A free Windows program to scan for lost files
We’ve probably all lost data at some point, and many of us have tried various drive recovery solutions over the years. Of these, Disk Drill has been available for Mac OS X users for some time, but the company currently offers a Windows compatible version, released last year. The best part? It’s totally free (and not in the ad-ridden, drowning in popups kind of way). So does it work? Using some of my own data as a guinea pig, I decided to find out.
The interface is clean and simple
To begin with I’ll list the features of Disk Drill as Clever Files describes it on their product page:
- Any Drive
- Our free data recovery software for Windows PC can recover data from virtually any storage device – including internal and external hard drives, USB flash drives, iPods, memory cards, and more.
- Recovery Options
- Disk Drill has several different recovery algorithms, including Undelete, Protected Data, Quick Scan, and Deep Scan. It will run through them one at a time until your lost data is found.
- Speed & Simplicity
- It’s as easy as one click: Disk Drill scans start with just the click of a button. There’s no complicated interface with too many options, just click, sit back and wait for your files to appear.
- All File Systems
- Different types of hard drives and memory cards have different ways of storing data. Whether your media has a FAT, exFAT or NTFS file system, is HFS+ Mac drive or Linux EXT2/3/4, Disk Drill can recover deleted files.
- Partition Recovery
- Sometimes your data is still on your drive, but a partition has been lost or reformatted. Disk Drill can help you find the “map” to your old partition and rebuild it, so your files can be recovered.
- Recovery Vault
- In addition to deleted files recovery, Disk Drill also protects your PC from future data loss. Recovery Vault keeps a record of all deleted files, making it much easier to recover them.
- Disk Drill For Windows – Free download here
The Recovery Process
(No IDE hard drives were harmed in the making of this photo)
My recovery process involved an old 320GB IDE drive, which was used for backup until a power outage-related data corruption (I didn’t own a UPS at the time, and the drive was in the process of writing) which left me without a valid partition. At one point I had given up and formatted the drive; thinking all of my original backup was lost. Thankfully I didn’t use it much after this, and it’s been sitting on a shelf for years.
There are different methods that can be employed to recover lost or deleted data. One of these is to scan for the file headers (or signatures), which contain information about what type of file it is (i.e. Microsoft Word, JPEG image, etc.). There are advanced recovery methods that attempt to reconstruct an entire file system, preserving the folder structures and the original files names. Unfortunately, this is not a simple (or fast) process, and is generally left to the professionals.
What users at home can do with a free program like Disk Drill is search for files based on known types; and as long as the data is not damaged (over-written, etc.), it’s entirely possible to get at least some of your ‘lost’ data back. To this end, I installed Disk Drill on my test system (you should never, ever install anything to the drive that contains the missing data, by the way – you really need a second drive), and tried the software out on an old hard drive that had failed me long ago.
The recovery process begins with drive selection, and then scan type
After connecting the drive to my system with an IDE to USB adapter, since of course PATA/IDE isn’t on many motherboards anymore, I opened the Disk Drill software, and selected the drive. Choosing a full scan, I left the drive recovery running overnight. When I returned to the system I had a massive amount of data – many times the capacity of the 320 GB hard drive. Mmany of these findings were duplicates, for various long-deleted files that left signatures behind throughout the drive. The problem with sorting through these findings is the fact that original file names are gone (replaced with “File0001.docx,” File0002.docx,” and so on).
Results can be sorted by type (left), or browsed manually in the main window
After creating a folder for my recovered files on another drive, I pointed the Disk Drill software at this folder and started the transfer of this found data. This can take a while, depending on how many files have been selected. In the end, however, I had a ton of old documents and photos (some better forgotten); as well as some old archives that mostly unzipped successfully. There was a lot to go through, and some of the files were corrupted, of course. But the exercise was enough to tell me the program works as advertised.
For a quick test of a very common issue – lost images on an SD card – I took a full 16GB card that had made the trip to CES with me, and (after backing up the contents, of course) placed it in my camera and formatted it. Taking my newly “blank” SD card to the PC, and using a USB card reader to mount the drive, I pointed Disk Drill at it for another recovery session. 16GB of fast flash storage over USB 3.0 takes far less time than an old IDE hard disk on USB 2.0 (amazing, I know!), and the scan was done rather quickly. And, as I had just formatted the drive and had not written anything to it, all of my files (RAW photos in the .nef extension from my Nikon camera) were found.
What impressed me about Disk Drill is the clean, simplified interface that is far less likely to intimidate a less advanced user than other options I’ve tried in the past. It’s an easy recommendation given the price (free!), and was stable and effective during my experiments. Recently deleted files – even when the Recycle Bin has been "emptied" – are still recoverable with a program like this, and even if you only use it to recover accidentally deleted photos from an SD card, it's well worth a download.