[Windows] Best free file and data recovery software — TestDisk & PhotoRec vs Recuva vs Pandora Recovery vs Aidfile vs Puran vs Undelete 360

If you have ever deleted a file or an entire folder by mistake I’m sure you immediately regretted this and wanted to somehow retrieve the files which were ‘lost’. Luckily when a file is deleted in Windows, it is not actually removed from the drive. What is removed is a reference to the file, allowing Windows to overwrite this file with new file(s). I’m sure this fact makes you appreciate secure erasers even more now, however let us focus on the recovery of these ‘lost’ files.

Please note that a data recovery program should not be installed on the same drive from which files are required to be recovered as the act itself of recovering files causes information to be overwritten, thus the files that you may want to recover may become unrecoverable if this is done. For this reason, portability can be considered a much desired feature in a data recovery tool.

All the programs reviewed here were tested by attempting to recover files and all were successful at retrieving the files. Now… here are the best free file and data recovery tools for Windows.

This review is part of our Best Free Windows Software section. Check out more articles on the best free Windows programs from here.

Table of Contents

Best Free File And Data Recovery Tool

Testdisk_PhotorecProgram Name: TestDisk & PhotoRec

Developer: CG Security

Download Size: 3.55MB

Version Reviewed: 6.14

Supported OS: Windows All

Pros

  • TestDisk recovers lost partitions; PhotoRec recovers lost files
  • Completely portable
  • Ability to fix partition table and recover deleted partitions
  • Ability to rebuild FAT
  • Rebuilds damaged boot sectors
  • TestDisk supports several types of file systems including those used on Xbox and Wii
  • PhotoRec ignores file system and targets underlying data, ensuring better data recovery and allowing you to recover files even after a reformat or crash
  • PhotoRec works with hard disks, CDs, memory cards, USB memory drives, digital cameras, mp3 players, etc.
  • PhotoRec is capable of recovering over 440 file formats
  • Both programs are easy to use despite not utilizing a Graphical User Interface
  • Can be run from a bootable/recovery media/disk from outside Windows

Cons

  • Does not allow for the selection of individual files for recovery but rather retrieves all recoverable files in target drive/partition/directory
  • Only works via command line, making it a bit daunting for some users

Discussion

TestDisk and PhotoRec are 2 separate pieces of software which are bundled together and support each other. TestDisk is capable of recovering deleted partitions and making unbootable drives boot again while PhotoRec is an excellent file recovery utility. Both of these programs are fully portable which allows for them to be moved to alternative drives or partitions according to which one the user desires to recover data/partitions from.

TestDisk

TestDisk is a powerful program with features target toward both novice and professional users. This program has quite a high success rate at recovering lost partitions when compared to some other utilities. Test disk can do the following:

  • Fix partition table, recover deleted partition
  • Recover FAT32 boot sector from its backup
  • Rebuild FAT12/FAT16/FAT32 boot sector
  • Fix FAT tables
  • Rebuild NTFS boot sector
  • Recover NTFS boot sector from its backup
  • Fix MFT using MFT mirror
  • Locate ext2/ext3/ext4 Backup SuperBlock
  • Undelete files from FAT, exFAT, NTFS and ext2 filesystem
  • Copy files from deleted FAT, exFAT, NTFS and ext2/ext3/ext4 partitions.

This is quite an impressive feature list. Please note that when attempting to recover a partition that you may not immediately find the partition you were looking for and may need to select the deeper search option in order to do so. This takes quite a bit longer than the regular option but it is much more thorough and has proven very effective.

PhotoRec

PhotoRec is a powerful data recovery tool capable of recovering over 440 different types of files.

PhotoRec’s awesome nature comes about due to it ignoring the file system of the drive it is scanning and targeting the underlying files thus leading to a very high recovery rate. For safety it even uses read-only access so as to minimize the risk of file overwriting.

