How to Recover Lost Data from a Formatted Drive in 7 Steps

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Last time we talked about when to use data recovery software and 10 features to look for when choosing recovery software.

Today, we'll take it one step further and look at the steps involved in using one such product. Then, we'll discuss what to do to keep yourself out of these predicaments to begin with.

Before we can begin, there are a few basics we need to go over.


The Basics That You Need to Know When Using Data Recovery Software

  • If possible do a back-up before you try the recovery
  • Don't install the software on the drive that has the problem
  • Be sure to save the recovered files someplace other than the problem drive

Installing the recovery software on the unstable drive could write on top of your files. This is a no-brainer if you are trying to recover removable storage like the below example.

In this case you don't have to do anything special. However, there is an extra step if you want to recover an internal drive.

When recovering an internal drive, you will have to remove the unstable hard drive and connect to a stable computer with a stable operating system. I have dealt with this in the past and had decided to purchase a case that turns my hard drive into an USB connected external hard drive.

This is the cleanest and easiest way but has an additional cost (approximate $10-30 depending on quality and appearance of the case) and slows down the scan because it is running through USB. Buying this is unavoidable in most instances when you are trying to recover a laptop hard drive.

If it is a tower you are attempting to recover, you can bust open a second tower and plug in the unstable hard drive. Then you should see the unstable drive show up in (My) Computer or in Disk Management.

You may, or may not, be able to see some of the files you are looking for without any recovery software at all.

A Step-by-Step Example of How to Use a Data Recovery Product

If you remember from my last article, all the files were absent from my frantic mother-in-law's USB flash drive.

I am still not sure exactly what happened to it, but my theory is that a coworker had inadvertently done a quick format, perhaps when hastily clicking through prompts. The actual name of the drive was changed to "public", along with the fact that all of her files had gone missing, hinted me to this conclusion.

I knew right away that using a data recovery program was the route for me. There was no physical damage, and system restore was not an option.

As mentioned last time, I already had GetDataBack for NTFS from a previous mishap. I decided to use their FAT version too because I was familiar with the software.

If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have chosen that product. The reason is not that it is a bad product; actually it worked quite well and was rather intuitive. I just wish I had paid for one product that did both file systems.

Now let's get started. I have recreated the problem and will take you step by step through recovering the files.

I decided to try out a different program this time. They have very different GUIs, but the results were the same. Here are the steps I took using Recover My Files on a USB flash drive from a computer running Vista Professional.

Step 1

Have the drive you want to recover attached to a computer with an operating system. In my case I simply had to plug the USB flash drive into my computer.

Step 2

Download and install the free version of Recover My Files. Don't forget that you need to install it someplace other than the drive that you want to recover.

Step 3

Start Recover My Files. You have 4 general options.

The first two are for files that you accidentally deleted. Use the second two if you want to recover after a format. I chose Complete Format Recover and then clicked next.

Data Recovery - 1

Step 4

Next an information box comes up that tells you when to choose a physical drive and when to pick a logical one. The program tells you to choose a physical drive if you have simply reformatted, and choose a logical one if you have already installed something on the drive.

The logical version of the drives will show up with their normal names. The physical version will be numbered.

I chose physical number 1. You should never be choosing number 0 because that would mean you are trying to recover the main (boot) drive that you are running the program from. Click next.

Data Recovery - 2

Step 5

The next window asks you for the main types of files that you want to recover. It seems like the point of this step is simply to confuse you or worry you unnecessarily.

GetDataBack didn't have a step like this. I'm sure it is for a very important super efficient algorithm. You don't need to rack your brain trying to remember all of the file types you had on the disk. It assures you that all of your files will be recovered even if you don't select all your file types.

Data Recovery - 3

Allow for about an hour to scan 50 GB of space or even longer if you are scanning via USB. The program will maintain a list of how many files found so far in the small window, and break down the list by file type in the left pane of the main window under the file type view.

Data Recovery - 4

Step 6

When the scan is done you see a list of all your recovered files.

In my case the files lost their names, but they open fine. You can preview them in the lower right part of the window. Click the check box on the files you want to save, or click the box next to the name of the drive to select all the files.

Data Recovery - 5

Step 7

Next, click the save button. If you only have a trial version, this will be the time when you will need to obtain and enter your license key.

Direct the program to save the files anywhere other than the drive you recovered. Once your files are saved you can close the Recover My Files Program.


What To Do To Avoid Needing Data Recovery At All (Or Ever Again)

  • Back Up

You have heard it before but I'm telling you again. There are often warning signs that a hard drive is failing. Back up at the first inkling of a problem.

Then, if the drive does go, you can just recycle it and buy a new one. This can cost you much less than paying to recover it.

Common Warning Signs of Imminent Failure:

    • Loading or saving files consistently takes an unnaturally long time


    • Frequent lock ups that cause you to use the power button to restart


    • Files mysteriously turn to arble-garble or disappear all together


    • Freezing while booting up


    • Strange noises


  • Blue screen of death
  • Defrag Often

Physical damage can sometimes be caused by a drive working too hard because of a fragmented hard drive. You can help to prevent this by scheduling your Disk Defragmenter to run automatically. This is especially important if you are running pre-2000 Windows.

The bottom line is that if your files turn up missing for any reason they probably can be recovered. The price of data professional recovery services are fair if you have extensive physical damage, but unnecessary in many cases.

Many data recovery programs are very powerful, and most have thorough help files and customer support. Give it a try!

Oh and Mom… you should have had your data backed up to begin with.

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Lisa Szpunar

Lisa Szpunar has a Bachelors of Arts in Elementary Education from the University of Iowa and a Masters of Science in Computer Science from Northern Illinois University. During her three years teaching in public schools she taught computer skills to students and peers, maintained the schools’ networks and hardware, ran the libraries, and helped to facilitate technology throughout the school district. At Train Signal Lisa manages the production of training videos, does video editing, and helps with technical support.