PC Inspector File Recovery 4.0: Data Recovery on the Cheap

By Joseph Moran | Posted March 16, 2006

Do an online search for data recovery software these days, and you'll find lots of options. Most come with strings attached, however — limiting the number and/or size of files you can recover (64KB is a common limitation) unless and until you pay the registration fee, which is typically anywhere from $50 to $100 and up.

Depending on how valuable your lost data is to you, coughing up this money may not seem like a big deal, but for some people it can be a lot to pay, especially without any assurance of success. After all, data recovery applications seldom offer a money-back guarantee.

Enter PC Inspector File Recovery, published by Germany-based Convar Deutschland. The program is free, though the company happily accepts donations via PayPal at its Web site.

Convar stresses that PCI File Recovery is designed only for recovering files lost to user or software error — the software doesn't purport itself to work on drives with physical problems, like the ones that sound as though a machine gun is going off inside your PC, or on drives that fail to be recognized by the BIOS. For these sorts of issues, the company recommends an organization that provides data recovery, which, not coincidentally, is a subsidiary of Convar's parent company.

Installation and Interface
PCI File Recovery supports hard drives formatted with both the FAT (12, 16, and 32 varieties) and NTFS file systems. It also worked with a 512MB USB Flash drive we tried. The software is compatible with Windows versions from 95 through XP although on 2000/XP systems, you have to be logged in as an administrator in order to gain access to the logical drive information necessary for some forms of disk recovery.

As with any file recovery program, don't install anything onto the same drive from which you're attempting to recover data. This is due to the very real possibility of overwriting any "deleted" data, given that any new files that are written to a drive can overwrite the area where deleted data reside. This is especially true in a heavily fragmented drive since parts of a given file may be in several different places.

Time is always of the essence when attempting to restore data, because even if the file areas themselves remain unmolested, the files' entries in the FAT (or MFT, in the case of NTFS) can still be destroyed when new files are created on the drive.

Owing to its European roots, PCI File Recovery is a multilingual application, and the first time you run the program you're asked to select a language. Unfortunately, you're asked to make the same choice when you run the software for the second and third and fourth time and so on, since it doesn't retain your preference. This can surely get annoying, but ideally this is not the type of program you're going to fire up on a daily basis (and if it is, you probably need to be a lot more careful with your data).

The first thing you'll notice about PCI File Recovery is its fairly non-standard interface. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if it was intuitive, but that's not always the case here, and having to dealing with interface vagaries of an application isn't exactly an ideal situation when you're trying — perhaps frantically — to restore your data. It doesn't help that there is no real documentation provided and that the HTML-based help is sparse and unclear, owing partly to a poor translation into English.

Recovering Files

After you fire up the software and choose either a physical or logical (drive letter) drive to access, you can browse a listing of potentially recoverable files or folders. There's also a search feature that supports wildcards, but more often than not it was unable to find a file even when we knew its exact name.

Aside from the basics like name, size, and the date deleted, the software reports the file or folder's condition as either good or poor. You can recover a file/folder by saving it to a new location via a right-click context menu. Here you'll find an example of PCI File Recovery's interface issues: Since it doesn't use the Windows common dialog, you can't create a new folder as a destination from the save dialog.

You will likely most often find yourself in need of a straightforward file restoration — recovering files that were inadvertently deleted and then purged from the recycle bin. We conducted a number of file recovery attempts using a 500GB hard drive formatted with NTFS and configured as the secondary hard drive in a Windows XP system, and our results were somewhat mixed.

The good news was that when run immediately after deleting files and folders, PCI File Recovery was always able to detect and recover the missing data. The bad news is that in many cases, the software wasn't able to restore the original names of folders (or files if they were stored in the drive's root folder). In these cases, in lieu of the original name the recovered files were successively numbered with a "DF" prefix, though the file extension was always correctly preserved.

Aside from a simple file deletion there are other causes of lost data, like a system crash that causes a file to not be saved correctly and to become corrupted or to have an inadvertent drive formatting. In cases like this the recovery process became a lot longer and less certain, since the PCI File Recovery needs to scan the entire surface of the disk for residual data.

This can take an extremely long time, especially on extremely large drives — on our 500GB drive it was an overnight process and then some. While we were able to use PCI File Recovery to restore files lost as a result of a so-called "quick" format, attempts to recover files lost to a regular format procedure proved unsuccessful.

Conclusion
Recovering lost data depends on a lot of variables, and no software can guarantee success. PCI File Recovery certainly doesn't earn high marks for its ease-of-use, although we were able to successfully recover numerous files and folders with it, albeit without names in some cases. That, coupled with the extremely reasonable price (you can't beat free), makes the software at least worth checking out.

Pros: Freeware, recovers lost files and data (most of the time)
Cons: Confusing interface and minimal documentation, doesn't always recover file and folder names

Adapted from winplanet.com.

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