At the very minimum PhotoRec is capable of recovering files from the following file systems:

  • FAT
  • NTFS
  • exFAT
  • ext2/ext3/ext4 filesystem
  • HFS+

It works with a wide variety of devices such as cameras, mp3 players and hard drives of course and has been successfully tested with the following digital cameras:

  • Canon EOS300D, 10D
  • Casio Exilim EX-Z 750
  • HP PhotoSmart 620, 850, 935
  • Nikon CoolPix 775, 950, 5700
  • Olympus C350N, C860L, Mju 400 Digital, Stylus 300
  • Sony Alpha DSLR, DSC-P9, NEX-6
  • Pentax K20D
  • Praktica DCZ-3.4

Please note however that PhotoRec retrieves all recoverable files from the device it is scanning. It does have a high success rate but this is not always desirable and could take up lots of space. However, this would be quite useful in cases of mistaken mass deletion.

Although they do not immediately appear this way, these 2 programs are quite simply powerhouses. In cases where it is necessary, TestDisk and PhotoRec can also be run from a bootable CD in order to fix particularly tricky problems.

Runner Up

Recuva Main ScreenProgram Name: Recuva

Developer: Piriform

Download Size: 3.55MB

Version Reviewed: 1.47

Supported OS: Windows 2000, XP, Vista, 7, 8

Discussion

Recuva has a beautiful user interface and by default uses a wizard which simplifies the process of recovering files.

Recuva gives users the option of operating the program with or without a wizard interface. Users have the choice to choose from the very begin or even after the scanning process, the type of file they wish to recover. This helps avoid the displaying of unnecessary results. Users can specify a location from which they wish to recover files as well. There is also a deep scan option which is much more thorough and generally returns more results.

In Advanced mode also allows users to alter the way the program works — to their preference — as well as to view more information about discovered files. For example in the right column of the program in advanced mode, the preview, info and header tabs display additional important information about the discovered files. Of note, the info bar displays the state of files and if they are likely to be recovered by displaying the state of the file via descriptions such as ‘Excellent’. Advanced mode also allows users to adjust options such as language, changing the view mode and for the turning on or off of deep scanning. Recuva is available in a portable version as well.

Recuva also allows for discovered files to be securely overwritten using various options — accessible through enabling advanced mode– such as a simple overwrite(1 pass), DOD 5220.22-M(3 passes), NSA(7 passes) and Gutmann(35 passes). Take a look at our Best Free Secure Eraser article to learn more about securely overwriting files.

Although not as powerful as the TestDisk & PhotoRec combination Recuva will recover your data in many cases and in most cases should meet all of your needs.

Honorable Mention 1

Pandora Recovery ScreenshotProgram Name: Pandora Recovery

Developer: Pandora

Download Size: 2.32MB

Version Reviewed: 2.11

Supported OS: Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP

Discussion

Like Recuva, Pandora has a well designed interface which along with it being wizard driven facilitates ease of use.

Also, similar to Recuva, Pandora also displays information about potentially recoverable files and allows for the filtering of discovered files.

On starting Pandora users are given three options for recovering files. Users can choose to browse a drive for deleted individual folders and files. Also, you can choose to recover files based on the full or partial file name, file size, file creation date or file last accessed date. There is also the deep( surface ) scan option which scans a drive for files of a certain type. This scan takes the longest amount of time but returns the highest number of results from drives with corrupted file tables, recently formatted drives, removable drives such as memory sticks and jump drives as well as files not recoverable via the previous two methods. All of these functions can also be accessed outside of the wizard.

One of my favorite features of Pandora is that on starting the wizard, the first thing it does is to ask you to check if your files are still in the recycle bin which could easily be overlooked believe it or not.

Pandora is a simple yet effective tool which will definitely aid you in recovering lost files.

Honorable Mention 2

Aidfile Recovery ScreenshotProgram Name: Aidfile Recovery Free Software

Developer: Mitusoft

Download Size: 4.75MB

Version Reviewed: 3.631

Supported OS: Windows 2000/XP/2003/Vista/Server 2008/7/8

Discussion

Aidfile Recovery Free offers users 4 options for recovering deleted files. Firstly is the ‘Undelete Quick’ option. This option recovers files ‘permanently’ deleted by using shift+delete, files deleted from the recycle bin, it allows for files to be recovered which were lost due to the uninstallation of software as well as any other file lost due to an operation carried out by mistake. Additionally there is the ‘Unformat Quick’ option. This allows for the recovery of data lost after the formatting of a hard drive. The ‘Recover Partition Quick’ option allows for the retrieval of data lost after the deletion of a partition. It also appears that there is a portable version of Aidfile.

