In this post I’ll give you some tips on evaluating file recovery software. To tell good from bad data recovery software. If you have just lost data and are now searching for a solution you will find that are hundreds of tools available that all claim to be the best in getting your data back. Sad truth is that 90% of the software is really subpar. Unfortunately software being popular does not mean it is the best software. It merely means the producers of the software are good at marketing (examples: Disk Drill, Easeus, Stellar).
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Things to look for in good file recovery software
File system reconstruction
It is always preferred to use software that can ‘virtually reconstruct’ the file system using file system meta data. If the software is able to do that it offers several advantages:
- You get back original file names
- You can recover files in original directory structure
- File attributes that are stored in file system (creation date, last access data etc.) can be recovered too
- Depending on the file system it solves the problem of file fragmentation
Most software is able to reconstruct the file system if there is only minor corruption. However if corruption is more severe, the lesser capable software will quickly resort to ‘RAW’ recovery: Rather than displaying your original directory structure it will show a tree where files are sorted by type, e.g. JPG, DOC, ZIP etc..
With this RAW type recovery you lose all the advantages of file system based recovery. So you will not be able to recover the original file names, directory structure etc..
So, you look for software that shows you the directory tree as it normally shown in a normal file browser.
Disk image creation
Good file recovery software is able to create a disk image and process it as if it were a hard disk or other storage medium. In my opinion this should be a RAW disk image and not a proprietary format that can not be processed by other software. A disk image for data recovery purposes is a sector by sector copy of the source. It includes all used and unused areas.
If the software can not create a disk image then it should at least accept a RAW disk image as a source.
A disk image provides several advantages:
- It is a safety net
- Bad sector only are accessed once rather than several times during file system reconstruction
- It ‘freezes’ the source from which you need to recover data. IOW once you have the image no data is written to it.
A disadvantage of course is the fact that you need storage space to store the disk image.
The software should be easy to use
Chances are that you do not recover data on a daily basis and that you do not have an in depth understanding about what is wrong with your data. It is up to the software to fill in the gaps.
In my experience many people regard a computer as a user device that should not require in depth knowledge about for example the file system of their hard disk. So file recovery software should not rely on the end user to determine the file system of a corrupt drive.
If you don’t have a clue how the data was lost, the software should not ask you if you want to perform partition recovery or format recovery.
The more decisions the software asks you to make, the worse it is IMO. Ideally the software asks you to select a disk and to click start, no matter the file system or how the data was lost.
A picture preview facility
Good file recovery software should be able to generate previews of popular image type formats on the fly and I’ll explain why.
If file recovery software is able to show you directory and or files you may assume that it will be able to recover those directories and files. But this far from the truth. It is very well possible to generate a file list while the majority of the files will be corrupt after recovering them.
If the software for example gets the cluster size wrong during file system reconstruction to name one vital parameter, virtually every file that you recover will be corrupt.
Another example: If you are recovering data from a degraded RAID array and the software gets RAID parameters wrong, every file that is larger than the stripe size will be corrupt.
Files containing a picture in some form are the easiest way to evaluate if you will be able to recover intact files. If larger pictures you preview are intact (1 MB and larger to be on the safe side), you can assume the software got all parameters correct. Files of different formats (movies, documents etc.) will be okay too.