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Recover partitions and lost photos with TestDisk and PhotoRec

Recover disk partitions and stray digital files with these bundled freeware utilities.

TestDisk and PhotoRec from CG Security are freeware utilities bundled together in one portable download. TestDisk is a simple but powerful tool for analyzing and recovering disk partitions, including some unusual selections such as Xbox and Mac partitions. PhotoRec is designed to recover lost files from your digital camera's memory or any similar memory device. It can handle most memory types, including USB, CompactFlash, MMC, and SmartMedia as well as optical disks and your hard drives. Though PhotoRec and TestDisk are bundled, they're separate utilities with separate executables.

PhotoRec is designed to be totally safe to use, and it doesn't write to the drive or memory directory you're trying to recover files from but rather saves recovered files to the directory it's stored in. Since PhotoRec is portable, that destination will be wherever you saved PhotoRec's program files. PhotoRec's user interface isn't a GUI so much as a modified Command Prompt that only allows keyboard control, but don't be put off by the stripped-down look. PhotoRec is easy to navigate. It walked us through every step: selecting a drive and partition, selecting Options, initiating a Search, or starting a recovery operation. We selected a thumbdrive, then the partition, and then clicked Search. PhotoRec automatically searches for lost files. The program usually highlights the best option, and users simply need to press Enter. PhotoRec definitely requires a little more knowledge and skill than many tools that do similar jobs. But it found a lost file, and quickly, too.

TestDisk is very much like PhotoRec in appearance and operation, but it requires more care to use successfully, and more knowledge, too (some experience is also recommended). This tool can analyze your disks and partitions to extract information about their geometry, formatting, and file structure. It saves the data as a text file that serves as a reference when you need to recover the partition. It can do more, such as make a nonbooting disk bootable. But be careful! TestDisk is a capable utility -- capable of wiping all data from a partition, if you let it. Just follow TestDisk's onscreen instructions and you won't go wrong.

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