How do I recover my data after a computer crash?

The most painful part of a computer crash is often the loss of data. I'll look at what to do to minimize the loss and to try to recover.

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My computer recently crashed. How do I recover my data? I mean my pictures, folders and the other items on my C: drive. I did a recovery, but I was unable to recover any files.

This is a frighteningly common question that I get in various forms.

Computers crash, hard disks die, malware invades, and data is lost.

I’ll look at some of the most common approaches to try after a crash to try to get your data back.

Restore from your backup

It has to be said.

By far, the easiest, fastest, and most stress-free approach to data recovery after a crash is to simply restore the data from your most recent backup.

Backing up is the closest thing to computing’s silver bullet and cure-all.

Oh. You don’t have a backup?

Well, then things get iffy.

At a minimum, I hope that you’ll learn from this experience and put a regular backup plan into place as soon as possible to protect yourself from a repeat of what is, in the worst case, a disastrous loss of all your data.

Don’t use the hard drive

I’m not certain what you mean when you say that you did a recovery, but if your files are missing after the recovery, then this is not a good thing. In fact, I’d venture to say that at least some of your files are lost and gone forever.

It Crashed Again!The problem is that a recovery that involves something like reinstalling the operating system from scratch will almost always erase and overwrite whatever was on the hard disk. That means that your installed programs and your data may be overwritten by the newly installed operating system.

The good news is that it’s possible that some of the data was not overwritten. However, continuing to use that hard drive decreases the amount of data that can be recovered with every moment that it’s used.

Hence: stop using it.

The alternative to using it

The safest approach to recovering files from a hard disk drive is to connect it as an additional drive. That might mean installing a new primary drive in your computer, or it might mean using a second computer for the data recovery process.

The easiest approach is to place the hard drive into a USB enclosure and connect it as an external drive.

Don’t use that drive for anything but your data recovery efforts. In fact, don’t even place recovered files back on it until you’re absolutely certain that you’re done. The process of copying back even one restored file can render some as-yet-to-be-restored file unrecoverable.

Recovery steps

In your shoes, these are the steps that I’d consider performing to recover lost files:

  • Start with search. It’s possible that your files have not been erased or deleted at all. Perhaps your recovery was an install of Windows that preserved all of the files on the disk, but set up a new, empty “My Documents” folder. You might expect your files to be in this folder, but as it’s a new, empty one, they’re not. Use the windows Search function to search the entire hard disk for one or more files whose filename you know. If found, examine the containing folder and you may find more of your documents. Copy them to a safe location.
  • Run CHKDSK. Specifically, “CHKDSK /R” in a Command Prompt window (possibly run with administrative privileges in Windows Vista or Windows 7). If the file system has been corrupted by the crash, it’s possible that CHKDSK may uncover lost files. If it reports that it has fixed something, repeat the previous step of searching for your files.
  • Run SpinRite. If CHKDSK reports unrecoverable read or CRC errors, then you may want to consider running a disk surface recovery tool, such as SpinRite. It’s not free, but depending on the data that you might have lost, the cost could be very reasonable in comparison. After SpinRite completes (which can take hours), search for your files again. Note: SpinRite can be excruciatingly slow over a USB connection. If you elect to run SpinRite, you’ll want a direct connection internal to your PC or perhaps an eSata connection if the computer and drive support it.
  • Run Recuva. Recuva is a free file recovery utility that scans the currently unused free space on your hard disk for files and file fragments that used to be stored there. Any files which were deleted by the recovery process, but not overwritten by subsequent use of the hard drive should, in theory, be recoverable by Recuva.

If your files haven’t been recovered at this point, then chances are that they are gone forever.

One last straw to grasp at

If you have a large budget (I believe we’re talking hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars) and the data that you’ve lost is that important to you, then it might be worth contacting a data recovery service. Make sure that they do more than what I’ve just described (many basically do pretty much the equivalent of the list above).

