The top performers in our review are Data Rescue PC3, the Gold Award winner; Ontrack EasyRecovery Professional, the Silver Award winner; and Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 systems.
Data loss is among the most distressing experiences of digital life. You might have accidentally deleted a file and emptied your Recycling Bin, or followed a prompt to reformat a drive after plugging in your external hard drive. Before you even realize, you can destroy your only copies of cherished photos, essential communications, assignments or other files.
Disk recovery software can help you recover your missing data. Of course, it doesn’t always succeed, and some programs may not recover any, as our evaluations of 10 recovery programs reveal. But the best software gives you a decent shot at retrieving a portion of the data you’ve lost. To learn more about disk recovery and data-loss prevention, see our articles on disk recovery software.
The most extreme cause of data loss is physical damage to your drive. Typically you'll have plenty of signs that a something is wrong, such as a subtle ticking sound coming from your computer or obvious external damage. Be aware that if you’ve lost files because a disk has been physically damaged, recovery software cannot help you. If your computer simply refuses to go past the BIOS (basic input/output) system screen during startup or is making unusual noises during operation, it does need to be repaired by a professional hard drive recovery service. And such repairs can be expensive.
However, there are plenty of data loss scenarios that don't involve physical damage. These are generally referred to as logical data loss, and they include files that are lost because of accidental deletion or a reformatted drive. In both cases, your computer has simply lost its reference to where the files are stored on the drive. The data is still on the drive.
Frequently, this is a user error issue. It begins with deleting a file, thereby dumping it to your Recycle Bin. The problem comes when you – like most people – clear your bin. This action removes your computer’s reference to where a file is stored. In the industry, these are commonly referred to as lost files since their reference to the table has been lost. Depending on the type of device where these lost files were stored, most recovery software should be able to find them, so long as they haven’t been overwritten. The files are still there. Your computer just doesn’t know where to look.
When your system loses the reference to where files are stored on your device, your computer recognizes it as available for new data to be written, and so it may end up storing new data over the old. There is an excellent chance of this happening if more than a few minutes of running time has passed since clearing your Recycle Bin. It happens that fast.
The greatest threat to a successful recovery is when a file is overwritten with new data, as an overwritten file cannot be recovered completely. Only the portions of the file that have not been overwritten are recoverable; and even then, the partial recovery is useless with most file types. As such, it's critical that you stop using your hard drive when you recognize that data loss has occurred.
Finally, there are those files left behind on a disk that was later reformatted. This can happen when your device becomes corrupted if, for example, you disconnect it from your computer without first ejecting. At this point, the data is only lost, but the situation is made worse by clicking the "Yes" button when the computer asks if you would like to reformat the drive. Loss like this also happens intentionally if you format a drive to repurpose it, only to realize you formatted over the very files you need. Disk recovery software can help with these more difficult recovery scenarios, but with varying success.
Because different drive and device types store information differently, each storage medium provides a unique challenge for recovery software packages. For example, a hard disk drive will store a file until it’s been deleted, allowing it to be overwritten when new data is saved, but a solid-state drive will erase the block upon which the data was stored before overwriting it. Further, a TRIM-enabled microSD card will delete the file as soon as you order it to be deleted. Because of these differences, we tested each piece of recovery software on three drive types: HDD, SSD and microSD card.
In establishing our methodology, we wanted to mimic the common types of data loss that we could test in a timely manner. Disk recovery is not a quick process. In fact, even the fastest program we tested would have taken 55 hours to complete full scan of a 1TB drive. To manage these concerns, we created partitions on our various devices, so each program could be tested on a smaller amount of data.
We also constructed data sets that consisted of picture, document, video and music files – as these are typically the types of files users need to recover. In order to track our success, we created separate data sets for each type of data loss to be tested. For the matter of testing, it was important that each set be designed to limit the amount of free space between the data set and the partition wall.
We then set about recreating the specific types of data loss mentioned above. Making lost files to recover simply involved saving files to the partition before deleting them and emptying the Recycle Bin. In testing recovery rates for data lost to reformatting, we intentionally reformatted our test devices before scanning them.
Each software package allows for raw data recovery, which means it scrapes every bit of available data from the drive during the initial scan. All of the brands we tested do have automated features that let you search for missing data by file type or other identifiers. We did test these automated features as part of our evaluation, but found them to be mostly unreliable across the board. For our final results, we tested each brand’s raw data recovery capabilities to get the best evaluation of their recovery rates.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained some of the software in our comparison through donations from the respective companies, and others we purchased through retail outlets. The companies had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Below are the general observations and takeaways from our testing of disk recovery software.
Recovery Success Varys by Data Loss & Drive Type
In all, our testing revealed that few brands excel at all recovery challenges. We found that some did better at recovering lost pictures and video files, while others did remarkably well at resurrecting reformatted MS Office files. Some were more successful at recovering from hard disk drives, while others were surprisingly adept at microSD card recovery. Overall, we collected 48 data points on each reviewed software package, and we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the programs in their respective reviews.
As expected, most software packages had little trouble recovering a fair percentage of the lost files. Among all the software we tested, the average recovery rate for lost files was close to 100% from both hard disk and solid-state drives, but overall they averaged only a 50% recovery from a microSD card. The average rates for recovering files from a reformatted drive was more consistent across the devices we tested, with 50% of the files from the HDD and SSD, and 46% from a microSD card.
