Recover impossibly lost data

May this never happen to you: you flip your computer on, check your phone messages, and then look up to see a gut-wrenching "DISK BOOT FAILURE" message on your screen. Hoping against hope, you reboot, but get the same message. Mentally cursing yourself for not backing up after working late into the night, you boot from your emergency floppy and try to switch to the C: drive -- only to see "INVALID MEDIA TYPE ON DRIVE C."

Heading for the Lost & Found

So what do you do next? Sure, there are disk editors, recovery utilities and so forth. But these generally require a fairly high geek quotient. And they often write to the damaged disk, exacerbating the risk of losing data. As a last resort, you could turn to a data-recovery service -- but you'll have to take out a second mortgage just to pay the initial bench fee. And while these services often produce good results, they extend no guarantee of getting back your lost data.

Enter PowerQuest with its $129 Lost & Found data-recovery utility. Known for putting out some of the best disk tools on the market, PowerQuest was the first company to produce an on-the-fly partitioning program, called PartionMagic, that could safely create, delete and resize partitions without destroying existing data. So I figured if anyone could build a top-notch disaster-recovery program, it would be this outfit.

PowerQuest says that if the drive is still spinning, Lost & Found can recover just about any file. My task was to discover what "just about" means. Lost & Found differs from other recovery utilities like Norton Utilities and Nuts & Bolts by not attempting to fix your drive. Instead, it simply moves your data to a safe place. For my informal tests I recreated some of the most common disaster scenarios, including accidental file erasure, disk reformatting, and drive partitioning. I used both EIDE and SCSI drives in my testing, including two newly repartitioned and formatted Western Digital 10.1GB EIDE hard drives and an Iomega Jaz SCSI removable-cartridge hard drive. One of the Western Digital drives contained a fresh installation of Windows 98.

Initial problems with large partitions and SCSIFor my first experiment I removed several folders from Program Files, including Chat, Outlook Express and Front Page Express. Lost & Found ran into problems immediately. It wouldn't recognise my Buslogic SCSI adapter, nor the Adaptec 2940U2W I swapped in -- despite the fact that Lost & Found's SCSI drivers are written by Adaptec. When I gave up on SCSI and attempted to recover files to the empty 10.1GB hard drive I was told, "This disk is corrupted or has no accessible partitions." I rebooted to Windows 98 but could find no corruption and no partition errors.

As it turned out, both problems were solved by booting to MS-DOS with my Windows 98 Startup disk. Lost & Found's boot/program disk uses Caldera's DR-DOS, which a PowerQuest support tech informed me might be responsible for the "no accessible partitions" message. The Windows 98 Startup disk also recognises a far greater variety of SCSI controllers, including the Buslogic Flashpoint LT that I'd swapped back in. However, I was never able to access the partition on the 2GB Jaz drive I had originally intended to save files to. PowerQuest's tech couldn't explain the Jaz problem. In fact, he said that he had used a Jaz drive before exactly as I intended.

Amazing recoveries

With the boot problem fixed, the recovery process proceeded smoothly. First I had to register Lost & Found to my system. You're limited to using the program with a single machine, so you'll have to buy a new copy if you buy a new PC. Lost & Found checked my hardware, and I selected the drive to recover files from and the drive to recover to. The source and destination can't be the same physical drive, which precludes using Lost & Found as a simple unerase program. PowerQuest provides its own driver for hard drives greater than 8GB in size.

After I specified the drives, Lost & Found gave me a choice of scanning the entire source drive or just the logical drive. The program will use FAT entries to recover files if possible but also has proprietary technology to recover files if the FAT is trashed. Recovery is a lengthy process that took almost 55 minutes for my entire 10.1GB drive. The results were worth the wait. Lost & Found located all the folders I had deleted and gave me the option of restoring the directory structure, saving all the files to a single directory, or producing a compressed or uncompressed backup.

I chose to restore the directory structure. The program places a tilde character in front of any file that was deleted to avoid overwriting a nondeleted file with the same name. Unfortunately, however, Lost & Found doesn't reclaim long file names on its own. Instead, it uses two utilities on a second floppy disk: Refresh is used to restore long file names for any flavour of Windows, and Renew does the same thing if you produced a backup instead of a straight restore. You might have to guess at a file name or two.

So far, so good. On to a stiffer test: I used Windows Quick Format to erase the second drive, then turned Lost & Found loose on it. This time it found folders and files that I hadn't seen since before I had repartitioned the drive prior to testing. To be sure this wasn't a fluke, I repartitioned and fully formatted the drive again, with the same results. For my final trial, I used a disk editor to trash both copies of the drive's FAT and went through the procedure again. Another success -- I'm finally a believer.

One minor complaint: Lost & Found's serial number is printed on the disk you use to run the program, so you have to remove the disk to read it when the program asks you for it (or remember to write it down beforehand). It's too bad PowerQuest didn't print the serial number on the second disk as well.

Despite the difficulties with my Jaz drive and booting from PowerQuest's disk, I learned that Lost & Found worked as advertised. Admittedly, my tests were limited, but they do represent common real-world disasters. So if your drive is still spinning and the data hasn't been overwritten or destroyed, Lost & Found should recover it for you. The program disk does need better boot support for large partitions and SCSI devices, however.

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