What are your best data recovery tips?

As a data recovery specialist, I've worked with many people who have suddenly found their hard disk drives failing or who have accidentally hit delete on an essential file. It's a situation that can cause a high level of stress. But armed with a few tricks of the trade, data recovery is a straightforward process. So take a deep breath, keep reading, and try these tried and true data recovery tips. Your files are most likely recoverable!

Tip # 1: Stop using your disk.

Step away from your computer. Don't write any new data to the disk. Doing so may cause recoverable deleted data to become irrecoverable. That's because deleted files don't instantaneously disappear, they remain on the disk until other information replaces it. So, each time you write to the disk, you risk overwriting the file you are trying to recover.

Even a seemingly harmless activity like opening files or browsing the web can damage or overwrite deleted materials, especially on a damaged or failing disk. Avoiding shutting down and restarting your computer more than necessary, as considerable reading and writing to your disk occurs during this process. However, if you are comfortable removing your drive, you should turn off your computer and remove the drive to stop all activity on the disk.

Tip # 2: Create a duplicate image of your disk.

This tip is best for recovering data from unbootable, reformatted, and heavily damaged disks. Using a tool like R-Image, you can create an exact duplicate of your drive on an SD card, USB drive, or another partition. Now you can work with your data as much as necessary to recover your files without inflicting further damage on the original disk.

Tip # 3: Recover your data from another computer.

Ideal for extensive data recovery (like pulling many files from an unbootable or reformatted disk), remote data recovery can be just as effective as recovering local data. There are two main ways to approach this.  You can physically remove the hard drive from one machine and place it in an external docking station (usually runs $50+) or a FireWire or USB hard drive enclosure (usually about $10). Then, you connect it to another computer as you would an external hard drive. You can now work on retrieving your data without booting directly from the disk.

If the disk cannot be physically removed, you can also try a data recovery over network, even if the computer isn't bootable. For example, R-Studio Network comes with a bootable version for the nonoperational computer and a network data recovery module that lets you recover the data from another machine. 

Tip # 4: Conduct a raw file search.

Conducting a raw file search allows you to search your computer more intensely than a basic recovery utility or file undelete scan. With a raw file search, you're searching for file signatures, effectively asking your computer for exactly what you want. For example, if you're looking to recover picture files deleted from your camera, you could search file signatures for JPEG files from a Canon camera. R-Studio, made by the same company as R-Image, lets you search using custom file signatures, which is incredibly useful for recovering less common types of files.

Raw file search or digital file signature scans are often the only solution for certain Unix and Linux based file systems. Additionally, if the deleted file is fragmented, partially overwritten, or on a disk that has been reformatted or repartitioned, a raw file search will get you the best results.

Tip # 5: Know when to seek professional help.

Even with the best tips, sometimes you'll need to seek professional help to recover your data. Even if you try all our tips and can't recover the data yourself, don't lose hope. Your file may still be out there! If you're frustrated with doing it yourself or your hard disk drive is making any kind of odd noises (like clicking or scraping), take it to a professional. Take some time to research a reputable company and let them do their best for you.

Tip # 6: Take preventative measures.

No one wants to spend their time trying to recover their own data - it's nerve wracking and time consuming. It's also a preventable situation. Put together a backup system for your data and then use it. Frequently. You can't back up your files too often, trust me. If you find daily, weekly, monthly or yearly backups tedious, get a program that automates it for you. Dropbox  and Windows Live Mesh (part of Windows Live Essentials) are two free cloud-based solutions that are simple and reliable. While they may not give you enough free storage space to back up your entire hard drive, they make excellent repositories for your most crucial files. 

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