Finally, a full scan scours your hard drive and displays results that would have been missed when utilizing the other options.

Quite frankly this is an excellent program. The only area where Recuva and Pandora really stand out is with their ease of use. For example Recuva breaks down scanning locations into several categories as compared to Aidfile and Pandora goes out of its way to ask users if they checked the recycle bin first.

These are all excellent programs, however Recuva and Pandora are slightly more user friendly.

Take note the free version of Aidfile limits you to recovering 1GB of data, which is good enough for most people but can be an issue for some.

Honorable Mention 3

puranfilerecProgram Name: Puran File Recovery

Developer: Puran Software

Download Size: 2.25MB

Version Reviewed: 1.0

Supported OS: Windows XP/Vista/7

Discussion

Puran File Recovery allows users to do the following:

  • Deep Scan: Does a quick scan as well as scans entire free space of the selected drive for pre-defined image, video, audio, document etc file formats. It is a byte by byte scan and hence can take a lot of time.
  • Full Scan: Does a quick scan as well as a deep scan of the Total Space. If the Find Lost Files option is also selected, it scans for lost partitions as well.
  • Find Lost Files: Scans for lost file records. When combined with Full Scan option, it also scans for lost partitions. At times, you may see files that you do not recognize at all, these files are actually random data on your disk falsely detected as files. It is a result of less strict algorithm to get maximum records. Just ignore them.
  • Scan Custom List: When combined with Deep / Full Scan, it scans the selected drive for a user defined format list which you can see by clicking EDIT on the main window. Adding or editing formats is strictly for advanced users only.
  • Physical Drive: If a Physical Drive is selected for scanning, all files irrespective of their deletion status are displayed. Scanning Physical Drive should be the last option.
  • Preview Window: It shows the first 1024 bytes of the selected file in HEX and ASCII format. If it is a valid image file below 10 MB, this window displays the image.
  • Search: You can search for a filename. Use of wildcards ? and * is allowed. For example, if you want to list all files starting with ‘a’, you may search for ‘a*’. * is important if you do not know the exact filename like for searching hellopic.jpg, you can search hello*.jpg and if you know exact filename, you can search hellopic.jpg directly.

My issue with Puran Recovery is that although it is quite effective, it does not give the option — provided in some of the other offerings reviewed here today—to recover files from a specific folder. This can lead to some difficulty in locating the file you desire to be recovered. UPDATE: Puran File Recovery can recover files from specific folders — you must use ‘Tree View’ to do that. It does give you the option of choosing the type of file you wish to recover however which allows for some differentiation between files.

Overall, Puran File Recovery is another excellent program; I won’t fault you if you decide to use it.

Honorable Mention 4

Undelete-360_1Program Name: Undelete 360

Developer: File Recovery

Download Size: 2.45MB

Version Reviewed: 2.1.6.25

Supported OS: Windows XP/Vista/7

Discussion

Undelete 360 is a very straightforward, simple program which easily allows users to begin recovering their deleted files. Simply click search, choose your desired drive and then click start and Undelete 360 will display a list of files it found that might be recoverable. These files are displayed in a list format and information about their size, date created and the date they were last modified are also displayed. Undelete 360 is also available in a portable version.

Although, it doesn’t carry a deep scan option, Undelete 360 is useful for quickly recovering recently deleted files and has a well laid out interface.

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47 comments

  1. Pyron

    I know VirtualLab is not free but worth every single penny.

    It does its job better then most that could cost the same or more. After I purchased VirtualLab Data Recovery I realized that I will not need another software for data recovering, this one works perfect.

  2. Alfred Smith

    If your data deleted from the system then it moves to trash or recycle bin. If you empty your trash on faith of necessary files then you will lose for good your necessary files, then you have got to use the actual third party utility to urge back. you have got to use recover data tools windows utility that may assist you to urge back the lost files from the system. Use Windows Recovery Software to recovers data from formatted Windows partitions having FAT and NTFS file systems. It completely repairs the drives and recovers deleted, permanently deleted, lost and inaccessible data files and allows the users to reuse them. You can find on such software from following links………. http://mail2web.com/plugins/addons/outlook/backups-archiving/best-windows-data-recovery_904.html

  3. KillNoise

    @ dotTech: Mass Storage Data Recovery – a confusing area:
    You should carefully distinguish tools categories which focus on different use cases of recovery. Proposed categories structure:

    (1) Partition Recovery: Partition table (HDD MBR) corrupted (-> logical drive missing or reported “raw”):
    Scan HDD to find the partitions boot sector & restore partition table to recover entire original partition (in place – no copy).
    This is the domain of TestDisk (–> any recommendations for alternative GUI tools to perform this task well ?)

