Data Recovery Process Explained

Data recovery is not some black magic as it may seem when you don’t understand what’s going on under the hood. The process is actually not that complicated, and we are confident that you won’t have a problem explaining it to someone else by the time you are done reading this article. We’ll also compare some of the best data recovery software for Windows and Mac to leave you fully prepared for an unexpected loss of data.

best data recovery

When Is Data Recovery Useful

According to the 2013 Harris Interactive poll, 30 percent of computer users keep all their data stored in a single location. Yet, the Business Planning for Disaster Survival report from Chamber101 states that “40 percent of businesses do not reopen after a disaster”. But even when they eventually manage to reopen, the average cost of downtime is still between $74,000 and $800,000, depending on the size of the company, reports the Aberdeen Group.

For businesses, the answer is clear: data loss is something that must be avoided at all costs. On those rare occasions when it happens anyway, a reliable data recovery software could be the one thing that saves the company from bankruptcy. But what about home users? Data loss is surely not a big deal with modern cloud storage solutions, or is it?

It depends. Consider that every week 140,000 hard drives crash in the United States, leading to 31 percent of PC users experiencing a complete data loss, according to Pivotal IT. Do you really have all your data safely backed up online, or do you use a service like Dropbox or Google Drive only for a small portion of your files? And what about situations when you need to work for longer periods of time without an internet connection? Murphy’s law says the worst happens when you least expect it. It also says, “If nothing can go wrong, it will”. So, don’t think that that USB drive you like to use for backup can’t fail or become corrupted, as well. It most certainly can, and there’s someone out there right now who is in full panic mode, thinking, “how the heck will I ever get my files back”?

How Does Data Recovery Work

To understand how data recovery works, we first need to have, at least, a basic understanding of how data are stored on a storage medium. For the sake of simplicity, we won’t explain how data are physically recorded and retrieved – not only would it warrant a separate article, but the method is also different for each storage medium, such as compact disk, memory card, and solid-state disk.

Data Storage 101

What you need to know is that each storage medium comes with a small part that stores a map of all sectors, which are just small parts where information can be saved. When you need to save a new file, your operating system simply takes a quick look at the map to see which sectors are still free.

You can read a much more detailed explanation of all aspects of file systems on Wikipedia, but for our purposes, the only thing left to explain is how individual files are stored on a disk. You probably know that computers see everything as a series of zeroes and ones. In other words, a switch can be either on or off. Luckily for us, this binary system is all we need to represent text or computer processor instructions. And with them, we can fly drones, land on the moon, play video games, and talk to our friends on the other side of the world.

So, if there’s nothing but ones and zeros on your disk, how can your computer distinguish one image from another or a song from a document? Easy, each file and each file format have markers that mark where it starts and ends, known as file signatures. For JPEG, the starting sequence is “1111 1111 1101 1000” and the ending sequence is “1111 1111 1101 1001”. Spot these two sequences, and everything between them is your image — an easy job for a computer.

File System Recovery

When you accidentally format a memory card or hard disk, all that actually happens is that your operating system erases the map of sectors, marking everything as empty. This means that all your data are still exactly where they were before the format, but you just can’t get to them because your OS doesn’t see them.

Best hard drive recovery software solutions don’t care about the map, as they carefully analyze the actual disk structure and create a map of their own. If the file system is damaged due to data corruption, some of the best hard drive recovery software might be able to completely restore the map.

Recovery of an Accidentally Deleted File or Folder

Remember how we talked about sectors? When you delete a file or folder (and even empty the Recycle Bin), your operating system actually just marks the corresponding sectors as empty and leaves it at that. It’s only when some other file is stored in the exact same location that the original file or folder is gone forever.

If you act quickly enough, you should be able to get the missing file back with the help of some of the best file recovery software described later in this article. The software will look for known file signatures, allowing you to choose exactly what you want to restore. All best file recovery software work in a similar manner, but they differ in how many features they offer and how many file signatures they know.

Recovery After Physical Damage or Complete Storage Failure

The only situation where data recovery software won’t help you is in the case of physical damage or complete storage failure. 3.5” hard drives sometimes experience mechanical failures, physically preventing the head from moving. Your memory card can become damaged with repeated use, and your USB flash drive could reach the age when it wants nothing else but to join other USB drives in the silicon heaven.