Specifically, ask if they attempt to recover data that has been overwritten. This requires special tools and techniques not available to the average user and would be the reason for contacting them and using their services.

If all that they do is recover deleted files, then you’re quite capable of doing that yourself as outlined above.

Above all, learn the lesson

Whether you successfully recover your data or not, there’s a key lesson here that it seems everyone has to learn once, the hard way.

Backup your data.

I know, I know,. It’s not as easy as it should be and people like me harp on it constantly, but I can’t overstate the importance of an up-to-date backup.

Backing up is the closest thing to computing’s silver bullet and cure-all. A good backup can save you from an amazing number of failures, errors, malware infections, and computer crashes.

If your important files are in one and only one place, then they’re not backed up.

There are 24 comments:

  1. MARK DAVIES Reply

    Should I “back-up” my C drive or make a clone of it?

    Cloning is a form of backup, but in general I recommend full system image backups.

    Leo
    26-Jul-2011
  2. snert Reply

    I had a second HD, d: where my backups went. The daggone thing went belly up and refused any attempt of revival.
    Good news, my primary HD is good and I’m waiting for a mail-order replacement for my d:.
    Who’d a thunk it?

  3. Rob Reply

    I bet you have lost count of the number of times you have had to tell people somethng as basic as backing stuff up. And basic it is now that the price of an external drive is so reasonable (1 Terabyte – $80.00)

  4. Stu Reply

    We had a power spike a couple of years ago at school and three different hard drives were ruined. Unfortunately, one of them was the main student information drive and another was its backup! (The former “Tech Director”, who had been warned by several of us about her weak data protection plans, has since been replaced.)

    Anyway, we took bids from 3 different data recovery services. After checking their references, the most expensive was the only one that used detailed sector-by-sector recovery techniques, so they got the job. It took a few days, but over 98% of the data on the prime HD was recovered, and the missing 2% was recoverable from the backup. The lessons (both of which Leo has mentioned) are (1) have a good plan to protect your data, and (2) if something does happen, remember that you’re likely to get what you pay for.

  5. GREG JACKSON Reply

    I’ve been using MiniTool Partition Wizard Home Edition 6.0, a free partition software. After my old Dell Inspiron (running XP) crashed I looked into various (FREE) back-up/partition software. Some were far from user friendly. I came across MiniTool Partition Wizard. While its not an automatic back-up utility, it’s great for everything else such as: Disk copy, Partition (copy resizing, creating, convert, explore, hide, set active partitions) and partition recovery. It does it all.

    Not only is it FREE (I love free), the user interface is quite pleasant and easy to work with. The option of using the “wizard” for basic operations also helps. Good on-line support. I was throwing partitions around in about 1 hour, it was almost fun. If anything, it’s good to keep around should the need arise (or until I have $$ to purchase Acronis)
    http://www.partitionwizard.com/free-partition-manager.html

  6. Bill Chubb Reply

    Regularly backing up is, of course, always the best advice. As an addtional safeguard, however, and having learned the hard [and expensive] way years ago, I now make it a practice to always store important data, files, scanned dox etc., etc., on Drive D. If the syetem fails and I have to recover back to the factory default, everything on Drive C is new but Drive D remains just as I left it.

  7. Steve Burgess Reply

    Leo, I mostly agree with the steps you laid out, but maybe not in the order you laid them out. If they can boot, I’d start with a search. If the system won’t boot, I usually tell people to first try starting in Safe Mode and see if they can locate their files. And if that won’t work, I’d say the next step is to put the drive in a USB enclosure and mount as an external. I give this advice daily & I think more than half the people who call solve their problems thereby.

    Although CHKDSK since WinNT is usually quite good, it can also make a further hash of things. That’s why I’d next have them go with the data recovery software that (importantly) does not write to the source drive,

    If the drive is making loud, bad noises, (and it’s clear that the noise is coming from the drive rather the computer’s power supply) and the data is worth those hundreds of dollars, it might be a good idea to just unplug the computer and not risk further damage before sending it to a data recovery house. There’s some further advice in an article here: What to do when your hard drive makes loud noises… (it has a little bit of advertising in it).

