Be a Computer Whiz: The Ultimate Guide to File Recovery

If you’ve been using a computer for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced this common nightmare: when searching for a file, you realize it’s missing or deleted. A quick search yields no results—except that you start to sweat and worry.

Whether you’ve lost your precious family photos or a crucial work project, the headache of attempted file recovery is all too familiar for most of us. Data loss can happen due to a corrupted drive, an accidental deletion, a loss of power, a computer virus, or other issues out of our control.

What can you do when this happens? Fortunately, you don’t have to be a computer whiz to feel like one, as long as you have a few simple file recovery tricks. Here’s what you need to know to polish your skills.

Check to See If the File Is Gone for Good

Before you dive into more intensive file recovery tactics, make sure you’ve truly deleted the file.

If the deletion happened in the past few seconds or minutes, you can always hit Ctrl + Z or Command + Z to undo the action.

If not, do a quick search in File Explorer in Windows, or Finder and Spotlight in Mac, to ensure that you haven’t misplaced the file rather than deleting it. In addition, if you were working with a Microsoft Office file, regardless of the kind of computer you’re on, you may be able to use the Autosave feature to get it back. For more info, check out this guide to help recover Excel file not saved Mac.

You’ll also want to double-check the Trash or Recycle Bin. In some cases, you may be able to recover a deleted file before its scheduled permanent deletion.

Windows users who have already set up File History can also try restoring their files and folders to their previous versions. Of course, if you haven’t put this setting into place in advance, you’ll be out of luck.

In addition, don’t forget to check for the file in any backups you’ve done. Whether you’ve set up automated backups or you perform your own, you may be able to recover the file by finding it in your cloud or external storage.

Understand the Storage and Deletion Processes

If the steps above aren’t enough to recover the file, you’ll need to understand a few things about the storage and deletion processes before you can move forward.

First, it’s important to understand the two different types of computer drives.

Magnetic hard drives don’t erase data from storage right away. The only thing that gets erased is the information labeling the file so the computer can locate it. This allows the computer to overwrite the file with new data.

In other words, unless you save more data, the data from your desired file won’t get overwritten. This means that your best bet is to avoid saving any new data on your computer until you can recover the file. Otherwise, you might overwrite the file by accident, meaning that it will be impossible to recover it later.

The second type of computer drive is a solid-state drive, which is becoming more and more common today. While these drives have many benefits, one major drawback is that any file that you delete will be erased right away. In other words, you may be out of luck.

Optional: Try Using File Recovery Software

When you’re ready to try getting the file back, there’s one easy way to do it: grab a free or paid data recovery program. There are plenty of options available to help you locate missing files and folders on your hard drive when all hope seems lost.

However, if you’ve read the section above, you might have guessed why this step is a risk: if you don’t already have a file recovery program on your device, you’ll need to download one to your computer. This means saving new data, which could be enough to overwrite the file you’re attempting to recover. In other words, you’ll have to weigh the benefits of a quick file recovery against the chances that you might corrupt your desired file beyond restoration.

Reach Out to a Professional

As a safer option, especially if the data you need is sensitive or important, you might want to reach out to a pro. With an expert data recovery service, you may be able to get back your file with less risk. That said, this option can be expensive depending on the type of computer you own and the files you’re looking for, so it’s probably best as a last result.

Avoid Future Scares

Once you’ve recovered—or failed to recover—the file in question, it’s the perfect time to put a few practices in place to avoid future scares.

The best way to do this is to back up your data to at least two different sources. Make an account with a free or paid cloud storage service, and consider setting up a system in which your files get backed up automatically on a regular basis. In addition, do manual backups to an external storage device as well.

For easier Windows file recovery, you might also want to set up File History as an added layer of protection.

Delete With Peace of Mind

If you commit to using the steps above for file recovery, you’ll find it easier to delete files as needed with more peace of mind. Knowing you have the skills to get back any deleted file can be a big confidence boost for any budding computer whiz, so make sure to commit these tips to memory—especially the one about frequent backups!

Looking for more of the technology tips and tricks you need? Our other guides are packed with info to help you navigate any software or hardware issues with ease, so be sure to check them out.