    (2) Recover lost files & save copy to a different place: This is what the majority of Data Recovery utilities deals with. Sub-categories:

    2a) Undelete files & folders erased or discarded from recycle bin: Scan existing file system for remaining folders & NTFS file records to possibly restore files + complete folders with proper names, filesize & meta-data.

    2b) Format Recovery (FS & allocation tables erased after Quick Format): Similar to 2a) but more challenging without any root directory & allocation tables left. Some offer an extra module claiming(!) special competence for this case.

    2c) Raw-Scan Recovery (ignoring file system, e.g. using PhotoRec): Scan partition or entire HDD sectors for known file signatures to restore certain file types by interpreting their headers & assuming contiguous allocation chains (thus fails for fragmented files). Some tools claim to work even on compressed & encrypted NTFS volumes (e.g. Mitusoft Aidfile Recovery or EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard), however no filenames or directories can be restored this way (only the file extension based on type of recognized headers) and the Raw-Scan will typically produce a vast amount of files – not easy to find the desired ones among all the trash !
    ==> Use this only as last attempt after trying the above methods (exploiting directory & allocation informations found by interpreting the filesystem)

    In any case: Be aware, that many files may not be restored properly, even if recovered directories & file headers look promising perfect: With the common assumption of consecutive allocation, particularly large files will likely suffer from fragmentation.
    ==> You need to check carefully what you have got. Praise a recovery tool with powerful preview capability !

    (3) HW-Failure Recovery (unreadable / corrupted blocks & CRC failure) – a very dark chapter: Most tools can not handle this case and the operating system unbearably slows down every access in stupid repetitive retry cycles. This applies to HDD as well as to scratched optical Media (CD, DVD, BD).
    To avoid this slow access on damaged sectors and possibly further data loss on failing & instable HDD hardware we should create a full backup image of the entire HDD first (using a Boot-CD like Clonezilla + large external storage) and try recovery from that image.
    However, a backup image filled with zeros for unreadable sectors imposes the problem to tell which files were affected by missing data. MS Windows command “chkdsk /R” has the ability to repair (reallocate) defective sectors (leaving holes of missing data in the files), but unfortunately it only reports numeric indices of affected files, not revealing their filenames !

    (4) Repair corrupted archives & files after partial data loss (e.g. if applications refuse to open recovered documents) is another field of its own.

    Maybe you can split your article with this overview on top to clearly break down those different use cases, which might lead to particular recommendations for each?

  4. Sys-Eng

    I have tried all the free data recovery programs and do not disagree with the results in this article; however, I do not use any of them. I tried GetDataBack and found that it recovered more than all the free ones so I purchased a license for it which was under $80. The problem with the free programs is that you still do not know what other files may have been recoverable with a professional tool. When I am recovering data for customers, the extra 10% that I recover with GetDataBack may be the most important files to the customer.

  5. Gaby

    Hello, Ashraf and William,
    good to have you back.
    Todays giveaway allows to recover

    Deleted Recovery,
    Format Recovery,
    Partition Recovery and
    Raw Recovery

    I dropped my external drive and only 4 of the 4 original partitions reappear.

    CnMemory sent me a link to TestDisk which does not help me at all, I’m not a professional. Which one should I use?

    Kind regards

    Gaby

  6. Cecil

    Amazing blog! Do you have any tips and hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost
    on everything. Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option?

    There are so many options out there that I’m completely confused .. Any tips? Bless you!

  7. Heinz Iten

    Some time ago I deleted a folder with a lot of files by accident. I tried to recover it with 6 different freeware recovery programs I found at the time. The unbelievable result was: They ALL failed, except ‘Recuva’, which recovered the whole folder. Some of the others recovered a list of the files, but they were all size 0 – in other words, it looked like they recovered it all, but in fact they did nothing useful.
    The moral of the story: Don’t trust a recovery program, unless you actually seen it doing it’s job.

