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Recovering Lost Files

PC Notes
Published January 2004
By Martin Walker

For a quick, easy and cost-effective way to bring deleted files back from the dead, File Rescue Plus is well worth a look.For a quick, easy and cost-effective way to bring deleted files back from the dead, File Rescue Plus is well worth a look.

Ever accidentally thrown away computer data that you should have kept? This month we have the technology, and we can rebuild it.

I'm sure we've all, at one time or another, deleted a file and then later wished we hadn't. Of course, if you use the standard Windows delete function, your file may still be safe in the Recycle Bin. It may then be possible to restore it, by right-clicking its icon on the Desktop and selecting the Open or Explore options, to see what's 'in the bin', or by clicking on its icon in the left-hand folders portion of Explorer.

Windows, by default, allows up to 10 percent of each drive to be used for the Recycle Bin, but if a file is larger than this size it will be permanently deleted when the delete function is used, as it will if you hold down the Shift key before selecting 'delete'. Files will also be permanently deleted if you use 'Empty Recycle Bin', also available as part of the Disk Cleanup function.

So what can you do if you've just permanently deleted a pile of files that you shouldn't have? Some of us will laugh in the face of calamity, reach for our most recent backup or drive image file, and restore the wanted files from that. The rest of us will feel a little sick and wonder if there's any other way to retrieve the data. Fortunately, there is, courtesy of a selection of utilities that claim to be able to bring back files from the dead. I recently had the chance to try out one of the most useful when I ran into some problems.

Is It A Bird? Is It A Plane?

I'd saved about 80 images from my laptop onto an SD (Secure Digital) card, confirmed that the files were safely there, then deleted the originals, before plugging the card into my desktop PC. Unfortunately, my desktop PC declared the card unformatted, and offered to reformat it for me. The card couldn't be read from my laptop either. Suspecting a fault on the card, I first confirmed the card still worked by reformatting it and storing some more data on it. This went without a hitch, but I was still without the images. Then I realised that it might be possible to restore them on my NTFS-formatted (New Technology File System) laptop, since Windows only removes the reference to a deleted file, and doesn't physically wipe its data.

Enter File Rescue Plus 3.0 from developers Software Shelf International. This software claims to "recover accidentally deleted files and pictures quickly and easily — even from quick-formatted or virus-damaged drives". If, like me, you've several PCs running different versions of Windows, you'll be pleased to know that File Rescue Plus will deal with the lot — Windows 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000, 2003 Server or Workstation, and XP. It will also scan drives formatted with FAT12, FAT16, FAT32 and NTFS, as well as removable drives including floppy, Zip, Jaz and Syquest, plus removable cards including Flash Media, Compact Flash, Smart Media, Secure Digital and Memory Stick. It can also deal with compressed or heavily fragmented drives, and only requires a Pentium 166, 32MB of RAM and 2MB of hard disk space to run.

PC Snippets

  • At the beginning of November, Microsoft will be taking the wraps off the first publicly-available test code for their Longhorm O/S, now due to be released commercially in 2006. This will allow third-party developers to start prototyping new products so that they can be finished in tandem with the release. Visit for more.
  • Enterprising developers Macrovision have come up with a new strategy to discourage game software piracy. Called Fade, their new system allows copies to work perfectly at first, but start to degrade in performance once the player has had the chance to get hooked on the game. Guns start to shoot off-target and run out of bullets, and cars no longer steer, hopefully encouraging some to go out and buy the real thing. I wonder if this approach would work with music software?

In The Mode

Unlike various similar utilities I've tried in the past, File Rescue Plus is very easy to use. When launched, it asks you to first select from three modes. Recommended in most cases is Deleted File Scan, which, as its name suggests scans for deleted files on one or all of the drives you subsequently choose. You can also specify a pattern match, such as .txt, if you only want to search for text files, for instance, which could be a great time-saver. Once the scan is complete, you're presented with a window containing the names of any files found, along with their directory, size, date when last modified, and a Condition column that rates each file as Excellent, Good, Fair or Poor, reflecting the likelihood of it being recovered intact.

Clicking on each column heading re-orders the results accordingly, which is also extremely helpful — for instance, sorting by date will help you find the most recent deletions, while sorting by directory soon found my 78 JPG photograph files, even though the folder itself had also been deleted. It only took me a couple of minutes to restore these files successfully to a new folder on another partition (it's always safest not to save anything on the one you're scanning, in case you overwrite any remaining files yet to be recovered).

The second file scan mode is Cluster Scan, which can recover files from a quick-formatted drive, or one suffering from virus damage. In both cases the drive's file allocation table(s) will be defunct, so you need to tell it whether the drive format has changed since the files were created, and then it scans through the drive cluster by cluster, looking for files.

The final scan mode is Picture Rescue, another cluster-scanning option, which only looks for JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP, PSD, and TIFF files, once again with pattern matching if required, and then offers thumbnail views of all the files it finds. This is the perfect option for anyone with a digital camera who changes their mind after deleting some images.

