Review: 7 data recovery tools for every data disaster

From resurrecting lost photos to recovering RAID arrays, these utilities can bring your data back from the dead

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The single biggest limitation of Recuva is that file signatures appear to be hard-wired into the program. If you want to look for a custom format or another file not in Recuva’s list, you’ll need to use PhotoRec or an application that allows custom file signatures. What’s more, it was difficult to figure out exactly which file types are supported by the application in the first place. Piriform’s website doesn’t seem to list which files Recuva recognizes, although I found a note in the product forum that provided a way to discover supported file types in advanced mode.

Recuva comes in a free edition with no support provided, as well as $24.95 business and professional versions that provide paid support. There don’t appear to be any licensing restrictions on businesses using the free version, nor do there seem to be any missing or crippled features. A portable edition of the program (also available free) can be placed on a USB drive and run without needing to be installed on the target machine -- a handy way to run the program in environments with a number of machines.

recuva

Recuva is a fast and flexible recovery tool for Windows. You can run it in an easy, wizard-driven mode or in an advanced mode to reveal more detail.

SystemRescueCd

Dozens of Linux-based rescue CDs with file recovery tools are out there, but many of them are no longer updated, require too much command-line wizardry to be really useful, or both. SystemRescueCd is a Linux rescue CD (or USB stick) that strikes a good balance between being complete and being usable. Plus, you’ll find generous documentation on the SystemRescueCd website, though it’s geared for experts who aren’t afraid of Linux or the command line.

SystemRescueCd is best for recovering data from systems that are unbootable or where you don’t want to run the risk of contaminating the data. When you boot the OS, the file systems on the machine in question aren’t automatically mounted, to keep them from being changed inadvertently. They can be read from by many of the tools on board, but they can’t be written to. If you’re trying to copy data off such a system, you’ll need to manually mount the drive where you want the files saved.

SystemRescueCd provides a wealth of open source tools for inspecting, copying, and saving data from a damaged drive or system. PhotoRec is among them, and while it’s only available in its text-mode version, that’s still useful and powerful if not as easy to use as the GUI edition. Naturally, the speed of the data recovery depends entirely on the particular program used.

Another nice boon of SystemRescueCd is that the whole system, tools included, is kept up to date with current builds of everything. (The version I reviewed, dated Oct. 29, 2015, was superseded on January 1.)

The single biggest downside to SystemRescueCd is that there is absolutely no guidance for the user. If you don’t know your way around a Linux system, it’s best to learn before attempting to perform any kind of recovery work with this tool. SystemRescueCd lets you fire up a graphical desktop with many common tools available from a cascading menu, but that’s no substitute for a wizard or a starting menu of common recovery options. AVG Rescue, another rescue CD created by the makers of the AVG antivirus suite, provides exactly this sort of guidance to the user, but many of its tools are out of date, making it difficult to recommend.

systemrescuecd

SystemRescueCd is a Linux distro designed for data recovery, bundling a slew of open source tools for inspecting and repairing disks and rescuing files from Linux and Windows systems.

CardRecovery

As the name implies, CardRecovery for Windows is focused on recovering data from memory cards used in cameras, with a few features specific to how those recovery jobs work. A sibling program, CardRescue, brings the same capabilities to Mac OS X.

Like Recuva, CardRecovery starts off with a wizard interface, from which you choose the media to recover from and the target directory to write the recovered files. If you’re recovering data from a card that was used in a specific model of digital camera (Canon, Sony, Nikon, Pentax, and so on), you can specify the brand to refine the search.

The most crucial limitation of the program is that it confines itself to scanning for common file types found on camera media, mainly JPEG, TIFF, and RAW formats. You can scan for some formats of audio and video as well. But if you’re trying to recover any other kind of file, another program is in order. Note too that cards must be mounted and made available through a drive letter; you can’t scan a volume image file or a network share.

Scanning a 15GB drive took approximately 15 minutes, but CardRecovery gives you the option of pausing the scan partway through to recover any files already discovered by the search. Any additional property data available with the files, such as EXIF data recorded by the camera, can also be previewed.

