The best free data recovery tool: 14 undelete tools compared

We’ve all deleted files and folders by mistake, or formatted a drive, and subsequently realized that we wanted or needed some or all of the lost data. The good news is that, depending on your use of the hard drive after deletion, most or all of the data still might be there, potentially salvageable with the right data recovery tool.

But which is the best free data recovery tool? This post will compare the performance a number of these tools in order to answer that question, for both FAT32 and NTFS drives. After a head-to-head test, we were able to categorize these programs into 1st tier programs that you would want to use, and offer the best performance, 2nd tier programs that you might try if you need to, and 3rd tier programs which you shouldn’t bother with. [This article last updated: Oct 3rd, 2012, with some different results than previously published].

file-recovery-illustration13

Note on this update: the results here and conclusions are different than those from the previous published version. However, we are confident that the additions and modifications make for a much better article and much better recommendations.

The tools: including version tested

  1. Wise Data Recovery (3.16)
  2. Free File Undelete (1.0)
  3. Freerecover (2011-03-14)
  4. DataRecovery (2.4.6)
  5. File Recovery (4.x)
  6. FreeUndelete (2.1)
  7. Glary Undelete (2.4)
  8. Pandora Recovery (2.1.1)
  9. Restoration (3.2.13)
  10. Undelete 360 (2.1.5.24)
  11. Recuva (1.43.623). Note that we tested Recuva twice, at ‘normal’ and ‘deep scan’ modes.
  12. Recovery Toolbox File Undelete (1.1.2.0)
  13. ADRC Data Recovery Tools (1.1)
  14. PhotoRec (6.13)

Excluded:

  • MiniTool Power Data Recovery: (b/c free version arbitrarily caps data recovery size)
  • EASEUS Data Recovery Wizard Free Edition: (b/c free version arbitrarily caps data recovery size)
  • Eassos Recovery Free: (b/c free version arbitrarily caps data recovery size)
  • Undelete Plus (no longer free)
  • DiskDigger (no longer free)

Click here to jump to the verdict section (and download links).


The testing process:

Two tests:

(1) Whether the tools were able to (a) recognize a corrupt drive, and (b) salvage data from it

and

(2) A data recovery test where we deleted some files off of a FAT and NTFS partitions, and ran the programs one after the other to see the extent to which they could salvage them.

We created 2 zero-formatted partitions on the same drive; each was about 2.5 gigs in size; one was FAT formatted and the other NTFS. We copied the same basket of files onto both. There were 3 folders at root and 20 other folders within them, containing a total of 764 files. The biggest files were a 1.09 meg AVI video file and the LibreOffice installer executable (221 megs). 717 of the files were image files. The total size for all files/folders was 1.84 gigs.

We then deleted these files and emptied the trash. Although real life data recovery is likely to be complicated by the subsequent writing of files onto the same partition, we did not do this, opting to make life a little bit easier for ourselves and the data recovery tools.

Next, we ran all fourteen programs, pointed them to the now-blank partitions, and restored whatever files and folders that each program was able to restore onto a new, fresh partition.

Exclusions: because we had so many good options to test, we excluded a handful of programs that capped the amount of data that can be restored in the free version. These are listed above.

The metrics: how we evaluated the programs:

We looked at FAT drives separately from NTFS, because restoring files from the latter seems to be a lot easier. The metrics we considered are listed below. The numbered metrics had the highest priority/were weighted highest in our evaluations.

  1. Ability to access and scan hard disks not recognized by Windows: we gave a program a huge boost in the rankings if it was able to do this, because let’s face it: this is what most users in distress are going to be looking for, and a program that isn’t able to do this isn’t worth wasting time with.
  2. % of data recovered: a pure percentage of total size. This would be very sensitive to large files failing to be recovered and less sensitive to a number of small files failing to recover.
  3. % of files recovered: i.e. the number of files recovered vs. the number of files originally deleted.

Other metrics that were significantly less important than the three above:

  • # of corrupt files: i.e. a video that is originally 900 megs being recovered at 500 megs or so, would be considered corrupt, as would a 100K image that for whatever reason was recovered at 2.5 GIGs. We saw both these examples in the data, but most of the data consisted of little files that we identified because they had the wrong file size.
  • # of duplicate files: duplicates (i.e. restoring a file more than once in multiple places) are not a big problem, but are a minor annoyance. Some programs produced a whole lot of dupes, while others didn’t.
  • Preserving the directory structure: we noted whether the directory structure was preserved, or whether all the files were dumped in a single folder. Many programs did both, or preserved some directory structures but not others. We labelled these ‘mixed’ below.
  • Scanning time: especially for FAT partitions, as NTFS seemed in general to be quite rapid in scanning.

