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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The final tally

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So after all that, most of Shirley's deleted photos were recovered, although some were missing and others only partially viewable. You'll find a scorecard with the complete results at the bottom of the page.

While the free tools I tried were only able to find and restore a handful of deleted images, the raw recovery feature in EasyRecovery Pro appears to have restored nearly all of them. And in this case, the Ontrack professional service didn't appear to yield any more files than could be achieved using EasyRecovery Pro.

Although EasyRecovery's raw recovery pass appears to have discovered 501 more JPEG files than Ontrack's professional service produced, this is a bit misleading, Barry says. Because the EasyRecovery raw recovery takes a "brute force" approach, finding everything on every sector of the hard drive, it picks up a lot of irrelevant data.

"I worked the recovery from a logical or file system-based perspective, whereas [EasyRecovery Pro's] raw function does not," he explains. In other words, he recovered the same images but with fewer garbage files to wade through. In fact, Barry may have found some images that didn't come through in the EasyRecovery Pro raw recovery, but with so many photo images to sort through and arrange it's difficult to tell for sure.

Since I couldn't preview the files Barry initially identified in the signature search results, moving forward with the costly professional services recovery was a gamble. Moving ahead might have made sense if the missing photographs were extremely valuable, or if the do-it-yourself tools hadn't worked. But in this case, EasyRecovery Pro's raw recovery feature had restored most of the files already. At $499, the total cost was about 68 cents per photo.

Had EasyRecovery Pro not been able to recover most of the files, professional services would have been the only option. Total professional service charges would have come to $1,000, including $900 for restoration and the $100 initial analysis fee. Total cost: about $1.35 per photo.

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Tip:  If you buy recovery software from a recovery services vendor and it doesn't fix the problem, you may be able to get a discount off professional services -- if you ask for it.
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Had I purchased EasyRecovery Pro first, failed to get the results I wanted and then hired Ontrack, the company would have waived the analysis fee and given a 15% discount on the $900 balance. That would have reduced the professional services bill to $765. The total investment including services and software: $1,264, or $1.72 per photo.

In my situation, opting for professional services didn't improve the recovery rate. But with other types of data loss, such as volume overwrites, lost RAID configurations or e-mail file repair, a recovery service might provide better results than off-the-shelf recovery tools, Barry claims.

"The unfortunate fact is that with this case, there were a large number of clusters that had been overwritten with new file data after the delete operation occurred," Barry says. That made some of the deleted images unrecoverable, although, fortunately, most of Shirley's photos remained intact.

So in the end, Shirley got her files back. I got my office back. And both of us will be backing up much more frequently from now on.

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File-recovery scorecard

Total Digital Photos Lost: 736 Total .jpg files found Actual photos recovered
 FreeUndelete software
 Restoration software 155  16 

 EasyRecovery software

   Deleted files recovery pass

   Raw recovery pass

   Total recovered files

95 

2,746 

2,746 

22 

781 

781 

 Ontrack professional services

   Files recovery pass

   Raw recovery pass

   Total recovered files

1,108 (953 active plus 155 deleted) 

1,137 

2,245 

20 

733 

753 

Note: In professional services, the recovered files are broken down into those found in the signature search and those found in the file recovery pass. With the commercial software, the "raw" recovery result includes all files recoverable, including deleted files and active files.

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Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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