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Data Recovery with Free Software

Prompted by various people accidentally losing their digital camera images/videos and other people deleting things from USB keys etc I have been doing some research into data recovery software over the past few weeks.

It comes as a surprise to many people that ‘deleted’ computer files are not in fact deleted at all by default, the space on the disk that they occupy is merely reallocated as blank space, to be written over as and when it is required, meaning that deleted files stand a relatively good chance of being recovered depending on how much the disk has been used since. Whilst there are many commercial photo recovery packages available, I wanted to avoid having to steer people down this expensive and not necessarily reliable path.

Free Software provides an interesting contrast to this, with the excellent PhotoRec, part of TestDisk. The Ubuntu community wiki lists several other applications for data recovery, but these aren’t all cross-platform, wheras TestDisk/PhotoRec will build and run on just about anything. Whilst it does lack the bells and whistles of the commercial packages (and it really is screaming out for a basic GUI front end to tempt people towards Free Software, and if I could write one I would!) is nevertheless is a simple and very reliable package for Photo, Video, Document and almost any other file type of data recovery.

Available for Linux/OSX/BSD/Solaris and even MS Windows, PhotoRec can recover more than 180 different file types across all of the major file systems (FAT, FAT32, NTFS, EXT2, EXT3 etc) and on just about every type of camera or removable media device there is.

Despite my complaints about the lack of a basic GUI to assist the less-technical users, the command line interface is almost foolproof, everything is auto-detected, and given the completely read-only interface of the application it’s fairly impossible to cause any damage.

Pre-built packages are available for almost every GNU/Linux distro, and a simple “sudo apt-get install testdisk” within Ubuntu will have you ready to roll in 30 seconds flat.

The screen shots below show an illustration of a data recovery being performed on a 1GB SD card.

Overall I have found PhotoRec to be one of the best-written GNU/Linux tools I have ever used, it does it’s job extremely well, is very easy to use, and is a perfect example of just how good Free Software can be. I’d advise you to bookmark the web address and grab a copy next time you or someone you know accidentally deletes something!

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