One of the hardest lessons learned about disk management is that formatting completely erases all data on the drive. A hard drive can go from gigabytes worth of important records, treasured memories, and personalized settings to a (seemingly) blank slate in a matter of minutes, thanks to a format. But in some cases, you can get your files back. Read on to learn more.



What kind of format?

There are three common scenarios when it comes to formatting a drive:
  • Quick format. A quick format does not actually erase the data. Instead, it only creates a new file table so that new data can be written to the volume. The old data is left almost completely intact.
  • Full format. A normal format will usually do a bit more than a quick format, depending on the operating system. In a full format, the file table will be deleted and some or all of the data may be overwritten. Some operating systems perform a “secure format” which overwrites the entire drive with 0s. You’ll know this is happening because it will take a very long time.
  • Reformat with operating system reinstallation. Formats often happen concurrently to the reinstallation of an operating system. These are not always full blown “secure” formats, but the fact that a large amount of new data has been written to the disk will reduce the chances that your files will be recoverable.
In addition to formatting, a hard drive can also be partitioned, or the existing partitions can be resized. Repartitioning is often destructive (erases all data, similar to a quick format), but some disk utilities can resize and split partitions without erasing data. However, editing partitions can put your disk at risk of corruption so that it is no longer bootable or mountable by normal means.

Recovering Lost Files from a Formatted Drive or Partition

Whether you’ve performed a quick format, full format, OS reinstall, or repartition, data recovery is always worth a shot. Even if the disk is not bootable or has been reformatted multiple times, you can still scan the raw data for recognizable files. Unless the data has been overwritten, it should still be there. The only challenge is finding it. This is where data recovery software comes in.
While most major operating systems won’t have a built-in file recovery or undelete utility, third-party programs, such as R-Studio, will work on any platform.
The actual steps you’ll take to recover data from a formatted disk will vary depending on the program you use (for example, see the "unformat" how-to for R-Studio).  But no matter what you program you use, you’ll want to follow a few general best practices:

  1. Perform your data recovery from another system disk. If you’ve just reinstalled your operating system, don’t boot into the disk. Instead, mount it on another computer (either via a USB enclosure or by installing it as a slave in one of the internal hard drive bays) and analyze it with read-only access.
  2. Never write data to the disk you are trying to recover from. If your file recovery tool does find your lost data, do not save it to the same disk that you are trying to recover it from. You may end up overwriting the very data you are trying to recover.
  3. If the disk is failing or corrupt, create an image of it. By imaging a disk, you take a snapshot of its state before any more damage can be done. Run your file recovery search on the disk image instead of the disk itself.

While not all formats are reversible, an inadvertent or premature reformat is not the end of the world. Keep the information and tips above in mind as you proceed and you will at least reduce your chances of worsening your problem. 

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