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Act fast, and Recuva recovers your data

Accidentally or not, if you've wiped out data from your hard drive you may not have to pay to get it restored. Freeware Recuva recovers your files, as long as they haven't been overwritten.

Over the weekend, I accidentally deleted all of my MP3s. Using SHIFT+Del, I wiped them from my hard drive without stopping at Go or the Recycle Bin. After running to go get the dunce cap, my initial reaction was to pull out the iPod and copy them back over. In some ways it would be the easiest solution, but it wasn't the most elegant. Wouldn't it be easier if I could just restore all those files to their original locations?

Recuva, from the makers of CCleaner, scans your drive for files you've deleted or damaged and restores them. It's not perfect, but for a free recovery program--a category noted for its lack of freeware--Recuva is both easy to use and effective. It's pronounced "recover," according to the publisher's Web site.

As you can see in the screenshots, the interface is more or less a spreadsheet layout with buttons at the top. The real work gets done by the recovery wizard, which starts when you launch the program. You can opt out of it, and change the settings so that it doesn't launch the next time you run it, but the wizard's steps are clear and worth using to streamline data recovery. Closing the wizard will take you directly to the advanced features.

The wizard first asks you what kind of files you're looking to recover, divided into file type categories. There's Pictures, Music, Documents, Video, Emails, and Other, which is really All Types. The next step in the wizard is to identify where the files were located. You can tell it to search everywhere using the I'm Not Sure option, or limit it to any removable memory including USB keys, iPods, and memory cards, in the My Documents folder and subfolders, or in the Recycle Bin. You can also restrain Recuva to one specific folder.

Scanning is a bear of a process, and the predicted duration of the recovery scan was off by about 10 minutes during my situation. The bottom line is that if you're trying to restore a large chunk of data--say, more than 1GB--you're looking at a long coffee break.

Once it's done, Recuva will dump out a list of files and their original locations, their timestamps, and other data. Switching to Advanced mode will provide more detailed information on each file, including a preview if available. It will also show all of the file data in one field that is copyable, and the file's header data.

Recuva is effective, but not all the time. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

In the Options menu, you can toggle useful features such as changing the viewing mode from list to tree or thumbnails, outputting your settings to an INI file, and adjust the secure overwriting setting from the simple one pass to the Gutmann standard of 35 passes. Several of the options, such as rescuing damaged files, restoring the original folder structure, or setting the scan permanently to be a deep scan, seem as if they should be set as defaults because they're that useful to data restoration, but they're not.

Recuva lacks an output screen, which would be useful in comparing which files were successfully restored against those that weren't, but because the program is free and effective, it's a flaw that's easily overlooked.

If you have a favorite deleted data restoration program, tell me about it in the comments.