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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While having 22 recoverable files was better than nothing, it fell far short of the 736 I was looking for. Furthermore, I'd have to spend $89 for a full license to recover them -- a cost of just over $4 per image.

Moving to the next level

Ontrack deals with situations like this every day, so I put a call in to Reinert. The basic version of EasyRecovery just looks for and recovers deleted files; Reinert suggested I download the free version of EasyRecovery Professional Edition, which does what Ontrack calls a "raw recovery."

This casts a much wider net by doing a low-level examination of all of the data in every physical sector of the disk drive. Rather than just looking for deleted files, it goes from sector to sector to find every file. In areas containing unallocated free space it looks for "signatures" that match the missing file type -- in this case JPEG images -- and returns results for every file that matches the criteria.

This approach is useful when file system structure information is missing. This appeared to be the case with Shirley's data, since my first data recovery pass returned just a few files, and the software could not even identify the folder in which they had originally been stored.

While the deleted files recovery had taken just a few minutes, the raw recovery required the better part of an hour to spit out 2,746 JPEG files. Again, I faced a dilemma. The JPEG files contained a mix of images from the Web and other programs as well as Shirley's photos. But after a few minutes it became clear that the raw recovery had found many more of the missing photos.

To figure out how many were recoverable, however, I would have to select and open every one individually. It would be easier to recover them all and then sort through them as thumbnails in the Windows Picture and Fax Viewer. But EasyRecovery Professional Edition sells for $499. Best case, if all 736 files were recoverable, the cost per photo would be 68 cents.

At this point Shirley would have called it quits. But while it was not worth $500 to her to recover the photos, I wanted to take the recovery effort as far as possible for this story. Reinert agreed to a temporary license for the project, and I moved forward with the recovery of all 2,746 files onto the memory stick. From there I moved them onto a Western Digital NetCenter networked hard drive for examination.

A raw recovery can potentially find more missing files than a deleted files recovery, but it loses the metadata associated with digital photographs, such as the file name and date. In my case, the recovered files were simply labeled from FIL0.JPG to FIL2745.JPG. Since the photos were all mixed up, sorting through the recovered files would be a time-consuming process.

"You're faced with the task of renaming or reclassifying those documents into names and folders that make sense to you again," says Reinert.

In addition, most of the recovered JPEG files were garbage -- cached images from Web sites. I began removing everything that wasn't a home photo, including program icons, an image of the Aflac Goose, Mr. T, Tiger Woods and a splash screen for Fantasy Football.

A partially recovered image.
A partially recovered image.
 

Some images were not viewable, while others were only partially recovered, presenting a fragment of the image on screen.

In the example shown here, the raw search found only two clusters of a file that should have been about 102 clusters long. This file may have been fragmented or partially overwritten by a newer file.

I pared the mess down to 781 images that I thought might be Shirley's photos. It appeared that we had gotten most of the pictures back.

But could a professional do better? There were, after all, files that appeared to be damaged, and others that would not open at all. At this point, I asked Ontrack to give it their best shot, and Barry was assigned to be my technician.

Going to the pros

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Data recovery services get expensive fast. To play the game, you need to ante up $100 for an initial analysis of the problem. But in Ontrack's case, if you've already bought EasyRecovery software and still couldn't recover any data, the company will waive the analysis fee and offer you a 15% discount off additional recovery services.

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Tip:  A professional data recovery service may be able to get your data back even if all appears lost. But charges can quickly rise into the $1,000 to $2,000 range. Get a written estimate before you commit.
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The initial analysis, which can be done remotely over the Internet, takes about two hours. Once the analysis is complete, data recovery on a desktop or laptop hard drive will set you back another $500 to $2,000. In contrast, recovering files on a removable USB flash drive typically costs between $250 and $500.

Barry's first piece of advice was not to panic. "It's easy to assume that the data is gone, that it's completely lost. Don't assume anything until we've come in at a manual level and verified that the data is gone," he says.

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