Is this test ‘scientific’?

  • Yes: insofar as all the programs were tested under the same conditions
  • No: insofar as if you re-do the test we did, I cannot guarantee that you will get the same results depending on the nature of your data and hard drive. Although I think it would be highly likely that you would get the same results.

In general, however, the programs we designate as ‘first tier’ are probably the best in their class.

The results:

We created 3 segments: 1st tier, 2nd tier, and 3rd tier programs. For FAT, there will only be 1st tier and 2nd tier categories, as a small subset of the programs recovered files from FAT hard drives, and many did not.

First: the ability to read drives unreadable by Windows

We dusted off a long-corrupt hard drive to see which of the programs on our list would be able to (a) recognize it, and (b) scan and recover files from it. Here’s what we found (note: Windows was not able to read or access this drive at all, although the icon did appear in ‘My Computer’).

Able to identify the drive (and) scan and recover files from it Able to identify the drive; but NOT able to scan it Not able to identify the drive at all / not responding
PhotoRec Recuva; Restoration; DataRecovery; PC Inspector File Recovery; FreeUndelete; Pandora Recovery; ADRC Data Recovery Tools Wise Data Recovery; Free File Undelete; Glary Undelete; Undelete 360; Freerecover; Recovery Toolbox Free File Undelete

 
A caveat: one drive is hardly a representative sample, but we did not have access to more corrupt drives I’m afraid ;) . If does seem that the programs that can at least identify the corrupt drive in our test should be the ones you try first.

The result: only PhotoRec was able to access and restore data from the drive.

Second: FAT drives

Only six out of the fourteen programs were able to restore files on FAT. The programs fall into three tiers, but we will only present the first two tiers here. ADRC Data Recovery Tools as the worst performer would have been in the tier 3 category all by itself (12% of data vs. 73% of files) but we will skip it.

Note that while other programs aside from the six mentioned STATED that they support and work with FAT drives, they didn’t in our test.

FAT – 1st tier:

Scan time secs Data recovered MB % of data recovered Files Correctly Recovered % Files Correctly Recovered # of dupe files created # of corrupt files created Total size of corrupt files MB Preserve directory Structure
1. Recuva (Deep Scan) 331 1834.5 97% 668 88% 0 1 449 Mixed
2. PhotoRec 290 1489.6 79% 709 94% 0 72 16 No

 
Some notes on these:

  • Both PhotoRec and Recuva (Deep Scan mode) salvaged many image files that had different file hashes than the originals, even as they were useable without problems. For our purposes, we counted these as legitimate, correctly salvaged files.
  • Both PhotoRec and Recuva Deep Scan mode produced files that had new file names, which is a minor inconvenience compared to not having your files at all.
  • PhotoRec is unique in that it is the only program that has a command line style interface rather than a GUI. We did not factor this into our evaluations at all.
  • PhotoRec may be one of the few if not the only program to handle drives that are not recognized by Windows.

FAT – 2nd tier:

Scan time secs Data recovered MB % of data recovered Files Correctly Recovered % Files Correctly Recovered # of dupe files created # of corrupt files created Total size of corrupt files MB Preserve directory Structure
1. Recuva (normal scan) 116 1374.7 73% 38 50% 0 1 0 No
2. Wise Data Recovery 604 1374.7 73% 39 52% 89 68 304 Mixed
3. Restoration 932 1374.7 73% 39 52% 279 44 2071 Mixed

 
What is remarkable about the 2nd tier program is that these programs restored almost exactly the same files. Restoration kept restoring the same files over and over until it displayed an ‘error writing to disk’ message, and as you can see it produced a lot of  duplicate and corrupt files.

Recuva in normal, rather than ‘deep scan’ mode belongs in this category.

Third: NTFS drives

NTFS – 1st tier:

Scan time secs Data recovered MB % of data recovered Files Correctly Recovered % Files Correctly Recovered # of dupe files created # of corrupt files created Total size of corrupt files MB Preserve directory Structure
1. FreeUndelete 140 1882.3 100% 757 100.00% 7 1 0 Yes
2. Recovery Toolbox File Undelete 193 1882.3 100% 757 100.00% 7 0 0 Yes
3. Recuva (Deep Scan) 281 1882.3 100% 757 100.00% 498 19 4 Mixed
4. Wise Data Recovery 207 1873.8 100% 756 99.87% 7 0 0 Yes
5. Restoration 282 1882.3 100% 757 100.00% 1364 0 0 Mixed
6. Recuva (Normal Scan) 125 1848.8 98% 697 92.07% 0 34 10 No
7. PhotoRec 239 1508.3 80% 742 98.02% 0 75 4 No

 
This is the 1st tier NTFS list of programs, consisting of 6 programs that restored all the files deleted or close to it. The five programs in the FAT 1st and 2nd tiers above are all represented here as well.

