allow you to launch different operating systems within the same device, like Windows or Linux. In a nutshell, partitioning turns a single hard drive into numerous drives. Doing so also enables automatic backups and makes disaster recovery possible because it keeps your data separate in the event the OS becomes corrupted. Of course, having a partitioned drive is no guarantee that if your system goes kaput you’ll be able to retrieve everything, but at very least it leaves open the possibility. If you can’t access your operating system, the first thing you’ll need is a bootable rescue disc.
Bootable Discs and Recovery Software to the Rescue
If your OS becomes corrupt and you’re unable to boot your computer to pull important files off of your hard drive, you can gain access through the use of a DOS boot disk, which launches your computer without running the operating system. DOS boot disks have traditionally come in the form of actual disks, but these days you can also use USB flash drives to accomplish the same as long as your computer supports USB flash drive boot up (it likely does). You may also encounter a situation where your OS seems to be operating fine, but data you’ve saved to your hard drive is missing. In this case, you can utilize recovery software to try and recover those lost files.
When it comes to using rescue software and data recovery programs, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is, there are a plethora of programs to choose from. The bad news is, there are a plethora of programs to choose from. So many, in fact, that you could spend countless days and nights scouring the known universe in the hope of finding the one that’s ideal for your circumstances. To save you some time, we’ve put together a quick list of some of the most highly rated rescue software and data recovery programs available for both Windows and OS X.
Recuva is among the best free data recovery programs available. It works not only on your hard drive but can also recover lost data from external hard drives, memory cards and USB sticks. As with most free-to-download software programs, Recuva also offers more highly capable versions that you have to pay for: Recuva Professional costs you a one-time download fee of $24.95 and comes with PC optimization software called CCleaner Professional. For $39.95 you can spring for CCleaner Professional Plus, which bundles the Professional versions of Recuva, CCleaner, Defraggler for defragging, and Speccy for boosted PC performance. Recuva solo and suite editions run on Windows 10, 8, 7, Vista and XP.
Search and Recover is a recovery software program that runs on Windows XP through 8 and usually lists at $39.95. That will fetch you one full year of service. The great thing about it is that it enables you to recover lost data from hard drives as well as floppy disks, CDs and DVDs, flash drives and even cameras — even if the information is stored on a damaged, malfunctioning, repartitioned or formatted drive.
UndeletePlus comes in a limited-functionality trial version that first lets you find out if a file can be recovered before you actually pay. Several versions can be purchased for just about any setup, from one computer to 10. A one-year license for a single computer costs $50 and lets you recover lost files from hard drives, thumb drives, and camera memory cards. The Windows version covers all operating systems from XP through 10 (either 32-bit or 64-bit). Support is also available for Mac users.
Pandora Recovery‘s specialty comes by way of an added level of TLC for the more technically challenged. A recipient of high ratings for its easy, step-by-step guidance, Pandora Recovery works with Windows XP through 7 but doesn’t support any newer operating systems. There’s also no Mac version. If you’re still running a pre-Windows 8 system, it may be the ideal solution to help you recover lost files from still-functional operating systems and hard drives. It’s sort of like a cool “oops”-eraser.
OS X Recovery offers the unique ability to restore system software without the need to bother with physical discs at all. Pressing Command-R on your Mac keyboard will launch OS X Recovery, which gives you a number of options including running disk check or repair. If OS X Recovery detects that your issue is a bit more complex, such as in the case of a failed hard drive, an automatic internet connection will be opened (provided you’ve got access to Wi-Fi). Although this feature is available in all Macs running OS X Lion and later, older systems may not be equipped. In that case, you can load OS X Recovery Disk Assistant onto a USB flash drive to get things back up and running again.
Data Rescue 4 costs $99 (which may or may not be a steal, depending on how valuable your lost data files are to you) and was designed for use with Macs in OS X. For the newbie who needs a bit more guidance, the program also includes tech support which you can reach via email or by phone.
Recovering Data with Bootable Virus Scan Discs
Sometimes, the problem isn’t with your operating system or hard drive at all, but the result of a virus. As you might imagine (or maybe already know from experience), undetected viruses can wreak havoc on your computer’s ability to function. Even the best and most highly regarded anti-virus programs are no guarantee that a virus with bad intentions won’t get through the door, hijacking your computer and destroying everything you’ve got stored in the process.
If you have reason to suspect your woes are being caused by a virus (or even if you’re not sure what’s going on) you can run a bootable virus scan disc. You’ll need to access another computer that isn’t infected to create a bootable virus scan disc that you can insert into your compromised computer. The good thing about virus scan discs is that some are capable not only of rooting out a virus that’s taken over your computer, but also repairing any damage done and in some cases recovering lost data.
