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Recover almost any file, photo or folder

Never lose a file again - simple advice

Find lost images and sounds

The recovery programs we described above can find deleted photos (and other lost data) on most of the memory cards used in digital cameras, but you'll have a better chance of success if you use a program designed specifically to recover photo files.

Art Plus's Digital Photo Recovery and PC Inspector's Smart Recovery are free utilities that do a good job on JPEG, TIFF, and RAW files. For a more complete recovery tool, try MediaRecover, a £20 package.

Repair Word and Excel files

If a Word or Excel file is garbled or won't open at all, use Microsoft's built-in file-repair tools: Click File, Open, and locate and select the damaged file. Then click the arrow on the right side of the Open button and select Open and Repair from the drop-down menu.

Repair your Word or Excel installation

When Word or Excel starts to behave badly, it's tempting to uninstall and reinstall the program. But running Microsoft's repair utility may be a quicker and simpler solution. Open Control Panel and select Add or Remove Programs in XP, or Uninstall a program in Vista (in Control Panel's Classic view, double-click Programs and Features). Find the entry for Word, Excel, or Microsoft Office, and in XP click the Change button, select either Reinstall or Repair, and follow the prompts. In Vista, click Repair at the top of the window, and step through the wizard.

Recover a lost password

It's not just a symptom of old age. Whether due to infrequent use or an abundance of protected accounts, anybody can forget a password. These tips will help you overcome your memory lapse.

Setting a security password in your PC's BIOS is a great way to keep people off your PC. Until the user enters the password, your PC won't even start. You can reset a BIOS password on most motherboards by resetting a small electrical switch - or "jumper" - on the PC's motherboard. Check your motherboard's manual or the vendor's website for instructions on how to identify and reset the jumper.

It's embarrassingly easy to bypass the Windows XP log-on password. Simply restart your PC and press the key just before Windows starts. At the Advanced Options menu, select the first option: Safe Mode. XP will boot into Safe Mode and display a log-on screen with icons for already-established user names, as well as an icon for Administrator. Log onto the Administrator account - leaving the password blank unless you've previously assigned a password for the account - and once in Windows, open the Control Panel and select User Accounts. Now you can reset the passwords for any account.

Microsoft finally realised what a tremendous security breach this was, so Vista hides and disables its built-in Administrator account, and you can't use it to bypass the OS's log-in.

Password recovery programs are available for Word, Excel, Outlook and almost every other commonly used file type that can be password-protected. For example, Elcomsoft's $49 Advanced Office Password Recovery is easier to use than most free password recovery programs. You can recover a password from an Outlook, Eudora, or other email program by using Nirsoft's free Mail PassView. Note that "free" data recovery services are sometimes fronts for data thieves, so stick with programs from reliable sources, such as PC Advisor's own Downloads site.

Recover a program's product key

Many programs - especially pricey ones - require you to enter a product key or registration number when you reinstall them. If you lose that key, you lose the ability to reinstall it. Typically the keys are printed on the box that the program ships in, on a disc case or sleeve, or on some loose piece of documentation, so they're pretty easy to lose. (I always write the key directly on the installation CD, using a permanent marker, before installing the program for the first time.)

If you've lost your Microsoft Windows or Office product key, but you still have the program installed on your PC, the free Magic Jelly Bean Keyfinder will probe your PC and display or print the key.

If you no longer have an installed copy but you've registered the program with the manufacturer, a quick call to customer service should deliver a product key without too much hassle. If you haven't registered it, expect a rockier road; when asked, Microsoft, Adobe and Symantec representatives all said that customers could obtain a registration key for an unregistered product, but first they would have to provide verifiable proof of purchase - such as the original CD or an invoice - and jump though various other hoops as well.

Recover mobile-phone data

When you lose a critical text message or phone number, Insideout Forensics' $99 SIMCon program and Pro Data Doctor's $69 Sim Card Data Recovery utility may be able to retrieve deleted or damaged data from a SIM card.

But you'll have to pay up to £25 on top of the price of the software for a USB SIM card reader. Before shelling out for a reader, try baking a plate of cookies for the staff at your local cell phone store; they usually have SIM card readers on hand, and in my experience they respond well to chocolate chips and peanut butter.

Patch a scarred CD or DVD

An unreadable CD or DVD may just be dirty. Add a few drops of dishwashing liquid to a large glass of water, and lightly scrub the face of the disc with a lightly moistened, soft, non-abrasive cloth. Always wipe from the center of the disc outward to the edge. If the disc has scratches, put a small dab of toothpaste on the end of a cotton swab and gently rub the scratches out. If these steps don't work, you can turn to one of the many CD and DVD recovery kits available at your local electronics store for around £15.

If you still can't read data from the disc, run Mitja Perko's CDCheck recovery software or Jufsoft's $40 (£20) BadCopy Pro.

Restore corrupted email messages

Programs for recovering lost email may cost up to £50, depending on the features they offer and the mail program you use. For Outlook Express, try Stephen L. Cochran's free DBXtract v4.50.

Recover a lost network connection

Unless you're an IT professional, trying to discover the misconfigured setting responsible for killing your network connection rivals the thrill of undergoing acupuncture during an earthquake. Pure Networks' $40 Network Magic utility makes the job much easier for the network layperson, even if you still eventually have call your ISP's support line. The program graphically displays your entire network, showing which devices are online and how they're connected. Click a device to see its IP address along with other key troubleshooting and configuration data. Download the trial version.

Quick links

How to recover (almost) anything on your PC

Recover images, repair files

Bring Windows back to health

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