  8. Daniel

    I realize it isn’t free, but stay far away from VirtualLab Professional by BinaryBiz.
    Horrible tech support and Recuva (free) found and recovered more files than VirtualLab ($149+) did.

  9. Ian

    Like so many people today, I only have a notebook (running Windows 7). I did not find a successful way to recover data using PhotoRec / TestDisk.

    With them, the corrupted drive was recognized and the missing folder(s) found.

    What was missing was any way to write the recovered data from the corrupted drive onto another drive connected via USB or (considering that the directory structure was the same) back onto my internal drive without overwriting the data. Or am I missing something?

  10. eMcE

    Nice, but none of those programs offer basic option which is creating a low level image from damaged drive and recovering data’s from this image. This is the basic functionality in the data recovery. It is well known saying: “Do not operate on the damaged drive! Operate on the image from this drive!”.

  11. james Matthew

    I just came onto your post and found it quite interesting. A well run operation that provides superior service at a good price.I am also associated with computer repair Las Vegas . Thanks again for writing such a good post.

  12. BearPup

    [@Ed] Don’t tell that to the gentleman I helped recover a years’ worth of work using Undelete360 – he was so grateful he wanted to pay me for the service!

    Or to the lady who recovered nearly ½ GB of ‘priceless’ personal photographs using AidFile Recovery Free. She couldn’t stop praising my work. And I did precious little – “Here download and install this. Go to where you think you lost them.” etc. .

  13. Ian

    [@Ed]

    The purpose here is to recover the data. We need to await the review and choose according to what works and what does not work for the type of data recovery needed and the hardware one has to work with.

    Of course free is best but only if it does the job and recovers all the data. If not, I’d like to know about paid programs or try out a free version of them. Data recovery can be a very slow process and time is money so it’s not just a matter of quickly trying various free programs. I’m looking forward to Ashraf’s review.

    I have only a notebook and TestDisk and Photorec did not appear to be able to recover my data (from a corrupted drive connected with USB cable) onto my computer, which Power Data Recovery did in a very short time inside Windows and with an Explorer-like interface.

  14. videodope.net

    Piriform (CCleaner) Recuva does the job perfectly for me. Tested it with several file shredders from Iobit, FileShredder and TuneUp Utilities and you learn how useless they are if you can recover everything easy with Recuva. Only when running KillDisk even Piriform can’t get anything back.

  15. Ian

    I’m going to suggest the Free Edition of MiniTool Power DataRecovery.

    Yes I know there is a 1GB limit but it can recover files (while working entirely inside Windows) that other programs cannot. Very easy to use.

    If the free version works and serious data needs restoring it’ll be worth the money to buy the paid version. It can work with corrupted drives connected through USB, great if you only have a notebook. I actually first learned about it in a comment, here on Dottech.

    http://download.cnet.com/MiniTool-Power-Data-Recovery-Free-Edition/3000-2094_4-10561431.html

  16. EntangledDotTechie

    lol Ashraf and me must have entangled minds! When I saw the topic, TestDisk & PhotoRec came into my mind. Maybe one day, someone will design a nice UI for them. To be honest, one doesn’t need any other program if one has TestDisk & PhotoRec. Take it to wherever, be it to the end of the universe (don’t ask me where it ends, I don’t know!), they’ll still work flawlessly every time you run.

  17. BearPup

    I do volunteer tech support at Microsoft and the one program I’ve been recommended for some time was Undelete360, but lately there have been reports that Undelete360 might not be completely freeware (possibly free for files, not for folders). So instead, I’ve been recommending AidFile Recovery Pro Free Edition.

    Both programs are excellent at recovering files for the ‘vast majority’ of the users I wind up being in contact with. They are simple to use, recover the vast majority of files, have very friendly user interfaces, allow for previewing of files, and cover the vast majority (I say that a lot with these two) of circumstances people need to recover files from.

    These two programs may not be the ‘most powerful doomsday’ recovery tools, but anyone can use them, no matter what their technical comfort level may be.