At Gillware Data Recovery, we have a bit of a complicated relationship with data recovery software. When used properly, it can rescue those family photos or Quickbooks files you’ve lost and save your computer a trip to a computer repair expert (or a data recovery lab). On the other hand, when used improperly, data recovery software can make your situation worse.
Effectively Using Data Recovery Software
Software tools for retrieving lost files can either be a help or a hindrance. Used in the right hands and in the right situation, an app to recover your lost files can be your white knight… or your bête noir.
So the first “do”s and “don’t”s of data recovery software are: When do you use it? And when don’t you use it?
When Your Hard Drive Has a Logical Issue… DO Use Data Recovery Software
We divide data loss into two categories: physical and logical. Physical data loss happens as a result of actual physical damage to your hard drive (or SSD, or thumb drive, etc.). This can be electrical shorts, damage to the storage media itself, or natural wear and tear on the device’s components.
Logical data loss refers to when you lose data by cutting off the pathways of machine logic your computer follows to find and access your files. For example, deleting a folder of family photos doesn’t immediately erase that data for all time, but it does erase the path that leads your computer to that data—making it seem as though those files have disappeared for good. Often data recovery tools can still dredge up that lost data.
Accidentally deleting files, reformatting the wrong hard disk or other storage device, or accidentally reinstalling an operating system falls under the category of what we call “logical” data loss issues. Restoring deleted data, or recovering from an accidental reformat, can be quite easy if you immediately jump into action and play your cards right.
If you’ve reinstalled your operating system, though, your chances of success with data retrieval tools on your own are much lower due to the extent of the damage. In such a situation, you would be better off immediately seeking professional data recovery services.
When Your Hard Drive Has a Physical Issue… DON’T Use Data Recovery Software
Hard disk drives are delicate machines, and like all machines, they can break down. This can be due to being dropped or otherwise subjected to violence. It can also happen simply due to old age. Hard disk platters wear out or become scratched. Read/write heads break down. Spindle motors seize up. Circuit boards short out.
The symptoms of physical hard disk failure can vary depending on what exactly has gone wrong. However, these symptoms indicate severe situations in which data recovery software will be of no use to you whatsoever:
- Hard drive clicking, beeping, or whining/grinding
- Hard drive not spinning, or spinning up and then spinning down again
- Hard drive producing smoke or a burning smell
Even in situations of minor hard disk failure, though, widely-available data retrieval software often lack the fault-tolerance to recover data from failing drives. Forcing a failed or failing hard drive to run while attempting to use data retrieval software can worsen its condition, landing you in even hotter water.
These are situations the hard drive repair engineers at Gillware have to deal with on a daily basis. To recover data from failing and freshly-repaired data storage devices, we use extremely fault-tolerant and powerful disk imaging and data retrieval software of our own design.
If you know that your hard drive has physically failed, stop trying to run it immediately and contact a professional data recovery company.
The “Do”s and “Don’t”s of Data Recovery Software
As long as you use data recovery software when the situation calls for it, and you use it prudently,. When using software tools to retrieve your lost files…
DO check your hard disk drive’s health first. Many hard disk drive manufacturers have their own free diagnostic tools, such as Seagate’s SeaTools and Western Digital’s Data Lifeguard Diagnostic, and there are many other free hard drive diagnostic tools available. If your HDD is failing, the likelihood that data recovery software will help you is low.
DO NOT continue to use the storage device in question. When logical data loss occurs, your computer thinks the space occupied by your lost files is empty (and therefore up-for-grabs). Even the simple act of booting up your computer, for example, writes new data to its internal hard drive that can overwrite and damage your lost files.
DO safely eject and unplug your device. If you are experiencing data loss from an external drive or thumb drive, following the “Safely Eject Device” procedures will prevent the chances of accidental boot sector damage that can make your problem worse.
DO NOT automatically assume that a boot error is a logical problem. A boot error can sometimes be a purely logical problem, such as operating system corruption. However, it may also be a symptom of hard disk failure as well—and your computer won’t know the difference.
DO make a clone of your hard disk drive, if possible. You will want to work with a copy of your data whenever possible. To create a write-protected disk clone (to ensure that you won’t alter any data on the original drive), you can use a free disk cloning tool such as CloneZilla. That way, if you are unsuccessful recovering your data from the clone, you haven’t altered the data on the original device.
DO NOT install the software directly on your computer’s hard drive (if your hard drive contains the lost data). If you install the software directly to the same storage device you want to recover data from, the new data you’ve created could overwrite and irrevocably damage the very same files you’re trying to recover in the first place. Instead, hook up your hard drive (or its clone) to another computer and run the software from there.
With these tips, you should be well on your way to using data retrieval software responsibly and salvaging your lost files. In dire data loss situations, though, remember that you can always count on the expertise of data recovery professionals to lend a hand.
Will Ascenzo is the lead technical and copywriter for Gillware Data Recovery, a company specializing in hard drive data recovery and RAID Data Recovery. Gillware also provides digital forensics services and ediscovery services.