File Rescue Plus doesn't make any changes to your drive while it's scanning, but it's important to attempt file recovery as soon as possible following deletion, since after this time the space occupied by these files is marked as unused, and can be overwritten with other subsequently saved data. If you haven't installed File Rescue Plus before your disaster happens, it may also be possible to install it onto a floppy disk using another PC, and then run it from there to avoid overwriting any wanted data.

It's a shame you can't re-run the utility, using a different scan option, without re-launching it, but aside from this small quibble I found File Rescue Plus invaluable and incredibly easy to use. Indeed, I can't recommend it highly enough. It's available in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese language versions, and costs just £31.02 on CD or £27.57 for secure download (single user), complete with access to a technical support team free of charge for the first 90 days. A Network Enterprises version is also available with one-year phone and email support, either on a per-machine basis, or on the basis of a 'roaming Administrator' license that lets tech staff run the software from CD on any PC connected to a network. There's also a free download that allows you to fully evaluate the product but only recover a maximum of two files.

Tiny Tips

In the past, the humble 1.44Mb capacity of the floppy disk has always been handy for transferring small amounts of data from one PC to another, and also for booting from in an emergency, such as a hard drive problem or Windows corruption. One limitation with many of the latest slimline PC laptops is the lack of a floppy drive, but fortunately there are several ways round this limitation.

If your new PC laptop doesn't have a floppy drive, you could buy an external one, but you may not need to.If your new PC laptop doesn't have a floppy drive, you could buy an external one, but you may not need to.First, it's possible to buy an external USB floppy drive for about £30, although if you want to transfer files from another PC a far more versatile solution is an external USB2 or FireWire hard drive, which can also be used for audio purposes. Another is to buy some sort of memory card, especially useful now that many laptops have integral card readers. However, if you find yourself in an emergency situation, as described above, it may be useful to know that some programs can be booted and run in DOS mode directly from their original CD-ROMs. First you'll need to change the boot order in your laptop's BIOS so the CD-ROM drive is checked for bootable devices before the hard drive, and then after rebooting with your CD-ROM in the drive the application will run automatically.

One example of a bootable CD-ROM is PartitionMagic/BootMagic, which gives you an ideal way to re-size an existing partition, add a new one in preparation for another OS, or boot into a different partition — all without the software being installed on the hard drive in question. Another is Norton Utilities, which provides utilities such as Disk Doctor, Disk Editor, UnErase (like File Rescue Plus, but far more complicated), and UnFormat, for emergency treatment of your drives. However, the most famous bootable CD-ROMs are the various Windows CDs, allowing you to install Windows or fault-find using a variety of tools. All options considered, the lack of a floppy drive may not be such a disadvantage after all.

Motherboard Update

December 2003's SOS featured a PC Musician article I wrote about installing a new motherboard, in which I also explained how it's possible to avoid having to re-install Windows and all your applications after the change, by employing an 'over the top' Windows update to detect the new motherboard hardware devices. This approach is unusual, and since I've now spent several weeks using my new PC I thought I'd report back with longer-term findings.

The best news is that my XP Music partition (which crashed following its original 'over the top' reinstall) worked perfectly after I restored the PowerQuest Drive Image file taken just before the new motherboard installation and performed exactly the same process for a second time. Both this and my Windows XP 'Review' partition have proved to be extremely reliable, with only one temporary casualty — Gigastudio 2.53, which loaded its sample files perfectly, but refused to play them.

One of the perils of installing a new motherboard is that so many facets of your system change simultaneously. I eventually discovered that the Gigastudio problem wasn't caused by not re-installing Windows XP from scratch, but was related to the HyperThreading (HT) capability of my new processor/motherboard combination. Once I disabled this from the BIOS, Gigastudio worked perfectly again, giving me a 100 percent success rate for both partitions (although I'm disappointed not to be able to use HT now that Cubase SX 2.0 supports it).

Every application and utility on my '98 Review' and '98 Music' partitions has also performed perfectly with the new motherboard, the only casualties proving to be on my '98 General' partition. As I mentioned in the feature, my USB modem coincidentally went belly-up at the same time as my Windows re-installation (possibly due to an incoming spike on the telephone line), but then I also had problems running PowerQuest's Drive Image, and problems with my USB-connected printer. In a situation like this one, with so many possible causes for such problems, it's best to rule them out one by one.

I reinstalled Drive Image, to rule out possible file corruption, but to no avail. However, the floppy version worked fine on my new hardware, which (by elimination) suggested a Windows system problem. I could establish two-way communication with the printer to check ink levels, but it wouldn't print, so I reinstalled the latest printer drivers, again with no improvement. However, the printer worked fine when plugged into another PC, so this only left the USB 2.0 ports or some more obscure Windows fault. I next installed the printer drivers in my working 98 Review and XP Review partitions, and the printer worked fine in them both, so it was definitely a Windows glitch from the 'over the top' update, and nothing to do with the new motherboard hardware.

I've no doubt that I would get to the bottom of these problems eventually, but since I first installed my now well-stuffed '98 General' partition way back in August 2001, I've decided to work round the problems and eventually abandon the partition, starting afresh with a new 'XP General' one. Still, 99 percent of all the applications across five partitions still work perfectly, so overall I judge the 'over the top' install process a resounding success!

Published January 2004