  8. Vincent S. Venturella Reply

    Leo:

    After, as you said, Continuing to Harp on Backing up/Recovery Routines in place, for peace of mind and protection against disaster. Eapecially, from your writings Acronis TRue Image, I was more than a bit surprised when in my hands Acronis 2010 was less than efficient as a BU and REST system than HP Special Backup Edition for HP that came as part of the HP Personl Media Drives.

    I watched your Video and also consulted not only the User Guide for Acronix 2010, but was in almost constant touch with the Tech Service Staff of ACronis by e-mail.
    I not only don’t remember the proviso that the Restoration can’t be done to an external Drive, but required an internal extra drive.
    What I have now is not only an almost virgin C:Drive on the Crashed Computer(almost because I used the Recovery option on the computer before REstoration; but a complete folder and file system minus any organization on the external Backup Drive. The Backup Drive when a restore was attempted and completed to their satisfaction, of course replaced the C: Drive on the Crashed computer which still had some usable files.

    Where did I go wrong?

  9. JoeD Reply

    I tested 5 recovery programs against the same drive to see how they did. Recuva was #2. The best recovery program I have used, visibly better at recovering files. is called ‘TestDisk’. Its free, but uses DOS as an OS. You have to use cursor arrows to operate, sometimes including the left arrow.

  10. Duane Ferguson Reply

    Back up, back up, back up. Back up regularly. Make back ups part of your regular computer maintenance schedule. Store your back ups on an external drive. Keep multiple back ups. make sure you keep your back ups current. Have I made my point?

    You’re my new hero. Smile

    Leo
    26-Jul-2011

  11. David Reply

    I would certainly agree with using CHKDSK. I do, in fact, have numerous back-up strategies in place – some in the form of several external hard drives, so what I now describe didn’t unduly worry me. I tried a new de-frag program (which had better remain nameless) on one of my drives and after that I “lost” some 22,000 music tracks out of some 28,000-odd total. Just not showing at all, although the drive used space was the same, so I reasoned that they must still be there. I also reasoned that (maybe) the de-frag program had hosed some part of the file system with its “compress old files” feature, but I can’t be sure. After I ran CHKDSK and it reported errors – bingo! Up popped the “missing” tracks in their folder again. Oh – and I won’t be running THAT particular de-frag program again. Duly uninstalled completely.

  12. Chris Hansen Reply

    I had reinstalled Windows XP on a laptop for a friend after he told me to go ahead. Then he called me (too late) and said his girlfriend had digital pictures on there that could not be replaced. I could not get them back, until I bought the program called Power Data Recovery. I installed it on an external drive, ran the program and….. It found ALL of the pictures and saved them to the external harddrive. From there I burnt them all to DVD’s. This program works. Even after the reformat and reinstallation of Windows. I recommend it.

  13. Terry Hollett Reply

    I like to use UBCD4win. You get a Windows XP interface and can use Windows Explorer to just copy your data to a flash/usb drive. Only downside, you have to create this from your own Windows XP setup disk.

    Otherwise there is Hiren’s Boot CD. Comes premade with a mini-XP environment.

    Don’t matter if you got Vista or Win 7. This is assuming that you can still access the hard drive. One final note Hiren’s don’t currently seem to have Sata support.

  14. vincent Reply

    I agree with JoeD.
    TestDisk is the best. It’s been able to recover lost data that no other application could (including spinrite).
    I swear by it!