The program provides a browsable list of thumbnails of the files that can be recovered, allowing you to identify a particular image file by sight. One minor annoyance with that feature: You can browse only six images at a time. Note too that some recovered movie files can’t play as-is when recovered; CardRecovery’s creators suggest a number of third-party applications to help repair those files.

If you want to find out whether or not CardRecovery can save your particular bacon without spending money on it, the evaluation version of the program finds files and lets you preview them, but doesn’t allow you to save them. For that, a licensed copy of CardRecovery costs a mere $39.95.

cardrecovery

CardRecovery specializes in resurrecting lost photos, as well as some audio and video files, from camera media.

Remo Recover

Available for Windows and the Mac, Remo Recover comes in three editions. The Basic edition handles recovery of most common types of files, while the Media edition adds support for various kinds of media such as RAW camera files. The Pro edition is for recovery of entire drives that have suffered damage or been repartitioned or reformatted. About 280 file types are supported by the Media and Pro editions. On starting the program, you’re given the option of which edition you want to run. If you don’t have a license key for that particular edition, you’ll see what files you can recover, but you won’t be permitted to restore them.

Standard file recovery can search both for freshly deleted files, where directory entries are still present, and for files in a drive’s free space, where the program tries to match data against file signatures. Searching by directory entries is selected by default because Remo Recover can obtain results very quickly that way.

Searching by file signature is slow, and you don’t get any feedback during such a search to tell you if anything has turned up yet. On the plus side, when you’re finished scanning a given drive, you can save the state of the recovery session. This allows you to return to the results of a scan and continue restoring files, without having to rescan the whole drive. I doubt the program will be able to do anything if the contents of the drive change between recovery sessions, so be careful.

Like CardRecovery, Remo Recover has the ability to scan for manufacturer-specific RAW image types used in digital cameras, including relatively exotic, high-end breeds like Leica. I should note that PhotoRec claims to be able to search for many of those formats as well, although not all of them. Formats for Hasselblad and Ricoh, for instance, are supported in Remo Recover, but not in PhotoRec. For those who use one of those devices, this might tip the scales in favor of Remo Recover.

The Pro edition tools, partition recovery and drive unformatting, allow you to scan a raw drive, even one without a drive letter attached, to recover data from it. Entire drives can be imaged to a file with the Pro edition, making it possible to perform recovery operations without needing the original media. Note that writing out an image file takes a long time -- typically, about as long as it takes to scan the media in the first place. But if you’re copying the image from media that reads slowly to a local hard drive or SSD, searching the image will be many times faster.

Free preview editions of Remo Recover let you preview recoverable data, but not save it. Basic, Media, and Pro editions for Windows cost $39.97, $49.97, and $99.97 respectively. The prices for the Mac versions are $59.94, 69.94, and $179.94.

remo recover

Remo Recover combines general-purpose file recovery for Windows or Mac with support for even some esoteric camera media.

Now you see it

Which recovery tool is for you? PhotoRec and companion TestDisk have consistently been among the most useful, performant, flexible, and inexpensive applications available for data recovery. They don’t have the breadth of options of some of the other apps examined here, but it’s almost impossible to go wrong with them as a first step.

Sleuth Kit/Autopsy is more of a full toolbox than a single wrench or hammer, and for that reason might be intimidating to work with, especially if all you need to do is recover a particular file. But for those who need the full toolbox, it is a great way to have one for no initial cost. SystemRescueCd also rolls up a great many tools into one bundle, but it’s strictly for experts. Those afraid of the command line shouldn’t even think of using it.

Kroll Ontrack EasyRecovery Enterprise stands out with its RAID recovery function, and it’s recommended for those who need that capability. For those who don't, many of its other features can be found in other programs, like Remo Recover.

Remo Recover stood out for making it easy to save out image files from media, and for having some fairly exotic camera file types as part of its database. CardRecovery supported a number of those file types as well, although its slow scanning and slightly clumsy interface worked against it.

Finally, Recuva packs a lot of great features into one program: fast scanning, a convenient interface, and useful details about what’s recoverable and what’s not. It should be in every Windows user's toolbox.

This story, "Review: 7 data recovery tools for every data disaster" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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