I include PhotoRec in the ‘Tier 1’ list for NTFS simply because of its unique ability to access hard drives that are inaccessible to Windows.

So, there you have it, if you are looking for the best free file restoration/undelete programs, the 6 programs above are it.

NTFS – 2nd tier:

Scan time secs Data recovered MB % of data recovered Files Correctly Recovered % Files Correctly Recovered # of dupe files created # of corrupt files created Total size of corrupt files MB Preserve directory Structure
1. PC Inspector File Recovery 106 1657 88% 754 99.60% 7 1 0 Yes
2. Glary Undelete 125 1650.6 88% 724 95.64% 0 0 0 Yes
3. Undelete 360 590 1650.6 88% 724 95.64% 0 0 0 No
4. Pandora Recovery 366 1649.3 88% 724 95.64% 0 39 11 Mixed

 
Don’t get me wrong: the programs in this 2nd tier for NTFS partitions are excellent. In most cases, the percentage of data recovered went down because they failed in restoring one or two large size files. Still, large size files are tough because the larger the file the more likely it is that the conversion will fail for whatever reason (esp. if the disk is being used and written to).

NTFS – 3rd tier:

Scan time secs Data recovered MB % of data recovered Files Correctly Recovered % Files Correctly Recovered # of dupe files created # of corrupt files created Total size of corrupt files MB Preserve directory Structure
1. Free File Undelete 72 748.3 40% 724 95.64% 0 0 0 No
2. ADRC Data Recovery Tools 40 27 1% 35 4.62% 0 1 569 No
3. Freerecover 1 0 0% 8 1.06% 0 0 0 No
4. DataRecovery 224 0 0% 5 0.66% 11 98 5129 Mixed

 
These programs in the third tier are simply not as good as the above. I recommend skipping them.

The verdict (and download links)

Here are the best free data recovery tools.

Freewaregenius 5-Star Pick1. PhotoRec (NTFS and FAT32)

PhotoRec was the only program tested that was able to identify AND recover files from the corrupt hide drive we tested it with. It also recovered files from both FAT and NTFS with a very high recovery ratio, even if not the highest. The fact that it only sports a command line interface is not something that we found to be a drawback, and we didn’t care too much that it didn’t preserve file names or directory structures.

2. Recuva (NTFS and FAT32)

I like Recuva because it worked in both FAT and NTFS environments, so it’s easy to recommend it to people without knowing anything about their drives. It has excellent data recovery rates in both environments. Recuva was able to recognize the corrupt drive we threw at it, but it was not able to recover data from it, landing it in second place. Note that I would recommend to always use Recuva’s deep scan option.

3. (a tie) FreeUndelete (NTFS only) and Restoration (NTFS and FAT32), are tied in third place. They have good data restoration rates and they were able to recognize our corrupt hard disk, even if they were not able to scan and restore data from it. They get points for this for the possibility that even when they could not scan this particular corrupt drive, the fact that they recognized it bodes well for their being able to recover data from other corrupt drives.

4. (a tie) Wise Data Recovery (NTFS only), and Recovery Toolbox File Undelete (NTFS only). Tied in 4th place. These programs had excellent data recovery rates but they were not able to restore from FAT (in our test) and were not able to recognize or deal with our corrupt drive at all.


Download links:


I would love to get your opinions and your experience using these or other data recovery tools in the comments section below.


 
 
 
Samer Kurdi

Samer Kurdi

Has been reviewing software since 2006 when he started Freewaregenius.com
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  • Anthony

    Why was PhotoRec (http://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/PhotoRec) left out?

    • Samer Kurdi

      @ Anthony: we just tested PhotoRec and it seems to have done very well. I will update the article and add it in, as soon as I am finished creating numbers for it.

      • Anthony

        Thanks! I’m curious how it stacks up. The last time I had to attempt data recovery, it fared *much* better than Recuva did. It’s companion app, TestDisk, has also saved me from hours of restoration work as well — though it’s admittedly outside of the scope of this article.

        • Alex

          The downside of PhotoRec is that is does not respect folder estructure neither original names. Even tough it’s really good at recognizing drives unrecognizable by Windows.

