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How to recover deleted files for free: undelete photos, documents and more

Recover accidentally deleted documents, photos and other files

Deleting files by accident is extremely easy to do. It's a sickening feeling when you realise what you've done. Fortunately, you might be able to get them back without spending any money using the free Disk Digger utility. Here's how to recover deleted files.

Sometimes you'll find they're still there in Windows' Recycle Bin, but there are occasions when you've emptied it too hastily, or perhaps you're overly fond of the Shift-Delete shortcut which bypasses the Recycle Bin and actually deletes the data.

Fear not, though, as Disk Digger is a free tool which you can use to recover files. As we explain in our top tips on recovering data, you need to act fast and save the files to another physical disk.

How to recover files you deleted by accident

Step 1. Download DiskDigger from diskdigger.org. You don’t need to install it – just extract the contents of the .zip archive and run the .exe file. Remember that if you’ve already accidentally deleted some files, you shouldn’t download DiskDigger to the disk containing your lost files as it could overwrite your files and make it impossible to recover them. Ideally, download it before you actually need it.

(Note that there are many free data recovery utilities. You don't have to use DiskDigger, but we've seen good results from it.)

Download Disk Digger

Step 2. Start DiskDigger. The opening screen shows all the disks so select the one containing your deleted files and click on ‘Next’ three times. The disk will now be scanned and any deleted files will be listed – this could take some time. If your missing files are listed, continue to the next step. If not you could try altering some of the options in the earlier screens.

Scan disks

Step 3. DiskDigger won’t be able to show correct filenames so, to help identify lost files, a preview option is provided. Select a file in the list at the left and choose either the ‘Preview’ (for photos) or the ‘First few bytes’ tag. Also useful for photographs is the ‘Thumbnail’ option in the ‘View’ menu which will show small images in the list.

Preview files

Step 4. When you’ve identified your lost file(s) select them in the list at the left and click on ‘Recover selected files…’. Next select the device and folder where you want your files to be restored to (this must not be on the same physical drive as the lost file) and click on OK. The missing file(s) will be saved with automatically generated filenames, so you’ll need to rename them to their original names or something meaningful.

Save recovered files

How to repair an external hard drive

If you think your external hard drive is faulty and you need to recover data from it then you might be out of luck.

Hard drive failures are generally non-repairable, although there might be more chance of recovery from an SSD than a traditional mechanical hard disk. With a mechanical hard disk, listen out for regular ticking sounds (different from the usual sounds your drive makes), or a chirping noise. These usually indicate a failure. If the drive is constantly spinning up and down, it might be because it can't get enough power from a single USB port, so try and Y cable and connect it to two USB ports.

In the case of failure, repairs would have to be carried out by a professional using special tools and software. Companies such as Kroll Ontrack will charge several hundred pounds to attempt to recover important data, and there are no guarantees they will be able to. It's usually only worth spending this sort of money if the files are that valuable to you.

One issue that might be repairable for free is when the partition table becomes corrupt, and Windows is unable to read any files from the drive. You can try using TestDisk to repair the table and recover your data.

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