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article imageOp-Ed: Getting deep down and dirty to rescue data Special

By Jack Kapica     Jun 10, 2009 in Technology
There are so many ways to lose computer data: You can accidentally erase it, you can lose it because of a busted disk partition, or you can have a hard-disk crash. Let’s leave the disk-crash instance alone, because the only way to recover data from a crash is to give it to a professional. And pay.
In this column I’m looking at programs that work with the Windows operating system, and trying to recover files, or at least scraps of them.
First, it’s important to know that deleting a file on a computer does not actually erase it; it’s still there, but Windows won’t be able to find it, because what you erased was the address where it had resided. And the file will stay there until the computer eventually stores something over it, or over part of it; All erasing a file does is turn the space where the file is (or was) over to the general pool of available space on the disk.
And so it’s important that the moment you realize you’ve accidentally erased something, or that a partition has been broken, you should not save any new file until you’ve recovered the deleted file. And for that you need a serious recovery tool. This is not difficult, but it is not child’s play either.
iolo Search and Recover (now in version 5.0.6) ($29.95 U.S. for a one-year subscription) recovers deleted files such as documents, photos and e-mail, and it can do this from CDs, DVDs and thumb drives in addition to hard disks. It finds and reassembles data even if Windows can no longer find it; the iolo people have improved the algorithm it uses to find lost files or fragments and reassemble them and called it SmartScan (a deeper search for lost files in called StrongScan). iolo has added a reverse process too: the ability to completely erase private and sensitive information by writing blank data over the erased files.
Like its sister program System Mechanic, S&R is a subscription service; you get a year’s worth of recovery before you have to renew your subscription, which is quite a bit to ask of a program you will not use very often unless your system has tragic hardware or you’re a complete dunce.
iolo S&R is geared to ordinary users; its menu offers to find lost documents, pictures and movies, songs and sounds, and e-mail, the kinds of things most people lose. It can also perform a “total recovery,” which includes all the content on a disk, drive or folder. It can work with several e-mail programs, including Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, Netscape and Eudora.
A first-time user might have a problem with the results: There are many. Their sheer number should give the user pause to consider the privacy implications of this. Programs such as this are what police or villains use when searching for sensitive data on a disk that a user thought had been erased long ago.
iolo S&R searches the entire disk once, and delivers the results to the viewing area; it’s up to the user to select which filter to use in viewing them. Then it’s a matter of ticking off the ones you want to rescue. S&R also warns you if the file you’re looking for can be recovered in its entirety or in fragments.
The list of recoverable files, however, remains in live memory; click away from the “search results” window and S&R will have to read the disk all over again. Moreover, the files are not named the way they were when they appeared before they were erased; they are identified by a long string (more than 150 characters). So without a preview for a Word document, for instance, there’s no way to guess which one is the one you’re looking for. But movies and photos have previews, at least when they are in good enough shape to be shown.
S&R can also run off the CD; this is useful to prevent damage to recently deleted data.
Alas, I had no luck with the e-mail recovery tool. After scanning several e-mail databases (Outlook 2007), I got a message each time saying that “Microsoft Personal Folders Scan/Repair Utility has stopped working.” According to only two online references to this error message, the e-mail database had been corrupted. But were all of the databases corrupt?
Prosoft Data Rescue PC3 ($99.95 for the U.S. personal version; $249 for the professional version).
While iolo Search and Recover is a casual user’s tool, Prosoft Engineering’s Data Rescue PC3 is heavy artillery. It’s not only used for recovering lost files, but also if your hard drive won’t boot, or is otherwise incapacitated by viruses, errors or operating system failure and you can’t access files from it.
Data Rescue PC3 works as a bootable CD, which is programmed not to write to the drive that it’s scanning, eliminating the danger of overwriting (and therefore losing) files during the repair process. This approach does not require you to be running Windows when you’re recovering files (even if you could run Windows) — but it does mean you’ll need to store your rescued files elsewhere, with the appropriate hardware attached. For instance, you can save your rescue data to a networked drive — such as one attached via a USB or FireWire connection or a secondary internal hard drive.
The benefit of this approach is that the suite will show you all the partitions and files that were found on the drive, listed in their original order and filenames. They are also rated in four levels — excellent, good, fair, and poor — as recovery prospects. This is a program that can waken ghosts of files past on your computer. It can be scary.
If you have a drive that is threatening to die — making noises that it shouldn’t make — the suite will let you clone the data to another drive and use Data Rescue PC3 to scan the clone.
This is a command-line program, meaning it works like PCs did before they started to run Windows. But the interface is friendly and easy to understand. The process has a curious side-effect: You feel really geeky working with it.
Selkie Freedom (Tugboat Enterprises) A similar product is called Selkie Freedom, from British-Columbia-based Tugboat Enterprises, a company that has made an impressive name for itself in data recovery. Instead of being loaded onto a CD, Selkie Rescue is loaded onto a bootable USB key which automatically scans an old or broken computer for files, sorting the results based on file type and location. You customize the scan.
Like Prosoft’s product, Selkie Freedom offers secure, non-destructive data recovery. Moreover, the user can retrieve files right to the USB key, or to another external USB device.
You first have to configure the BIOS in your computer, which you can reach even if the main drive has failed, and set it to boot from the USB key. Plug Selkie Freedom into a USB port, reboot the computer, and start your rescue process. You can then reformat your hard drive or replace it entirely, and then copy your files back onto your computer.
The benefit of a USB device is that you can carry it on your key ring, though having it so close to hand suggests you are either a geek working in a high-risk atmosphere or are paranoid, neither of which is necessarily a good thing. It also means that if you don’t keep it on a key ring, you might lose it easily.
It comes in seven sizes — a 2GB key ($175 U.S.), a 4GB key ($188); an 8GB key ($225); a multimedia 4GB key ($188); a multimedia 8GB key ($225); a photography version with a 4GB key ($188) and a photography version with an 8GB key ($225).
Each version can recover all the files on your computer; the difference between them lies in how they rank the importance of certain file types. The office version of Selkie Freedom makes business files a priority, such as e-mail, spreadsheets, Word documents and PowerPoint presentations are all included in priority setting for Selkie Freedom Office.
This might appear prohibitively expensive; but you have to consider that in the case of a hard-drive failure, a reputable data-rescue company could charge about $1,200 per disk to get your data back.
The problem with this is that you’ll probably decide against buying one because you don’t need it; but when you do need it, you’ll wish you had it yesterday. It’s like a life jacket when you’re sailing on a windy day. When you need it, you really need it.
Reviewed on a computer built around an Intel motherboard and Intel Pentium D Dual-core processor running 64-bit Vista and Windows 7.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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