      • Samer Kurdi

        OK, the updated results are in. PhotoRec came out on top, because (a) as Alex pointed out (and as we found in practice), it is the best at restoring data from corrupt drives, and (b) it also has excellent data recovery performance.

        • kingclock

          I’ve personally found PhotoRec a bit iffy when it comes to reliable results, but I’ve heard positive things from others. Maybe it was coincidental, but it worked much better on a hard drive than it did a SD card – perhaps something to bear in mind. I’ve had better results generally with R-Undelete (http://www.r-undelete.com), which is free for FAT32 formats. Might be worth comparing the two!

  • Krishna

    It was testdisk/photorec from cgsecurity that came to my rescue. The only thing that may go against is its command line style.

    • Samer Kurdi

      @ Krishna: indeed, PhotoRec is not on top of our list. See above.

  • jod

    I really appreciate this review, I found it interesting and exicitng. A short time ago I was myself trying to figure out which app of thi kind was the best for my need, I happen to use SHIFT + DEL unconciously and find myself trying to get files and folders back very often. All I can say is that surprisingly the App that worked best If I use it immediately after a SHIFT + DEL finger error was… TOKIWA DATA RECOVERY which is rated as last place in this review, it was the fastest and allowed me to search by the name of the file or folder and also allowed me to do a “quick scan” (much like FILE SCAVENGER), of course I tested FREEUNDELETE and I really liked it because if I MAKE A MOVE working on my PC after SHIFT+DEL then Tokiwa doesn´t work unless I make a deep scan which takes about 10 mins. on my pc whereas FREEUNDELETE always makes a deep scan that takes about a minute and a half and ALWAYS I mean ALWAYS recovered the file or folder I deleted (that means a smile on my face). I think this kind of Apps should allow a quick scan all of them plus they should allow us to browse to a specific folder where data was stored before deletion, then everything would be ilghtning-fast. again Thanks a lot Samer for this review. :)

    • Samer Kurdi

      @ jod: it is quite possible that what we classified as 2nd or 3rd tier program might work better for you than what we classified a 1st tier program. All I can say for sure in our test environment, where we used all the programs in the same way, we got the results above. And if I were to need to recover files I would most certainly try the 1st tier programs first.

  • Isaac

    Recuva does have the option retain the folder structure on restoration, although it’s not as up front as it should be, it’s still worth noting.

  • http://www.wisecleaner.com Paul Lander

    Wise Data Recovery 3.17 has been realesd. Which mainly improved the scanning algorithm. So it’s more powerful than 3.16 in FAT32 data recovery.

    Changes:
    Improved file sanning feature for FAT32 Disk.
    Fixed scan results garbled issue in some case.
    Improved some language packs.

    • Samer Kurdi

      @ Paul: we retested with 3.17. It seems to generate a lot more duplicates that 3.16. (1.84 gigs deleted generated 9 gigs or so of results). We have yet to do an in depth analysis to see whats what, though. Will keep you posted.

      • http://www.wisecleaner.com/wisedatarecoveryfree.html Paul Lander

        Thank you. Our test team retested it, found these files are in different paths, although their size and names are same. Please let us know your details, then we will do more tests.Also you are appreciated to email us with the screenshot to supprt@wisecleaner.com

      • http://www.wisecleaner.com/downloads.html Paul Lander

        Hi Samer Kurdi,

        Wise Data Recovery is not NTFS only, but also FAT and FAT32. Please retest it on FAT or FAT32 disk.

        Thank you.

  • nenito

    VERY good article SAMER, like always….i have been deceived by RECUVA…..dunno why 99% of sites say it is the best on earth….
    unfortunately after reading i still can’t see which one is better so will have to test all………

    • Zeus

      It’s because Recuva is from the same people as CCleaner, so CCleaner’s excellence is unfairly transferred to the other program.

      It’s the same with Defraggler — you’re MUCH better off going with MyDefrag (formerly known as JKDefrag). But since Defraggler is from the CCleaner guys, everyone unquestioningly swears by it.

      • Samer Kurdi

        @nenito, Zeus: Recuva is indeed excellent in deep scan mode. I listed it as my #2 most favorite free data recovery tool in the revised results above.

  • J.L.

    I was seriously considering Wise, but it doesn’t have the advanced options of Recuva.

    Have you tested Recuva’s Deep Scan?

  • jasray

    It’s usually been a trial and error basis for me. Sometimes one program works when another doesn’t, etc. DiskDigger, however, has recovered files that other users claim were irrecoverable. When I ran the program and recovered their lost files, they were in shock and awe. Don’t see the program mentioned much anywhere.

    • J.L.