Furthermore, it's important to note that the recovery rates within each software often varied greatly depending on which storage device was being scanned and the type of data loss being recovered. For example, one program found 100% of the lost files from a solid-state drive but only 63% of the lost files from a micro SD card. That same software was also only able to find 33% of the files lost to a reformatted SSD, but it was still able to find 99% of those same files on a microSD card.
Clearly, no single recovery application can do everything, and the best software choice will depend on your specific data recovery needs. However, there are some that performed better across the board than others. We found the best overall recovery rate with Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery Professional. Its data recovery engine worked best across each of our test devices. Data Rescue PC3 had the next best recovery rate overall, although it received the Gold Award because it has the best compliment of features, including providing professional data recovery services. Likewise, Data Recovery Wizard Professional from EaseUS had the third best rate, but fell short in the area of additional features. We found value in each reviewed software package, and each review explains more in depth exactly how each one excelled.
Not All Found Files Are Recoverable
It's important to note that it is not uncommon at all for recovery software to report finding thousands of files, but many of them are actually empty or unusable fragments. Quite often the files returned in our testing were zero-length, meaning they were little more than a header without content. Some pictures that would open would only be half-complete. Others simply would not open at all. To ensure the recovery rates we reported from our testing referred to useable files, we used an open source CHECKSUM tool to identify complete files. For example, in one round of testing, a disk recovery product reported that it had returned 11.9GB of information, which turned out to be just 1.24GB of usable data after being verified with the CHECKSUM tool.
If You Don’t Succeed, Try Again
One thing that was consistent in testing the performance of these data recovery brands was that they were not always consistent in their results. We frequently found different results with each recovery attempt. Three brands did produce nearly identical results with their respective previous test runs, but never on more than two consecutive passes. A few on the lower end of our review returned no files in one scan for lost files only to report finding 100% on the next. Because of this, we chose to run three rounds of testing on each program in order to report each brand's best recovery rate.
Extra Features: A Blessing and a Curse
Some programs have features beyond the basic file recovery utilities. More than a few of these programs offer complex disk utilities like S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology) interfaces, RAID recovery and disk sanitization. Others programs, such as R-Studios, have complex tools for networked recovery operations and manually reassociating file fragments with hex and disk editors. However, if you are not familiar with using these types of tools, you run the risk of irreversibly damaging your data. If your data loss requires advanced tools, but using an editor is beyond your skill level, it is important to seek the help of a qualified hard drive recovery service.
Disk Recovery Software Review: What Else Is Important?
Data recovery generally takes a lot of time. While actually recovering your data is the most important consideration, your time investment is also something to take into account. When manufacturers advertise recovery speed, they generally are talking in terms of the scanning alone. Rarely do they take into account the amount of time spent recovering, which takes much longer. In our testing, we logged the process from the time the software started scanning to when it finished recovering.
Recovery Speed: Speed Doesn’t Correlate With Efficacy
It is worth noting that we found no correlation in our testing between how fast a program works and its recovery rate. In fact, while Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery Professional clocked some of the longest scan and recovery times and had the best recovery rate, Data Rescue PC3 had only average recovery speeds, yet it boasted the second-best recovery rate. All else being equal, it's worth a little extra time investment if it means you have a better chance at recovering your missing data, but be aware that slower isn't always more thorough, and faster isn't always less so.
Many disk recovery software packages have features to help reduce the amount of time you will spend scanning and to make the overall recovery process easier. Items like disk imaging go a long way to help you keep from further damaging the data, while pause and save features give you time to take a break from watching a timer and file counter. Other features can also reduce the time you’ll spend waiting by letting you search for only particular file types, names and even dates; however, we experienced diminished returns with these features. While these extras did not actually improve the success of our recovery, they can help make the process as manageable as possible.
Help & Support: Look For Remote Assistance & Detailed Information
When it comes to data recovery, you need a company that does more than stand behind its product. Most of these services offer great help and support, but a few companies, like Ontrack EasyRecovery Professional and Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery, go the extra mile by offering remote assistance for your recovery. Many also offer detailed user manuals and endless forums for help and support. These are companies that are willing to make their product work for you.
Disk Recovery Software Review: Our Verdict & Recommendations
Disk recovery software can be costly, but a professional disk recovery service costs more. While there will be times you may want to consider calling in a professional, you can save yourself a lot of money with do-it-yourself recovery software, provided the damage isn't too great.
Among our top three choices, we found a great combination of recovery rates, features and support options. Aside from its high recovery rate, the Gold Award winning Data Rescue PC3 is designed to get you through the data recovery process with tools that let you work across your home network and even let you recover your primary hard drive in a pre-OS state. The developer has a solid foundation real-world data recovery situations, and the company is so confident in its product that it will discount the cost of its software from the cost of its hard drive recovery lab services, if it turns out you need them.
The Silver Award winning Ontrack EasyRecovery Professional had some of the best recovery speeds. The Bronze Award winning Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery Professional, however, had one of the best overall recovery rates, making it great software when you need to recover data from a variety of devices and drives. It also features a disk editor, which allows you to help it identify unfamiliar file types.
Much of the software we reviewed is designed for basic data recovery tasks. For the more technically inclined, we recommend R-Studio for its advanced networking capabilities and built-in hex editor.