Surviving a home data disaster: How Shirley got her files back

Recovering 736 missing digital images can be arduous -- and expensive

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But I didn't do any of that initially. And to make matters worse, I used Shirley's machine to surf the Web to find a file recovery utility. This would be safe, I thought, as long as I downloaded and installed the program on media other than the drive on which I needed to perform the data recovery. That was my second big mistake.

Because Web browsers cache Web pages and images, surfing the Web is one of the biggest killers of accidentally deleted files. "Users go out to the Internet to find a solution, and what they don't realize is that everything they see is being downloaded to the computer," says Barry.

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Tip:  Web surfing is the biggest killer of accidentally deleted files.
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This admonition hit home later when one of the JPEGs I recovered was an image cached from the Ontrack Data Recovery Web site, shown here. Oops.

Do-it-yourself recovery steps

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Unaware of the risks, I confidently plodded ahead with my Web surfing. I discovered many utilities that could be used to find and recover deleted files. I decided to try a couple of free programs first.

Since I knew that installing recovery software might accidentally overwrite the files I wanted to recover, I would have to load and run the software from different media. For this purpose I chose the Kingston DataTraveller Secure, a 2GB titanium-encased USB flash drive that, ironically, I had once deliberately (and unsuccessfully) tried to destroy by driving over it with my car (see USB drive put to the Timex test).

Free options

I started by downloading OfficeRecovery.com's FreeUndelete program, which required just over 1MB of space on my flash drive. Like other undelete products, FreeUndelete first scans the target media for deleted files and then allows you to copy them to a new location. I quickly installed the applet and ran several scans. The utility detected no image files.

Undaunted, I downloaded a copy of Brian Kato's 200KB freeware Restoration program. It found 155 deleted image files, but only 39 of those used the Kodak EasyShare file name format. I diligently restored several files to the USB drive, but only 16 images were viewable. Now I was getting worried.

Only 16 out of 155 images located by Restoration were viewable. (Click image for larger view.)
Only 16 out of 155 images located by Restoration were viewable. (Click image for larger view.)

I had done an interview with Kroll Ontrack a few months earlier for a disaster-recovery story and recalled that the company offered a free utility. Sure enough, I found EasyRecovery DataRecovery on the Web site and dutifully downloaded it.

At 68MB, EasyRecovery was quite a bit heftier than the other freebies I'd tried, and I was hoping it was also more powerful. There was just one catch: The trial version would let me scan for undeleted files and view them, but to actually restore the files I would need to spend $89 for the full version.

The program also placed a "Crisis" icon on the desktop that linked back to Ontrack's services. Break glass. Pull handle. Open wallet. Recovery services, I knew, weren't cheap. But the appearance of that icon on the desktop also made me uneasy for another reason. If this icon had been written to the disk drive, what else had the installation routine placed there?

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Tip:  Free recovery utilities may work sometimes, but you generally get what you pay for.
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Functionally, EasyRecovery was similar to the other two programs. One limitation with this and the other recovery tools I tried is that they're a bit clunky to use when you're recovering hundreds of files. When you're searching for one file and you know the file name, you'll get one file back. But I was looking for hundreds of missing images whose file names I didn't know, which meant a huge number of results to sift through.

After completing a scan for all deleted files, EasyRecovery showed a hierarchy of folders it found on the disk that contained recoverable files, but it wouldn't let me just see a list of the files. To find what was there, I had to open every folder -- a tedious process when there are thousands of folders and subfolders returned in the results set.

The program does let you filter down the results, and I restricted it to just those files with a .jpg extension. It placed only the target files in each folder and displayed only folders containing at least one target file, but I still had to sort through more than 1,000 folders to view the contents.

"That's one of my pet peeves with the software," admits Jim Reinert, director of software and services at Ontrack. "I just want a list of files. Don't make me search the structure." To make things even more tedious, the program forces you to click on each image file to preview it.

As it turned out, most of the JPEG images I was looking for were located in a "Lostfiles" folder, which the utility creates when it can't tell which directory held a file originally. The good news was that the utility found 95 of the missing JPEG files.

The bad news: When I tried to open them, I discovered that only 22 of the files were readable, and another 36 were marked with an X, indicating those files were cross-linked with other files. In other words, another file or folder was laying claim to the same space where parts of the deleted file once resided on disk. Not good.

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