It happens to the best of us. We make a mistake and format a drive we didn’t mean to. Thankfully, all is not lost. It is possible to recover the data off your formatted NTFS Hard Drive. Data Recovery Services are usually quite expensive, so before you take that route it’s worth trying to recover the data yourself.

My preferred NTFS drive recovery software is iRecover. It costs between US$30 and US$70, and it well worth the price tag.

The iRecover software will help you to recover the data yourself, without the need for expensive hardware or recovery specialists. You should be able to use this software with a fairly basic IT knowledge.

Can My Data be Recovered?

If your drive is newly formatted and hasn’t been written over again, then you can probably recover the data. If you have written to that drive, then the chances drop. I have once recovered a newly formatted drive, and once recovered a NTFS drive that had Windows installed again over the top of it. Both times were fairly successful using this software, although your milage may vary.

How to Recover My Data

Step 1: Download iRecover

The free demo will allow you to determine exactly what can be recovered. You need to pay to actually recover the data.

Step 2: Select your data recovery mode

iRecover gives us three options: Image Recovery, Data Recovery, and RAID Recovery. I have used the Data Recovery mode in the past with a lot of success. It is the go-to file recovery mode. Of course, if you have a broken array or need to recover a lot of images then choose the appropriate mode.

Step 3: Select the Drive to Recover

Connect your drive, either via USB or direct SATA connection and select it within the software. If the drive can’t be mounted, then you can’t use this software to recover your data. It’s best to take it to a data recovery specialist.

If you’re trying to recover the main hard drive in your PC, you’ll need to use another PC and connect the drive to that. Be careful not to cause more damage to the drive as you are moving it around and connecting it to different PCs.

Step 4: Scan

iRecover Data Recovery Screenshot

The scan is fully automated, and will probably take many hours. I’ve seen a scan of a several terabytes drive take over a day. The reason is this: iRecover does a very thorough scan to try and piece your files back together. Even with lots of disk I/O and a fast machine, it takes time.

If your drive is damaged, then expect it to take longer. This software will throttle the scan to a speed that the drive can cope with, to avoid further damage.

The dots on the screen signify each segment of the drive, and how much luck it has had recovering data from that segment.

Step 4: Review and Select your files

Hopefully iRecover has found some files, and now lists them for you. You can select your files you want back and choose where to recover them to. Remember to copy the files off to another disk, not the one you are trying to recover. Doing so will prevent you from recovering the data.

At this stage, you need to remember that the files listed can’t necessarily be recovered fully. At this stage the software is still performing a background validation process to see how much of the files can be pieces back together.

How does it work?

To understand how data recovery services such as iRecover work, you must understand how file systems store data on a disk. There are essentially two sections to a hard drive:

  1. The disk index
  2. The actual data

The index is managed by the file system, and basically tells the computer where all the bits and bytes of data are physically stored on the disk. When you navigate around your hard drive, it is querying the index to see what files exist. When you open a file, it queries the index to see where the files are located and retrieves them from there.

Files aren’t necessarily stored all in one chunk on the disk. It’s split up based on where the free space is. This is best illustrated by the disk defragmenter tool found in earlier versions of Microsoft Windows. These tools will try and piece the files back together into one section of the disk, to improve performance.

Data recovery software works by scanning through the actual data section of the disk, trying to work out what pieces are there and then creating an index from scratch. It uses known file signatures and patterns to do this.

This sort of technology can be a bit hit and miss, depending on what files you have and how fragmented they are. Unfortunately, you can’t expect a 100% success rate.

This is just one technique this sort of software uses. There is supposedly more to it than this, but this is ‘secret sauce’ and not revealed by the software manufacturer for obvious reasons.

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I'm Anthony Eden, and I'm a IT Professional, Broadcast Technician, Software Developer, and Solutions Engineer. I've been working in broadcast media since 2008, and developing software and websites for just as long. Right now, I provide freelance services through Media Realm - in particular, to the media and not-for-profit industries.

Follow Anthony on Twitter: @anthony_eden