      I believe DiskDigger isn’t fee anymore. Last time I tried it, it was trialware, or at least nagware.

  • nenito

    J.L….
    yes i did scan in deep mode…on some rare occasions (it is normally recommended to use quickscan as default….) and it DID find stuff….but to retieve most of them…well it does not work that well….
    I just gave PhotoRec a test…..and SEEMS very powerfull as it did recover some stuff i forgot about….even though i dislike the folder constructions/names it gives…..
    i will stick with PhotoRec for now….

  • Ashish

    Great comparison. But I think its missing few more tools which doing well. Like stellar pheonix & Kernel recovery tools. You can test tools also for windows fat & ntfs both the tools work really well in HDD corruption.

  • Moreno

    I’ve used photorec about a year ago to recover data from a dead 2.5″hdd, after trying a lot of others (some in this article) i was surprised about the result: 100% of data recovered from the hdd that any other software can’t identify!
    As Anthony wrote at first i was wondering why photorec wasn’t tested in first revision.

    (sorry for my little english)

  • Anupam Sharma

    I did used data recovery s/w & got my data back but the images/video were found to be corrupted or no use for me. Can anybody suggest what to do ?

  • ashish

    Hello Anupam,

    After recovery you can use image and video repair software. You can search software on cnet or google.

  • Anupam Sharma

    Thanks a lot Ashish. I will give a try to those s/w.
    :)

  • Ashish

    ur welcome anupam. If you need help any other software please let me know or email me at ashish.lepide[at]gmail.com

  • Anonymous

    Re: we didn’t care too much that it didn’t preserve file names or directory structures.

    Interesting test but not realistic, appart from SD card for cameras.
    Nowadays, partition are easily of 100Gb not to say 500Gb.

    Recently I SHIFT+DELETE a directory of 1.8Gb.
    Well, between Recuva(deep scan) & PhotoRec, PhotoRec was the best.
    But recovery more than 18,000 pdf, 10,000 docs, etc… not having the original directory structure and/or file names make the recovery useless, as I would taken 10,000 of hours to sort the files out…

  • Bert Leen

    Exultant comparison in data recovery tools. But I think its missing one more tool which doing nicely. Like Kernel for windows data recovery software, You can try this tool for windows FAT and NTFS partition, Its work really good in HDD corruption.

  • John Kalayjian

    I some how made a copy of my documents on my desktop by accident? This is windows 8 by the way. I checked the properties of the desktop folder vs.. my user documents folder and found them in different locations. I thought “crazy I guess”, I could delete the duplicated desktop documents without losing my normal user documents. Wrong! As soon as I started deleting the desktop folder, both folders started deleting. I have multi screens , So I saw what was happening. I immediately hit cancel but most of the folders where already deleted. I have tried pandora, wise data recovery, and others. But still just getting corrupted or some docs in pdf format, no folders or regular docs. Please help me! Why does this always happen just when your going to want to back up your system files? Dummy me!

  • Livia Alexandra

    Comprehensive study, maybe there’s more free software out there that you could test out. I found Reincubate Recover Files works just fine on Windows8 (NTFS FAT and flash systems), recovers folder structure if needed and gives a Deep Scan option for more hidden files. Free version is great for accidental file deletion, so give it a try and see how it works.

  • A.J.

    Thanks much for this list, Samer … saved my folks’ travel pics using PhotoRec!

    • Samer Kurdi

      You’re welcome!

  • George Melendez Correa

    hi…… I discovered that Undelete Plus is now Free. Can you give me your opinion on this software and if it anybetter than Recuva by Piriform. Thanks

  • BigAl

    PhotoRec? Really? Just tried it to recover a 2Gig MP4. Useless. Didn’t find it and definitely didn’t recover it.

  • Banzee Simmons

    One software that you guys are missing is Stellar Phoenix.. Its not a free tool and you cannot expect all the good things to come free.. You have ti pay a bit for it.. It has shown tremendous results for me with all my photos, videos and audio files recovered with original name. Its from my own experience that I have recommended this product. No gimmick.. Just performance..!! http://retrievephotos.com/

    • http://www.mysql-database-recovery.com/ David Willium

      Hi Banzee,

      I have recovered my holiday pics using Stellar Phoenix.

  • Roy Campbell

    Sorry folks but all this stuff is way over my head but someone might be able to help me. I set-up a Facebook page for a 2-piece band and had lots of pics etc on it but I accidentally deleted it and haven’t a clue how to get it back. Can anyone help please?

  • storyreadin

    I have recovered all photo by Kernel data recovery software. Software detail is here
    http://www.en.windowsdatarecovery.net/