Accidentally Deleted Files – Are They Lost Forever? Options for Recovery

Although fortunately most of us think before acting, accidentally deleting files happens to the best of us. A buddy of mine was working on a project for 3 months, and did not keep any kind of backup. He thought he was deleting a single video, but his project folder was highlighted as well when he hit Shift + Delete (in windows, shift + delete will bypass the recycle bin, immediately deleting the files.) This was obviously not the smartest move, and I had to refrain myself from barraging him with Captain Hindsight comments once he told me.

hindsight recover deleted files

Captain Hindsight! The only super hero with the super power of hindsight!

My friend, who I won’t embarrass too much- let’s just call him “Lucky” Luke, called me frantically begging to help him with his little incident. Loosing 3 hours of work sucks. It’s happened to me over a dozen times throughout my life, via crashes and other unfortunate events. Loosing 3 days of work is a huge pain, it happened to me only once, before the days of cloud backups when I would take offsite backups twice a week. Never have I experienced 3 weeks lost, let alone 3 entire months. I felt quite bad for Luke, and I can’t allow my friends to be miserable over something that I know can often times be reversed.

A Quick Lesson About Hard Drives

You might think deleting a file is akin to burning a book – that it would be gone for good, never to be seen again. This is not quite accurate. To the everyday user, emptying the recycle bin effectively removes the files from your view, but the technicalities are more complex. The actual data is still somewhere on your drive for some period of time. Here’s an overly simplified explanation: think of a hard drive as an enormous encyclopedia. This encyclopedia is not organized alphabetically, it’s organized pretty much randomly. Aardvark could be anywhere in the thousands of pages, and you have no idea where. When you want to read about aardvarks, you don’t thumb through every single page looking for the article, you go to the very back of the book, look in the index, and find what page its on. This is akin to how hard drives work. When you are saving a photograph, the computer writes the actual data of the image somewhere on the hard drive. At the same time it puts the name and location of the image in the index; later when you want to look at the image, the computer knows where to find it by looking it up.

Hard drive recovery tools for accidentally deleted files

Luke’s unfortunate hard drive, after I had to dismantle half his computer to access it.

When you delete a file/empty the recycle bin, in order to speed up the process your computer simply erases the index – its much quicker than having to erase the actual spot on the drive where the data is. The index is the most important part of the hard drive. If your file isn’t listed in the index, you can’t access it using regular means.

Recovery Tools to the Rescue

When Luke deleted his project, all the computer did was erase the index markers for his files. This means that the bits and pieces of computer code used to re-formulate those files are still somewhere on the hard drive, its just that no one knows where. And so here comes the first important step in the recovery process:

1) Turn Off Your Computer Immediately

Don’t even do “shut down.” If you are on a laptop, remove the battery. If you are on a desktop, unplug the cord. I cannot stress this enough – the longer you operate on your computer, the more likely those files will become unrecoverable. This is because over time as you save new files, the computer may choose the same place on the drive to save them. Since the old files are no longer in the index, your computer doesn’t care that there are existing bits of information – it will simply overwrite them, and put a new entry in the index pointing to that location. So turning off your computer ensures that nothing on the drive gets overwritten.

2) Remove the Hard Drive

Get your pliers and screwdrivers out – it’s time to remove the hard drive from the computer. If you don’t know what you are doing, its very wise at this point to call someone who knows what they are doing. Luke’s laptop immediately came to the computer hospital (my house) so I could remove the hard drive for him, and perform the remaining actions for him.

hard drive recovery enclosure external

External hard drive enclosure. The red light can also be used as a night light!

3) Put the Hard Drive in an External Case / Enclosure

You can find these enclosures at any electronics store for around $20. You will need either the 2.5″ enclosure for laptop-size disks, or a 3.5″ enclosure for larger disks found in dekstops. Then, you can connect this disk to another computer via a USB cable. Again, talk to someone if you are not sure. As well as disk size, there are some other differences in hard drives that you need to get the proper enclosure for.

4) Run a Recovery Tool

Once you have attached your hard drive via USB to another computer, it’s time to run a recovery tool. There are a number of tools available. Some are better than others, and some are free. I recommend Recuva – they have a free version that works great and is easy to use. Use either the recovery wizard, or the advanced features. The recovery wizard walks you through a number of questions, such as “What are you trying to recover” and “Where were the files?” From there, it goes through the entire disk and finds anything that looks like a file that is not currently listed in the index. Some files may be unrecoverable, especially if you’ve overwritten pieces of them, but items that were recently deleted have a good chance at being recoverable, especially if you followed step 1 properly.

Recover deleted images, documents, music, emails, movies, videos, and more

Recuva recovery options

Luke got almost every single one of his files back. A couple of them had some overwritten sectors and were corrupted, and others were simply not found. Luke was quite a happy guy when I give him his files back, and I was a happy man with my 12-pack of Widmer Brother’s IPA as compensation.

Moral of This Tale

Readers, the recycle bin is there for a reason. Saving yourself a couple extra seconds by doing the shift+delete shortcut is not worth it. Also, I urge you to get some offsite/online backup software, and run it often. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but if your house ever goes on fire, or your computer ever gets stolen, at least you will still have access to your files. For someone who depends on their computer for their business, (such as Luke or myself,) it is imperative.

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