Recover lost, damaged, or deleted files with free Recuva

Before you spend a small fortune on data-recovery services, try this free Windows utility. It can work magic on seemingly unrecoverable files.

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
2 min read
Freeware utility Recuva can work minor miracles on data you thought was gone for good.
Freeware utility Recuva can work minor miracles on data you thought was gone for good. Piriform

The other day my awesome cousin Rachel and her equally awesome boyfriend Marc related an all-too-common tale of woe: several years' worth of home movies recorded on their hard-disk camcorder had suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. The sad part? They'd never taken the time to offload the videos from the camcorder to a PC.

If you've ever lost personal data--photos, documents, or whatever--you know how devastating this can be. (And take it from me: this is not the moment to say, "You should have made a backup!" You can't kick a person harder than he's kicking himself.)

Marc had priced local data-recovery services, and the numbers weren't exactly budget-friendly. Indeed, these kinds of services often start at around $200.

"Bring me the camcorder," I told them, "and I'll see what I can do." About an hour later, I'd managed to recover 123 deleted movies--not everything, but a lot of what was missing. Yay!

I'm no magician (but don't tell them that); I merely know the right tools for the right job. In this case, it was Piriform's free Recuva utility for Windows (download), which was created expressly to "recuva" (get it?) lost, deleted, and/or damaged files. I simply connected the camcorder to my PC (where it appeared as a removable hard drive), ran Recuva, and pointed it at the drive.

Interestingly, the program tagged roughly half the discovered files as "unrecoverable"--but then somehow recovered them anyway. It's the software equivalent of under-promising and over-delivering. (Your mileage will almost certainly vary.)

The key to success with this or any other data-recovery solution is to immediately stop using whatever media contains the missing data--memory card, hard drive, flash drive, or smartphone. That's because any additional write activity can more permanently erase or damage the files you're trying to recover.

Recuva is compatible with Windows XP and later. It's one of those freebie gems everyone should keep on hand in case of emergency. (There's also a portable version you can keep on your flash drive, phone, or whatever for anytime, anywhere use--no installation required.) Here's hoping you never need it! (But, for heaven's sake, make backups, people!)

Bonus deal: Game time! Direct2Drive has the puzzle-platform adventure Braid (Windows) for just $1.99. This "indie" game is breathtakingly beautiful (for the eyes and ears alike) and deceptively difficult. Consider your brain warned. But for $2, there's no better game deal on the planet.