Usually when you delete a file from your computer, the file is still there—its space, however, is marked as available for use. Even if you reformat your hard drive and reinstall Windows (I had a friend who did this by accident, and I used Ubuntu to save her data), most of your data is probably still there.
Assuming you were able to boot the Ubuntu CD and it properly detected your internet connection, you can use a program called Photorec to recover your personal files.
If Ubuntu does not automatically detect your internet connection, and you have access to the internet on another computer, you can download the appropriate two installer files from here and here. Find a way (by USB key or iPod) to transfer them to the computer running the Ubuntu live session, and double-click libntfs10 to install it, and then double-click testdisk to install it.
This may be a bit confusing—the program we want to use is called photorec, but the program we want to install that allows us to use Photorec is called testdisk. Also, the program is called Photorec, but it recovers many types of files, not just photos.
Installing testdisk to use Photorec
First, we’re going to install the program we need in order to use Photorec.
Now that we’ve told the software manager to find all the software that’s available for installation, let’s install it. Click Search in the Synaptic window, in the search box type testdisk, and then click Search in the dialogue window.
For an internal second hard drive, you can access it the same way you accessed the internal first hard drive (the one you’re trying to recover data from).
If the backup location is an external hard drive, you should be able to plug it in and have it automatically appear on the desktop as an icon.
in the command prompt window that appears. This will show you the path to the backup location. In this example, the backup location I’m using is 2.8 GB large, so I must make a note that it is available at /media/disk-2.
In Windows, new drives “mount” (or become available for use) as new letters (D:, E:, F:, G:, etc.). In Ubuntu, new drives mount as folders inside an all-encompassing directory. The top-level directory is slash (/). Inside that directory is subdirectory called /media, which has inside of it another subdirectory called disk-2. That’s where I want to send the recovered files to.
Don’t try to run the command photorec without sudo, as I tried to do earlier in the screenshot.
The media you are selecting is the drive you want to recover files from. Then click Enter to proceed to the next step.
This is where things get a little tricky. Photorec will assume you want to back up to a folder in Ubuntu’s /home/ubuntu directory, but you probably want to back up to an external drive (in this example, it’s /media/disk-2).
Wait for Photorec to scan for files. Depending on the size of your drive, this could take a really long time. The drive I scanned for this example is only 8.7 GB and took about 15 minutes to scan. If you have a 160 GB drive, well, you do the math.
Every folder will have a mix of different file types. Some files will be music files. Others will be Word documents. There will be pictures and text files. All sorts of stuff you may not even care about. The labels will be random, so even though you have your files back, it’ll be up to you to reorganize them and rename them appropriately.
Congratulations! You just saved yourself hundreds of dollars, learned something new, dabbled in Linux (Ubuntu specifically), and didn’t give up access to your computer for days or weeks.
You should, of course, always back up your files, but it’s also good to know there are free and easy ways to recover your data otherwise.
If you need any help with this process, please feel free to post a support thread in the Absolute Beginner subforum of the Ubuntu Forums.