Tech Advice: Recovering Lost Files From Devices

I get emails pretty often that start out like this: HALP! I deleted my music on accident, can you help me get it back? Music, Photos, or any precious file(s) can be restored (maybe) if you take action quickly. The following will (should, maybe) work on all media devices such as iPhones, iPods, External Hard Drives, Laptops and other devices that allow you to store media on some sort of a drive. Let me first tell you what not to do.

  • Ignore the many suggested backups that your computer gives you.
  • Continue to use your device after realizing you have lost a file you really want.

What you need to do at the very second that you lose the data is turn the device off. The longer you leave the device on the more data is written over the old data that you wish to recover. When you delete something from a device by throwing it in the trash and emptying it, or clicking delete, it is not actually deleting it. Your device is actually just making those storage sectors available to be written to again. This means there is hope (maybe). I keep saying maybe because it is very hit or miss. It is much easier to recover lost files from larger devices such as Desktop or Laptop computers, or External Storage Devices. It is much harder to recover files from mobile devices such as cell phones and digital media such as memory cards.

Lets talk iPhone first, since this is the device that garners most of the emails I receive. This is also one of the harder devices to get media back from once it is deleted. That said, you should back up often. By often, I mean daily. Plug your iPhone into your computer and let it back up. It does not take long when you do it often (many things are that way, LULZ). If you do not have a backup, there are many options suggested online, such as this one, and this one, oh and this one… All of these methods require you to use some software on your computer to recover the data. Here is what I suggest you use:

Again, I can not stress more that you do nothing with your device until you have a game plan. Don’t even attempt to restore your device unless you know for sure that you have a backup containing the files you want. Restoring or installing other software onto your device will surely write over the data you want back. Use the software as they suggest. You may be able to get your data back, but don’t get your hopes up to high.

Other Mobile Devices
Most other mobile devices store your media on a removable storage card. This is good news because you can jump down to the External Storage Devices section below. If your mobile device does not have removable media or does not mount show up as a mounted device when you plug it in, then you will be in the same boat as the iPhone.

External Storage Devices
Hard Drives, Thumb Drives, Memory Cards and any other media that you would typically plug in to your computer to store media on is much easier to recover data from. You can use the above suggested software to see what is on these storage devices. As I mentioned above, when you delete an item from one of these devices, it is not actually deleting it. The memory sectors are simply made available to be written over again. Here is how you go about recovering your files:

  • Remove or shut down the media device or card as soon as possible to prevent additional data being written to it.
  • Install and start one of the above suggested software programs.
  • When that software is ready, connect the media device or card to your computer.
  • Run the process the software suggests on the device or card to attempt the recovery of files.

Desktop Computers or Laptops
The moment you believe that you have deleted something you absolutely with out a doubt need, turn off your computer. Don’t even shut it down properly, just turn it off. Shutting it down the normal way you would shut it down will write data to preserve your computers state for when you start it back up. Don’t give it that opportunity. You will then need to find a way to connect your computer to another computer so you can access the hard drive in the computer with data loss.

On a Mac, this is simple to do with out taking your computer apart. You simply hold down the “T” key on your keyboard while turning your mac back on. This boots it into FireWire target disk mode. If you have a mac that does not have FireWire, then you are out of luck, but most Macs running OS X of any version do. Follow the instructions on the Apple website on how to do this safely. Once you are booted into target disk mode, you can connect your Mac via FireWire to another computer and access it as if it was an external hard drive. You can then run a data recovery software program on the FireWire connected Mac to recover lost data.

On a PC… I used to know a lot about this but here is how I would do it. Because there are so many different PC computers that operate in different ways my suggestion is going to require a bit of work. You will need to remove the hard drive from your computer. I know this is scary and possibly beyond something you wish to tackle on your own. If this is the case, take it to a professional (not me) and have them help you. If you are brave (and won’t blame me if you mess up), remove your hard drive, place it in an external hard drive enclosure (search for hard drive enclosure over at Amazon.Com) or use this cable adapter to connect it to another computer. Once you have your hard drive connected to another computer, use the above listed software for PC computers to recover data from that drive. Again, I suggest having someone help you with this. Call your local IT Services Provider or if all else fails, the GeekSquad at Bestbuy.

CD-R, DVD, Disks and more
Disks are easy to mess up. One scratch and they are doomed. If your only copy of important files are on a disk, back that disk up to an external device, thumb drive or at least make a copy of that disk and have your Mom store it in her safe. Do something to assure that your disk is not the only copy you have. A damaged disk is the end of the road. You may be able to use software to recover some of the data, but if there is enough damage you will be out of luck completely. You may be able to use the software suggested above to make this happen. If not, Google search it.

Gaming Devices such as PlayStation or XBox
Step #1: Get a life (jk, don’t flame me). I don’t play video games very often at all, so I have little to no sympathy.
On a serious note, if your device has an internal hard drive that your media is stored on, you can probably get at that hard drive some how. You may have to remove it from your device like I suggested in the section on PC computers. However, I would do some Google searching or post the question in a popular form specializing in your gaming platform. Sorry I can’t be more help here. I have no experience with data recovery on gaming devices.

Suggestions to prevent having this issue in the future:

  • Backup!!!!! Often!!!!
  • iPhone Users: Connect your iPhone to your computer and allow iTunes to back it up as often as you can. I suggest daily or right after you acquire new files, images or music.
  • Android Users: Use the software Sprite Backup on your Android device. I use Sprite Backup with my Android phone and have it back up to my Dropbox account every night at 2am automatically. You can set the app to remotely backup on its own at any time of the day or night you wish. Get a free Dropbox account here.
  • Other Mobile Devices: Head over to Sprite Software to see if they have an app for your device.
  • External Hard Drives: If your hard drive is getting old, making noise or the fan went out in it, get a new hard drive and move your data over to it before the current hard drive fails. Don’t wait until its to late. If the drive is unable to spin then it will become near impossible to recover the data from it.
  • Desktop or Laptop Computers: Backup your data. If you are on a Mac, use Time Machine. Get an external hard drive like this one, and set Time Machine to backup to it. If you are on a PC, use a service like Mozy, get 2GB Free Online Backup!
  • Flash Cards and Removable Media: Always copy the contents to your computer when you are done. As a Photographer, I make sure that I copy and backup all media before erasing a card to reuse. I use my Dropbox account as described here to keep an offsite backup of my files in case I need them. I never delete anything off of a flash card before copying it all to my computer. If I run out of space on a flash card, I don’t go and delete the files I do not need through my camera, I put in a new flash card. I don’t want to risk deleting the wrong file by accident. Flash cards for your camera or bigger thumb drives are super cheap these days, get an extra.

*Everything I have spoke of here are suggestions based on what I have done to recover data myself or protect myself from data loss. My data recovery suggestions do not replace a professional’s help. If you have any doubt at all about your ability to do this on your own, go to a professional before attempting it on your own. I can not provide you any warranty or anything at all for that matter if you mess things up while attempting to recover your data. You may also void a warranty by attempting the data recovery suggestions above. ALWAYS contact the MFG before attempting these suggestions to prevent voiding your warranty. My prevention suggestions will not void any warranty or put your devices at risk.

Lastly… Always back up silly!


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