How To Recover Lost Or Overwritten Files

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We've all done it. Over-written or deleted a file only to find out we really needed whatever information we just destroyed or damaged. So, what do you do? Is there a way out of this or do you just curl up in the foetal position and cry? There are options for recovering lost files. Some are easy, others are harder. let's look at some of the options.

Recycle bins

The first port of call for a deleted file is your operating systems Recycle Bin or Trash. It's obvious but in the heat of the moment, it's easy to forget that there's an easy way to recover accidentally deleted files.

3-2-1-0 ... Backup!

Windows and macOS both have their own integrated backup solutions that you can enable through Settings and System Preferences respectively. They follow similar systems where you designate an external destination for where your backups will go and then data is automatically backed up to that location regularly.

Windows calls their solution Backup and you'll find it under Settings | Update and security | Backup. Just follow the prompts to add a drive and all the data in your user folder will be backed up.

Image: Microsoft

Apple's solution is called Time Machine and has a far fancier interface. Where it substantially differs from the Windows solution is that its designed to completely recover a system - including all your apps and settings. In contrast, the Widows solution is about backing up and allowing recovery of personal files.

In addition, there are lots of third-party backup utilities. I like Acronis True Image as it's multi-platform and it works well with many NAS devices. On the Synology NAS I'm currently using, the server-side software is integrated as an add-on so all I need to do is install the client - there are Windows, macOS, Android and iOS clients - and point it to the backup location on my network.

The thing about backups is that we don't usually find out of they've worked until we need them. That's why i like the 3-2-1-0 backup method.

You need three copies of your critical data, on at least two different media, with at least one off-site copy. there's little point to having a backup sitting next to your computer. If a thief nicks your PC they'll probably take the drive with them. Or, if there's a fire or flood, it's likely to be damaged along with your main system.

The "0" in my countdown is for errors. You need to test your backups from time to time to ensure they are error free. I've worked in corporate environments when that didn't happen. We only ever learned a backup was broken the hard way.

The cloud

If you use a cloud storage service like Dropbox, OneDrive or Google Drive, then you may have some protection for your data.

For example, OneDrive for Buisness customers can access older versions of many file types. Once you sign in to your OneDrive for Business account, you can access the version history for a file by right-clicking on it.

You can follow a similar process with Dropbox while Google offers a similar revision history feature, that brings back the last 100 versions of a file.

Remember, while cloud storage services are handy for synching files and making them accessible anywhere and anytime, they aren't a complete backup solution. They should only form part of your data protection strategy.

When things get really bad

If you've ignored all the usual advice and have no backups and accidentally delete a file, or need to recover data from a long-neglected drive there's still hope.

I've had great success using ProSoft's Data Rescue tools but there are plenty of others around. I've recovered long-deleted files from USB sticks, memory cards from cameras (lots of people accidentally format cards and then realise they have deleted important images) and even a failing hard drive.

Most of these tools offer free trials that let you see what the software can recover before you outlay your cash on the purchase.

When all else fails

In a really severe situation, you might have a failed hard drive. In that case, you'll need to find an expert. There are data recovery companies that are able to disassemble the platters from a dead hard drive and reassemble them in a new body in order to recover your data. Depending on the complexity of the recovery task, you can easily spend a hundreds to thousands of dollars on such tasks.

There have been cases where such experts have been able to recover data from drives that have been drilled or securely wiped with several formats and various tools that are designed to make data recovery as difficult as possible.

In most cases, a deleted or overwritten file should be little more than a minor inconvenience. As long as you maintain good backup procedures, or use a cloud service for storing your working files, recovering should be pretty easy.


    How would you recover data accidentally deleted - from an external NAS?
    Is there some way to mount multiple (RAID 5) disks on a PC, short of ripping out every drive already in the PC?
    Even then, how would you get around the (non-NTFS) format of the disks?

      My NAS (a recent Synology unit) has a file history feature/recycle bin I can configure for each volume. And special recovery agencies can recover data from a dead NAS but be prepared to pay as its specialist work.

      If you're running Windows there is probably an offline file cache where if it's a recently used file it may still be stored. It's usually \windows\csc (Some trickery needed if you want to get access) or you could try in your net work sync settings, view temp files.

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