It’s true that modern technology can do wonders, like when the Challenger spacecraft disintegrated upon re-entry into the atmosphere, and an Australian data recovery company, Kroll Ontrack, was still able to recover 99 percent of the data from the onboard computer. The problem is that the average 1TB recovery will cost you more than $1000 without guaranteed results, according to Gillware Data Recovery.

5 Best Data Recovery Software Tools

Now that you know how data recovery works, it’s time to look at some of the best professional data recovery software for renowned data recovery companies. We will answer the question “what is the best data recovery software” and tell you what makes the best professional data recovery software so special. Instead of paying large sums of money for data recovery done by a professional company, top data recovery software will allow you to restore your lost data yourself for free or for a very affordable price. Let’s start our list of the best data recovery software with Disk Drill.

1. Disk Drill

data recovery

Disk Drill is a powerful data recovery software for Mac OS X and Windows 10/8/8.1/7/XP. 508 Software, the developers of the product and quite possibly the best data recovery company in existence, wanted to make data recovery as simple as possible, which is why they created a stylish, modern user interface that conveniently exposes all functionality to users without overwhelming with features. But that doesn’t mean Disk Drill can’t do just about everything you could wish for. You can restore deleted data from virtually any storage device, effortlessly rebuild an entire lost partition, or turn on Disk Drill’s data loss prevention features to prevent future disasters.

Disk Drill
Data recovery for free
Your Companion for Deleted Files Recovery


  • Modern user interface
  • Visual preview of results
  • Mac and Windows support
  • Data loss prevention
  • Build-in backup tools
  • iOS & Android support
  • Extra Free Disk Tools


  • Doesn’t offer phone support
  • No portable option for Windows version


2. Disk Warrior


DiskWarrior from Alsoft, developers of award-winning utilities for Apple Macintosh computers and another candidate competing for the title of the best data recovery company, is another top data recovery softwarethat understands all common file formats and comes with a built-in disk defragmentation utility, which can be useful if you still use regular hard disks with rotating platters. Alsoft is renowned for their excellent customer support and an entire team of technicians that are ready to help you restore your lost or deleted data.


  • Supports disk defragmentation
  • Phone support


  • Limited to Mac
  • No result preview
  • Lacks partition repair tools
  • No native quick scan


3. Data Rescue


Data Rescue from Prosoft Engineering is a top rated data recovery software with a long legacy dating back to 2002. The software has since then proved itself as a reliable solution to the vast majority of common data loss situation, despite the lack of partition repair tools. Like most other best professional data recovery software solutions, Data Rescue is able to recover digital pictures from your camera, help you find lost documents on your HFS/HFS+ formatted drive, or make an exact copy of your Mac hard drive.


  • Phone support
  • Ability to recover bad sectors
  • Allows you to filter damaged files


  • Limited to Mac
  • Lacks partition repair tools
  • Requires a second hard drive


4. Boomerang

Boomerang Data Recovery

With its fitting name, Boomerang stands out as one of a few data recovery programs that support RAID. As such, its target audience is clearly people with deeper technical knowledge who are willing to look past its outdated user interface that is in a dire need of an update. There’s also a Windows version, but even the screenshot on the official website features Windows XP, almost 15-years old operating system, which should tell you a thing or two about how enjoyable it is to use.


  • Supports RAID reconstruction


  • No native quick scan
  • Convoluted user interface
  • Doesn’t offer phone support

5. R-studio


This truly multi-platform data recovery software can run on Mac, Windows, and Linux. R-studio recovers files from HFS, HFS+, FAT, NTFS, ReFS, UFS1, UFS2, Ext2, Ext3, and Ext4 file systems. It stands out with its ability to perform network data recovery, but it unfortunately fails to meet our expectations for usability. The user interface is very barebones, and the online manual reads like a badly written thesis. After all, it has 246 pages full of technical details aimed at seasoned system administrators.


  • Supports network recovery
  • Build-in backup tools
  • Phone support
  • Supports Windows, Mac, and Linux


  • No native quick scan
  • Demo limited to very small files
  • Convoluted user interface
  • Help features are missing
Arthur Cole

Arthur Cole is a freelance content creator. He also has a more than 10-year experience in program development for macOS, Windows, iOS, Android. Arthur Cole is a writer with deep expertise in programming, who can easily...

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Approved by
Brett Johnson

This article has been approved by Brett Johnson, Data Recovery Engineer at ACE Data Recovery. Brett has a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Systems and Network, 12 years of experience.