3 Free Programs to Recover Lost Files

In today’s actively online society, a secure computer is a necessity. Computer viruses and malicious hackers are common enough to be a cause for justified concern. Interestingly, some of the less robust ways we take care of our own computers don’t afford the same security as, say, advanced antivirus protection, as in deleting your files.

data recovery

Deleting files the old-fashioned way simply moves them to a space on the hard drive where they will eventually be overwritten as you accrue more files. This is hardly what you ask for from your recycle bin, but it works to your advantage in the unfortunate event that you accidentally delete something. 

How to Undelete Your Files

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably arrived here on the heels of a Google excursion that entailed keywords like “data recovery freeware” or “how do I undelete files.” Now, finding your deleted files can seem tricky, but there have been many decent programs designed for just this purpose. Many of them are even free. Let’s take a look at some of the options and how they stack-up. 

A Word to the Wise

Often, when it comes to free software, there’s a distinction between data recovery and data repair.   

Data recovery simply means finding “lost” data on your drive; this is not really that difficult, and most programs simply facilitate what would otherwise involve a lot of command line cleverness. Restoring these files is also not a problem provided the files aren’t majorly overwritten. 

Data repair, on the other hand, refers to rebuilding files that have been significantly overwritten or otherwise heavily damaged. This is a service that tends to come with a high price tag, because it involves some real ingenuity. Bear this in mind when considering your digital needs. 

SoftPerfect File Recovery

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This is a very simple, lightweight program, and as such it’s missing some of the crucial bells and whistles needed to deal with damaged data. It does, however, offer the following advantages: 

  • Fast download
  • No installer (i.e., does not write anything to the registry)
  • Single-click drive searching
  • Searching based on file name or format
  • Can be used to search external and flash drives
As you can see, this one is useful to the extent that it can find deleted files and restore them without any real hassle. It can detect large amounts of deleted files extremely quickly, and the program can even be stored on a non-system drive. But keep in mind what you’re not getting in such a small program as well:

  • Often does not detect files that are more than slightly damaged
  • Does not assess the damage level of files it does detect


When you restore programs with File Recovery, it’s important to check them for consistency. Often you won’t realize until you open them that the files you’ve restored are still damaged beyond recognition, at least as far as your PC is concerned. Also, if you’re hoping to recover large amounts of files, try not to defragment before running a search, as this will often greatly lower the amount of files recovered. Regardless, this program is compact and fast enough that it’s worth having on hand for those “oops” moments where you immediately realize you’ve deleted something by mistake. 

Piriform Recuva

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Though not as lightweight, this is a significantly more powerful program than SoftPerfect’s product. Here’s a sampling of its capabilities:

  • Allows file searches based on file name, format, or general type (e.g., music files, text files, etc.)
  • Assesses level of damage for files found and whether they can be recovered
  • Provides secure delete option for recovered files
  • Includes “deep scan” option which checks for files that have been overwritten or lost due to a hard drive reformat


Recuva offers a few options that make the process of recovering files a lot less frustrating. Provided you haven’t recently installed a new OS or shredded a file multiple times, you can almost guarantee that you’ll find at least a trace of it. For all its improvements over File Recovery, however, it’s not without its own drawbacks:

  • File preview option only applies to certain image types, and is unreliable at best even for files in excellent condition
  • Offers to install a Yahoo! toolbar that you probably don’t want
  • Deep scanning can take a considerably long time on larger drives
  • Restored files are not guaranteed to work properly, even if their quality is “excellent”


Again, data recovery remains a rather imperfect science given the typically high cost of data repair, so don’t expect files that have been long-deleted to be great candidates for restoration with a program that’s free. Still, in the majority of more recent cases, Recuva really does the trick, and if you’re more concerned with security (i.e., knowing what’s on your computer rather than off of it), the deletion option makes this program an invaluable asset. 

Pandora Recovery

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Perhaps the most feature-laden program among the three, it brings with it a slightly larger download and an installation footprint more than twice as large as Recuva, but the added accommodations are handy to say the least:

  • Browse option that allows you to explore all drive folders containing deleted files (and lists the exact percentage of data that is overwritten in each file)
  • Offers to check your computer’s recycle bin before running a scan to prevent scanning needlessly
  • Fine-grained search feature that allows you to set parameters such as file size and last date modified to find files whose filenames may be lost


The rest of the interface contains similar features to those of Recuva, but often in a more intuitive form. For instance, the search, browse, and “surface scan” functionalities (“surface scan” corresponding to Recuva’s “deep scan”) are all contained on separate tab-delineated screens where their features can be explored without confusion. (On the other hand, for more confident users, Recuva offers a more compact setup that doesn’t require a lot of clicking around.) 

Aesthetics aside, Pandora Recovery functions very similarly to Recuva, so it also offers similar disadvantages. It comes with its own unique problems, though:

  • Opens a nag screen in your browser to suggest a donation after the first time you use it
  • Offers to install an Ask toolbar you probably don’t want
  • Surface scan can be significantly slower than Recuva’s deep scan


Keep in mind that things like toolbars and nag screens are the sort of one-time nuisance you can simply opt out of. Ultimately, these are minor “problems,” and the real question with these programs comes down to how their functions meet your needs. 

So What’s the Best Solution Here?

All of these programs offer a wealth of useful tools and their own weaknesses. For instance, SoftPerfect File Recovery is small, but the fact that it doesn’t require an install prevents it from overwriting files. Pandora Recovery is powerful, but it sits on more than 5 MB of drive space; Recuva doesn’t even take up 2 MB. 

Consider your needs, including thoroughness, speed, and data sensitivity when deciding. Each of these programs excels in vastly different areas, and provided your needs are realistic, at least one of them should prove helpful.

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