What to do when you have deleted files from a Desktop, Laptop or External Hard Drive

Wednesday, 1 June 2022 by Ontrack Team

It may be that you’ve lost files due to them being deleted accidentally, purposely or by another party.

Usually, when you delete a file from a storage device, it’ll go straight to the operating system’s recycling bin or trash folder. From here, you can recover it to the original location by right-clicking to open the file menu or simply dragging the file back out to another location.

Check here first, just in case the file is still there.

Image: The right-click menu of a Windows Recycle Bin (Microsoft.com)

Even after this folder has been emptied, however (this could happen manually or automatically, depending on your settings), the data should still exist in some form on your hard drive (HDDs only). It just won’t be as easily accessible.


How deletion on HDDs really works

Most operating systems keep track of file locations using “pointers”. Each folder and file on a hard disk has one of these pointers and it tells the  Operating System where the data starts and ends so that it knows to look when you need to access that file.

When a file is deleted, depending on the file system in use, this pointer is either marked as “deleted”, or removed entirely. This process also deallocates the space that was used and makes it available to the operating system if it needs more space in the future. If that space isn’t required immediately though, the data from the older file may still remain intact on the storage.

So, if you delete a file and then don’t use that hard drive for five years, the file may still remain. On the contrary, if you’re constantly writing new data to your storage device, the deleted file will be overwritten faster.

All of this means that even if your HDD continues to work, you should stop using it as you realize the data is gone. The sooner you stop, the greater the chances of recovery are.


Using software to recover data

Data recovery software can be useful in the right situations, and there are a few types available:

Operating system data recovery features

Most operating systems include simple data recovery features designed to fix basic hard drive problems.

The two most prominent examples ate CHKDSK (Windows) and Disk Utility (Mac OS). Both will only work if your computer can still recognize when your external drive is connected, otherwise, it won’t know what to fix.

Image: Mac OS's Disk Utility in action (Apple.com)

While these built-in tools are helpful in some circumstances, like for regular maintenance, they sometimes cause more harm than good to corrupted or failing storage devices and can hinder further recovery efforts.


Third-party data recovery software

There are hundreds (if not, thousands) of data recovery programs on the market. These generally provide more advanced capabilities than the OS features above, including the ability to recover deleted data, or to recover data from a reformatted drive in some cases.

DIY data recovery is always risky, even when using the best tools.

If you do opt for this route, it is a good idea to use a copy or image of your failed drive if possible (or back up any data you can access to another drive or the cloud), so you’ll always have the original should something go wrong. If you do attempt to recover data, make sure not to copy it back to the same device that you’re attempting to recover from.

You can make a sector-level image of a damaged HDD with our own simple-to-use data recovery software,  Ontrack EasyRecovery.

Ontrack EasyRecovery software

Our software can do much more than make sector-level images for backups. It allows you to perform precise file recovery of data lost through deletion, reformatting and various other scenarios.

With it, you’ll be able to:

  • Recover data from SSDs and conventional hard drives, memory cards, RAID, USB hard drives, flash drives and optical media (CDs, DVDs)
  • Recover files from corrupt, deleted or reformatted drives
  • Repair damaged photo and video files

Image: Ontrack EasyRecovery for Windows in action

Find out more about  Ontrack EasyRecovery software and the different versions on offer.

An important note about any type of Data Recovery Software however is that these tools should only be used for logical data recovery cases where the device is mechanically sound. In situations where a drive is making unusual noises, or has been bumped, dropped or otherwise damaged, software data recovery efforts may actually cause more damage. In these cases a professional data recovery service is the only way to go.


Using a professional recovery service

Even the best data recovery software has limitations. For the best chances of success, you should contact a professional data recovery service provider and explain the situation.

An experienced professional will ask you some questions and assess the situation properly to determine the best course of action for recovery. Questions you might have to answer include:

  1. What type of hard drive is it? (HDD, SSD, NAS etc.)
  2. Which manufacturer made it?
  3. Do you know the reasons it has failed?
  4. What symptoms are you experiencing?
  5. Are there any symptoms of physical damage
  6. Have you tried any other recovery methods already?
  7. Is there a specific file or files you’re trying to recover?

An accredited company should also be able to complete a recovery or repair job without voiding your device’s warranty. This wouldn’t be the case if you opened it yourself.

After an in-person inspection, a professional should be able to estimate the amount of data that can be recovered, along with the cost and timeframe.

They’ll then use their experience, expertise and tools (including a clean room) to recover as much valuable data as possible.