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Lose your data? there’s no need to lose sleep too.

There is nothing quite so heart-rending as the sight of someone who has just lost a year’s work. The tight-knit brows and elevated blood pressure caused by regular work stress pale by comparison. When your hard disk suddenly loses a folder full of client files, or your CD-ROM drive can’t read a vital CD-R backup, everything falls apart at once.

To get a vague idea of the visceral panic involved, rent the 1998 British movie “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” and replay the scene where Eddy loses half a million pounds he doesn’t have in a crooked poker game. As he realizes gangland boss Hatchet Harry Lonsdale has stitched him up, the deliberately unsteady camera work conveys Eddy’s panic and gives the viewing audience motion sickness.

Luckily for Eddy, Guy Ritchie (who wrote and directed the movie) devised a way to get him out of his trouble. And luckily for those of us who gamble too heavily with our data, lots of folks have devised ways to avoid accidental deletions and corrupted CD-Rs altogether.

The software solution

Of course, anything you delete using Windows Explorer gets stuffed into the Recycle Bin, where it stays (often for months) in case you need to retrieve it. But the Recycle Bin can create a false sense of security. It empties itself periodically, for one thing. And not all deleted files go into the bin–many programs that do file management bypass it completely. And removable media like Zip disks don’t have a recycle bin at all.

So it’s important to remember that deleted files don’t actually disappear. The standard Delete command just removes the file’s entry from a disk index. To the right software, deleted files are about as well hidden as a rhino in a living room.

The classic file restore program is Norton UnErase, one of the Norton Utilities that have been around since DOS ruled the PC world. The 2003 edition of Unerase Wizard runs under the 95/98/Me and NT/2000/XP strains of Windows. You can buy the program in various packages from Symantec, but the best deal is the $70-to-$90 Norton SystemWorks 2003, which also includes Norton Utilities, Norton AntiVirus, and the disk spring-cleaner CleanSweep.

To retrieve a file that’s not in the Recycle Bin, you run the Norton UnErase Wizard, and the program trawls your hard disk for likely candidates. After a brief search, you’ll see a list of deleted but retrievable files, along with their location, date deleted, file type, size, and the process that deleted them. You can re-sort the list by clicking on any of these column headers to make it easier to find your lost files. And you can either restore the files to their original folders or to a “holding tank” in some other folder for you to inspect more easily.

A better solution

Although Symantec’s Norton Utilities has the market and mind share in file restoration, I prefer Winternals FileRestore. It may be lesser known, but it’s far from a lesser product. For one thing, FileRestore doesn’t mess with the standard Windows setup as much as Norton. It doesn’t replace the Windows Recycle Bin with something that works differently, as Norton Utilities does. And it uses a better-designed single window with a search pane down the left side and a larger results pane at the right.

Type in the name of the file if you know it, the date it was last modified, and other criteria in the search pane, and the results window fills up. This setup’s less fiddly than that of multistep wizards like Norton’s UnErase, and FileRestore’s results windows are larger, and resizable–much easier to look through than Norton’s cramped, fixed-size results box.

Another advantage to FileRestore is that it returns more results. True, many of the extra results are labeled Unlikely because what remains is only a fragment of what was deleted. But in some cases, a fragment of a file is better than nothing.

So if forensic work on hard disks is likely to take up a lot of your time, the $39 FileRestore is better suited to the task than Norton’s UnErase Wizard. Sure, the Norton package adds more than a dozen other useful tools for around twice the price, but FileRestore does the job better and more easily. You can download it from the Winternals Web site.

The catch-22

The problem with installing an undo program like Norton Utilities or Winternals FileRestore is that the very act of installing it onto a hard drive can overwrite the data you’re trying to retrieve. True, you can run Norton’s UnErase direct from its CD-ROM without installing anything, but that feature doesn’t seem to work with Windows XP.

My way around this problem is a hardware fix–a drastic step for a casual deletion problem, but worthwhile if you’re desperate. You slip the hard disk out of the computer that’s running it and hook it up to a second system with a data recovery program installed. Addonics Combo Hard Drive is a great tool for this: It’s an external drive bay that hooks up to a host computer via USB or FireWire connection. It costs $100 ($50 extra for the FireWire version)–a bit much for a one-time data retrieval project, but once you have it, it’s useful for all kinds of data backup and transportation needs.

CD-R wreck

Unfortunately, FileRestore and Norton Utilities don’t handle problems with CD-Rs or CD-RWs. If you find a recordable compact disc unreadable, you can sometimes fix it simply by trying it in another drive. If this trick works, drag everything off the disc and burn it to a clean and (you hope) reliable new CD-R. As for the old disc, use it as a coffee cup coaster if you like, but don’t rely on it for data storage.

If the drive-switch trick fails, turn to Arrowkey Inc.’s $49 download, CD-R Diagnostic. This handy tool analyzes apparently dud CD-Rs–a process that can take several minutes–and produces a thorough report on what they contain. It shows which recording format was used to create the disc (ISO-9660, Joliet, UDF aka DirectCD, or the Macintosh HFS format). It displays which files were added during which track (or recording session), it analyzes errors, and, best of all, it retrieves data that Explorer can’t even see.

CD-R Diagnostic saved files from most of my doomed discs. It breezed through several CD-Rs that I’d recorded with DirectCD–discs that no other tool I’ve used under Windows XP could open. And a couple of coasters I’d tossed aside years ago turned out to have valuable data in them–but my CD burning software had overwritten the table of contents so Windows Explorer couldn’t see it.

CD-R Diagnostic isn’t the easiest program to understand if you’re not steeped in CD-R lore, but the results speak for themselves. That’s not to say it’s a miracle pill–one of my trial discs was completely beyond its ministrations, and another couple were so badly corrupted that only a few files could be retrieved. But that was still a couple more than I’d banked on.

You can try out CD-R Diagnostic by downloading a demo version from Arrowkey’s Web site, or buy a downloadable full version for around $50. The trial can’t retrieve files, but it does analyze discs so you can see what’s on your coaster.

If these steps fail…

Don’t despair if you still can’t get lost data off your drive. If these tricks fail you, turn to an expert. Many companies specialize in extracting data, and charge anywhere from $50 an hour and up to do it. Search for data recovery services on the Web, or check local listings in this magazine or the Yellow Pages.

Once you’ve compiled a shortlist, call around. Make sure the company knows what steps you’ve taken to retrieve the data. If they can’t do any better, save your time and move on to the next candidate. The two most important features to look for are a turnaround time that suits you, and a cost you can live with. Many reputable companies charge nothing or only a nominal fee if they cannot retrieve any data. Lean heavily toward such companies–handing over your hard drive and a blank check can empty your bank account fast. Not as fast as a poker game with Hatchet Harry Lonsdale, but fast enough.

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