Recover Data from Your Mac

Apple computers are famous for being reliable, sturdy, and resistant to viruses, which makes it all the more frustrating when files go missing.  Sometimes corrupt programs or damaged hardware are the cause, but just as often lost files are the result of human error, like when spring-cleaning your Documents folder snags a few important files along with the junk and sweeps everything into the trash.  Luckily, even if you don’t catch the mistake before you empty the trash folder, Apple has several layers of backup built into its operating system, so if you stay calm, try some strategies and have a little bit of luck on your side, you’d be surprised how often it’s possible to recover data you thought was lost forever.

Check your Time Machine Backup

If you’re running a Mac and you’re not already using Time Machine, now is the time to start.  Time Machine is Apple’s built-in backup system: it allows you to select an external storage location and then automatically backs up your entire system periodically.  It’s easy to set up: just choose an external hard drive as your designated backup drive and make sure Time Machine is set to back up at least once a day.  Time Machine’s biggest advantage over other backup systems is that it doesn’t discard old backups when it creates new ones: instead it creates a master copy of everything on your hard drive, then creates new paths to your files every time you back up, adding information to the backup drive as you add files to your computer.  So if you accidentally delete an important file and don’t realize until a week later, the backup from before you deleted the file will still be there in Time Machine, and you can pretend the mistake never happened.

Check Your Cloud Services

Data like contacts, Notes, calendar information and e-mail back up automatically to iCloud if you have an account; more recently, you can set your documents from Apple’s iWorks suite of productivity applications to back up directly to iCloud as well.  Other, third-party applications are getting in on Cloud backup as well: Amazon and iTunes store your purchases online so you can access them from anywhere, and Microsoft’s SkyDrive is designed to integrate with Microsoft office.  Applications that have mobile and tablet versions often come with automatic Cloud backup so that you can access files across all your devices, so you may well be able to find copies of your important documents backed up online.

Check Your Autosave Folders

Microsoft Office, most art and media applications and numerous other productivity programs automatically save to a specific folder regularly.  Check the application manual or support site to find out how your particular program names its autosave files so that you can find them and check for recent backups.  Autosave files may not have all your recent data, but an autosave file that needs a little updating is much, much better than losing an important file altogether.  In any program you use regularly it’s a good idea to see if there’s an autosave function, and to set the program to save your work at least once per hour – more, if you do a lot of work in the application.

Use a Data Recovery Application to Search for Lost Files

If you don’t have Time Machine, iCloud or autosave backups, there’s still hope of getting your files back.  When a Mac computer empties the Trash, it doesn’t delete files altogether; it allocates a certain amount of space to junk files and removes old ones as new ones are deleted from the Trash.  What this means for data recovery is that, especially if you aren’t deleting large numbers of files every day, even files that your computer says are permanently gone still hang around for a little while before they disappear completely.  Finding these files on your own is very difficult and requires some technical knowledge; fortunately, there are applications available that can do the job for you.  Applications for data recovery range from freeware like EaseUS – which allows you to recover up to 2GB of data for no cost – to expensive programs like Stellar Phoenix.  While freeware can be useful for scanning your Mac for recoverable files, it’s a good idea to spend the money on a well-reviewed program to actually retrieve the files, as you don’t want to risk corrupting the files when you try to retrieve them.

Try connecting your hard drive to another computer

If you’ve lost files because of a computer crash, rather than because you accidentally deleted them, then you may need to hook your computer’s hard drive up directly to another computer so that you can access your files from a working operating system.  While it’s never a good idea to take apart a computer without knowing what you’re doing, if you have some knowledge of computer mechanics then you can take out the hard drive and hook it up to a friend’s Mac using a USB-powered hard drive enclosure.  Some enclosures with two slots are designed to clone hard drives without an intermediate computer, so if your hard drive is suffering mechanical damage you can copy your files to a new, undamaged hard drive with one click.  Make sure you read your computer’s warranty before attempting to take it apart, since AppleCare has very limited support if you’ve already tried to repair your computer yourself.

Take your computer to an expert

If data recovery programs don’t help you recover lost files, or your computer has crashed and you don’t feel comfortable taking the hard drive out yourself, take your computer to a professional.  A professional computer technician will have tools to look for files even data recovery programs can’t find, and, though these services are often expensive, it can be worth it for important, sensitive or work-related files.  A professional will also be able to tell you whether problems with your Mac’s hard drive are hardware or software related, which could prevent you making the costly mistake of copying viruses or corrupted data over to a brand new hard drive.

Leave a Comment