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I have a 500GB hard drive I've been keeping around to recover data from that I removed from a failing NAS drive that got sort of... erratic at the end. I finally got rid of the NAS when during a firmware update it removed the partition table.

Fast forward to a week ago, when I was building a new PC, and a mixup resulted in me placing the hard drive in question in the new PC and installing Windows XP on the first 100GB. I'm presuming any data on that first 100GB is now gone, but for the rest of it, is there any way I can recover it at home, as professional data recovery is currently too expensive?

I have a blank 1TB HDD if I can store any images of that hard drive on. The problem was definitely with the NAS and not the hard drive, as the hard drive had a successful install of Windows when mistakenly place in the new PC, and there were capacitors in the NAS's circuitry clearly broken.

The data I want to recover (in order of priority) is:

  • High: Some jpgs of family photos.
  • Medium: Some RAW files. (There are also jpg versions of all of these)
  • Low: Some mp3s, avis and ISOs, I can re-rip most of these if need be, but it'd be handy not to have to.

(I don't need a backup lecture, and if you can hold it in from nagging Jeff Atwood for it, you can hold it in from nagging me for it)

In short:

  • The partition tables are gone and overwritten.
  • The data is not overwritten, except for an amount equal to the size of a Windows XP SP3 installation.
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up vote 5 down vote accepted

You can use PhotoRec in this situation. It's a free application that scans your harddrive for file headers and tries to recover as many files possible. I've had luck restoring documents and photos from harddrives where the partition table got messed up and other file recovery apps failed.

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A default Windows install shouldn't be more than about 10GB (even on Vista), so there's reasonable odds that some of your data is still there. The best software I've used for this kind of thing is Runtime's GetDataBack for NTFS. It has an option to recover files from sustained filesystem damage, such as reinstalling an OS on top.

Put the drive into another machine, and run a scan with that, and see how much stuff it shows up. I think there are trials for GetDataBack, but the full version is only $80, which isn't an extortionate price for your data.

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Doesn't the format during Windows Installation write 0s all over the partition? (And the quick format doesn't). Or am I wrong about the difference between the two formats? – Macha Dec 25 '09 at 22:22
afaik, the difference between quick format and normal format is whether or not it checks for bad sectors. zeroing out the disk is generally not done unless you use some sort of file shredding program. – goldPseudo Dec 25 '09 at 22:28
@dentrasi, @goldPseudo: That's good news then. – Macha Dec 25 '09 at 22:34
goldPseudo is correct, although it's far from an exhaustive scan, you're much better off using a proper tool for it - badblocks, HDTune, etc. – Dentrasi Dec 25 '09 at 22:36

i recommend WinHex, certainly one of the best program available in the realm of computer forensics (if not THE best). if it's just 'file recovery' you need, the 'lite' version, called Davory, will suffice, it is using the same technology. both programs are able to recover data from formatted drives, even if partially overwritten. the personal license for Davory costs €33 or $48.

just make sure to select the physical disc and not any of the newly created partitions from the drive selection menu.

Winhex saved my bacon countless times!

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From your description you should be able to

  • Rescue your JPGs. They've got a distinct layout which can be easily identified.
  • Maybe rescue your RAW files. It really depends on the file format.
  • Rescue your MP3s and AVIs.
  • Probably it's hard to rescue ISOs, they haven't got a distinct header.

You've got two possibilities:

Rescue the partition

This technique requires that you haven't overwritten the partition table and the file indexes. If you can locate those tables you can just recreate the partition, of course it's going to contain errors where data was overwritten.

Rescue individual files

Thanks to distinct header layouts of certain file types one can rescue individual files. This works by scanning the whole hard disk for familiar structures. For JPG files there's a huge amount of programs which can do this, for the other file types it depends.

How to

Unfortunately I haven't got much experience rescuing data. There are lots of programs which can rescue JPEGs, normally from SD cards, but they should work for your hard disk too. I'd try Google.

Really important: Make an image from your hard disk to the other one. In case something goes wrong while trying to rescue data you can always just create a new copy.

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The easiest thing would be to use a software tool to recover the files. I've used Active@ Partition Recovery and Restorer 2000.

A nice thing about the data recovery tools like these is that you can try them to see what the software finds before buying them.

If you absolutely know how the disk was previously partitioned, for example because you made a disk image of it a couple years ago, you may be able to use a Linux live CD to boot the system and then use fdisk to rewrite the partition table. With the parition table restored, other data recovery tools may work better.

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