How to Recover Deleted Files

For most people, deleting a file on the computer consists of dragging it to a “Trash” or “Recycle” folder. The offending document, picture, or other file type is not truly “deleted” from the system, but is now safely out of the way. There is an old adage that says, “out of sight, out of mind,” and for the vast majority of casual computer users this level of removal more than satisfies any need to “clean-up” their computer workspace. However, once a file is removed from these digital waste baskets, it becomes necessary to know a how to recover deleted files in order to retrieve them.

Beyond the Recycle Bin

The good news starts here. Actually deleting a file from a computer requires much more know-how and effort than simply dragging it into a folder and selecting “empty.” The first step in knowing how to go about recovering deleted files after it’s been “emptied” is to understand what exactly happens beyond the recycle bin. The short answer is nothing; the long answer is nothing… yet.

When a file is deleted using the operating system (that would be using a function like Trash or Recycle Bin), there is actually no “deleting” occurring, so to speak. Instead, the computer simply categorizes the space occupied by that file on your hard drive as free. For all intents and purposes (except accessing it through the operating system of course), the file hasn’t been altered yet. The actual deletion occurs later, when the computer overwrites that hard drive space with new data. Now luckily free space isn’t created equal on a hard drive, and files that have been tagged as “free” will be last in line when it comes to selecting space to write new data. For example, a computer that has 500MB of true free space (that is, space that isn’t occupied by a flagged-as-free file) will utilize all 500MB before overriding flagged data. With this basic understanding of how deleting files works, the first step to recover deleted files makes substantially more sense.

The First Step

Do nothing… Correction: Do nothing that isn’t that isn’t absolutely necessary to recovering that deleted file. Although computers don’t write over “deleted” files until all other true free space has been used, it is no excuse to forgo recovering deleted files until after that last game, episode, or podcast. Most people aren’t aware of when and what is being saved as they go about their daily computing lives, and although 500MB may sound like a lot, it only takes one accidental update or program installation to eat it up.

No User is an Island

The long answer to how to recover deleted files is actually fairly short itself: with help. In the end the quickest, easiest, and most accident-proof way to recover deleted files is to utilize a file recovery program. Even for the tech-savvy there is no shame in turning to such a program for help; no man is an island after all, and with the wide-variety of free programs available, there’s really no reason not to.

When it comes to choosing the right program, there isn’t really a wrong way to go about it. A simple Google search turns up at least a dozen options within the first few hits, so it is simply a matter of choosing the program that has an appealing user interface and some solid reviews from satisfied downloaders. A few programs to consider are:

  • Puran File Recovery: A robust tool with a cavalcade of advanced options, Puran scans all visible drives and returns a more complete list of files than some of its contemporaries. Unlike some of lighter tools that can be operated without a full installation, Puran does need to be installed to run.
  • SoftPerfect File Recovery: This program is an example of the lighter “plug-and-play” variety of file recovery tool. No installation is required to run SoftPerfect, and it can be conveniently launched from a USB drive (it weighs in at a miniscule 500KB). Although possessing fewer advanced options than its heftier counter-part, this tool will get the job done for basic locate-and-restore jobs.
  • The Nuclear Option
  • There is one other method for restoring a deleted file, but given its system-wide effect on a system it should definitely be considered as a last resort. The proverbial nuclear option for answer the “how to recover deleted files” question is to run a full system restore. Restoring an entire system to a backed-up version of itself is sure to recover any mistakenly deleted files, but it will also have the adverse effect of deleting any files that have been saved or created since the backup date. Proceed with caution.