  15. Cindy Gioffredi Reply

    Make TWO backups & keep one off site. A backup won’t help you at all if it burns to ashes in a fire along with your PC/Server(s). I tell clients the question to ask when deciding how/when to backup is not IF a backup will be needed, but WHEN ti will be needed. It’s inevitable. Such a simple thing to do yet most people don’t “get it” until they’ve experienced data loss. :-)

  16. Jim Reply

    I had a friend whose laptop hardrive died, not backed up for awhile and she thought she had lost some pictures. She was going to just toss the thing. First thing I said was don’t throw it out without overwriting the harddrive, just because you can’t get it to boot doesn’t mean there isn’t recoverable personal data. (she is an account on the side and used this laptop in the business, so potential for personal data was huge) The first thing I did was ran the Microsoft program that Leo had in his news letter a few weeks ago (MS Standalone System sweeper) because it starts the system without using the OS. Once the system was up I was able to get to the explorer and was able to find the users username. From there I just copied everything (including the pictures she thought she lost) to a an external HDD. Then once we made sure she could see them on her other system from the external drive we wiped her laptop HDD with the freeware Darik’s Boot and Nuke. Then I told her for ~$40 she could replace the HDD in her laptop and give it to one of her kids. I know the system sweeper is not made for what I used it for but all I really wanted to do was get to the HDD and the system wouldn’t boot any other way. So for $0 spent we were able to retrieve her pictures and get her HDD purged of any recoverable data.

  17. steve Reply

    In the old days a favoured last resort was to place the HD in your freezer overnight ,wrapped in polythrene, then reconnect it and move quick as hell to recover what you could.
    The thermal shrinkage involved could render the drive serviceable for a brief period….

  18. Dan Reply

    “In the old days a favoured last resort…” What do you mean the old days? We still do that today. But we only leave it in the freezer for 1/2 hour. That usually is enough time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t!

  19. Chuck Ulmann Reply

    . . . and in my opinion the final thing is to make sure can read what you backed up! Move it to another machine, copy some files and then make sure you can open them with the software in question. If it’s a CD or DVD make sure another machine can read it. The best way is to test it on another machine/device/etc that is not connected to the source of the backup. I don’t want to tell you the number of times I’ve seen unreadable backups and in 100% of the cases the party never tested the backup!!

  20. john neeting Reply

    What I use…
    ‘Karens replicator” – free
    Back up total ‘C’ drive to 2 other drives
    Back up registry to 2 other drives
    Back up external data drives to equivalent drive
    result – 2 copies of O/S and registry, 2 copies of all data on external drives.
    Replicate everything once a week
    replicate all changed data once a day [ overnight ]
    Move duplicate drives to another part of house and connect via wi/fi or multi-switch.
    Keeping data off site is fine for business but O/S and registry need only be kept in another part of the house but connected to PC. [2 x 12Lb CO2 fire extinguishers on the walls is my overkill but it gives me some piece of mind :) ]

  21. Tati Reply

    I backed up all files and programs onto a USB drive and restored my computer to it’s clean original state. Now how do I restore all of the files and programs onto my computer again?

  22. Mark J Reply

    @Tatti
    That depends on how you backed up your files and programs. If you ran a backup program which clones (makes a carbon copy of your system drive), then you could restore the drive to what it was like at the time of the backup. If you simply copied all of the files and programs to the backup drive, you could copy the data files back to your new installation. In the second instance, you would have to reinstall all of the programs using their installation programs as installed programs can’t simply be copied and expected to work.

  23. Divansh Reply

    I have lost my all data of C drive .. working XP professional window was crashed… I did the recovery but only 10% documents… Now ew window is Win 7. Pl tell me how I can recover my lost data….

  24. yunus Reply

    hi,

    im sorry, i am disturbing you, but my problems seems to be a little different. i have a new toshiba laptop. i havent used it for the last 4-5 days. today when i switched it on, everything was different. none of my apps were present, and when i came on the desktop, none of my files were present. when i tried opening chrome, it asked me to accept terms and conditions, which is what happens when u buy a new laptop and use things for the first time. so in a way my laptop has become new, but i have lost all data. i need the data as all my work stuff was there and i hadnt backed up, as it was still new, and havent had time to figure things out.

    can u please help

    regards

    Yunus

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