Hiren’s BootCD is one of the most highly rated rescue discs for the repair of Windows operating systems and the detection of viruses. The software operates on Windows 7, 8, Vista, XP, 2000 and NT. It packs backup and recovery, antivirus tools and partition tools into a free download.
AVG Rescue CD is compatible with Windows XP, Vista, 7 and 8 and can be burned onto a physical disk or installed in a bootable USB flash drive. Besides bearing the name brand of one of the most effective virus scanners on the market, it’s also entirely free to use.
Kaspersky Rescue Disk 10 is another free utility that runs on Windows XP through 8 that is especially handy for its ability to let you scan specific files and folders instead of your entire drive. This can save a lot of time if you’re already aware of where the infection took root.
Data Recovery if Your Hardware is Damaged
Traditional hard disk drives are incredibly fragile creations with moving parts, and for this reason it’s entirely possible that your troubles could be the result of a physically damaged drive. If you suspect this to be the case — as evidenced by some telltale signs like strange rattling sounds or a grinding noise — you will likely have to take your computer to a specialist with the tools and training to recover your lost data. A word to the wise: this method is not cheap and can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Recovering Data from the Cloud
These days, with the pervasive interconnectivity between all manner of desktops, notebooks, mobile devices and online storage servers (not to mention social media platforms), it’s entirely possible that copies of your photos and videos may be stored someplace you’re not even aware of. Here’s a quick list of places to look.
Google Photos: In Google’s typically ingenious fashion, Google Photos has made it possible to back up all pics and videos you take on your mobile device straight to the cloud, automatically. The coolest thing about this (aside from the fact it doesn’t share anything publicly until you tell it to) is that only files over a certain size count against your Google Drive storage quota. Which means you can store an unlimited number of JPEG photos as long as they’re approximately under 16 megapixels each. The same goes for videos up to 1080p. To find out what you’ve got saved, download the Google Photos app on your smartphone or tablet, or head to photos.google.com.
Amazon Cloud Drive: This operates in much the same way as the aforementioned Google Photos in that you can use your online storage space as a default destination for auto backup of smartphone photos. Since storage comes at varying prices depending on how much room you need, Prime members are in the best position to benefit from Cloud Drive: they get unlimited photo storage as part of the Prime membership.
iCloud. The beauty about iCloud is that you don’t have to be running an iOS device to take advantage of it. If you’re on Windows and are running Windows 7 or 8, you’re good. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that you’re unaware if you’re using iCloud to back up your important docs and media … but who knows? It’s possible you may have set it up at some point and forgotten all about it, leaving a good chunk of your irreplaceable data files taking up some of that 5GB of free space each account is allotted.
OneDrive became the cornerstone of Microsoft’s cloud storage platform with Windows 8, and now OneDrive has even more integration with Windows 10. You’re automatically set up with 15GB of free OneDrive storage when you log in to your Windows 10 PC with a Microsoft Account, and you’ll find the cloud storage available in File Explorer just like your PC’s hard drive or a USB drive. There are no more apps to download, install or open – your cloud storage is setup by default for you to use immediately. It couldn’t be easier to make sure your important files are automatically backed up to the cloud. Just right-click on the OneDrive icon in the notification area, select Settings, switch to the Choose folders tab, and click the Choose folders button. You can sync all files and folders with your OneDrive or choose specific folders to sync, which will be available via OneDrive on almost any PC or mobile device in the event your local hard drive crashes. Some people aren’t even aware they’ve been storing things in OneDrive, so it’s worth checking to see if you have files stored there.
Flickr: With 1TB of free photo and video storage, a person could feasibly have a lifetime’s worth of images and home movies backed up to Flickr and not even realize it. Before throwing in the towel on ever recovering any of your lost family images and videos, try accessing Flickr to see what you might have squirreled away.
MySpace: Don’t laugh. It’s not every day that a new social media platform comes along and steals the thunder of all else that existed previously, but it does happen. Remember MySpace? The preferred social media platform before the worldwide takeover of Facebook, MySpace was once the most popular social media site in existence. If you were among the 4 billion or so who flocked to Facebook but didn’t cancel your account, it’s possible you may still have images uploaded in your abandoned MySpace photo galleries. Here are a few tips from MySpace to help you recover your old stuff.
There’s no denying that suffering a catastrophic loss of data can be a rhymes-with-witch to recover from. The simple fact is, there are no one-step easy solutions and in some cases it may cost you handsomely. But there are things you can try that don’t involve cutting your losses and springing for an entirely new system.