Review: Disk Drill Pro file recovery software

At last, a file recovery program that does exactly what it says on the tin. (September 9th, 2012)

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Product Manufacturer: Cleverfiles

Price: $89

The Good

  • Does what it says it will do.
  • Lets users preview their chances of recovery before paying.
  • Refreshingly realistic tutorial and disclaimers.
  • Can recover lost partitions, not just files.
  • Free edition can be used for backup to DMG.
  • NTFS drives can be scanned.

The Bad

  • Does not repair directories.
  • Lists all files in the source directory, not just the deleted ones.
  • Some features just GUI'd versions of system utilities.
  • License limited to one user in a household.
  • Temperature monitor lacks meaningful context.
  • NTFS drives can't use Recovery Vault.

Cleverfiles offers its Disk Drill utility in four configurations, but most importantly including a free edition that users can download at any time to scan for lost files and backup partitions or drives that are starting to fail (but haven't failed completely yet) to a DMG image. This "try before you buy" practice, mirrored by some of its competitors, is a good one: users want to know before they buy the utility that it will actually be able to help them, and the free edition lets you scan (but not recover) any lost files it can detect.

The company says that if the program can "see" an identifiable file type (image, document, program etc) it can almost certainly recover it. However, as should be obvious -- if the user has turned on the "secure empty trash" option or otherwise overwritten the deleted file, or if the drive has completely failed mechanically, Disk Drill Pro has no magic to undo that. The files are almost certainly gone for good, apart from an expensive clean room platter recovery service like Drivesavers.

It goes without saying, of course, that the sooner a user employs a recovery program like Disk Drill following an accidental deletion, the better: an introductory tutorial that runs the first time the program is fired up explains that deletions simply remove the filename from the directory and list the space as available to be overwritten, but that overwriting doesn't happen immediately and thus the file may be recoverable. The tutorial goes on to point out that there are various factors involved in recovery and that nothing is 100 percent guaranteed. It may be a CYA policy talk, but it's related in a helpful, folksy tone that educates the user and provides a much-needed reality check in the middle of a crisis.





If users want to recover files, they will need to upgrade to Disk Drill Pro, which costs $89 for an individual license and comes on a bootable CD or DVD (there are non-profit and competitive-crossgrade discounts available). This is in line with most other file-recovery programs at this level, and since it costs nothing to be sure that the user can recover the files they want back, it is in our opinion a reasonable price -- particularly if its killer feature, the Recovery Vault, is employed ahead of time. Commercial- and enterprise-level licenses are also available for higher fees, but allow multiple users and machines as well as provide higher priorities of company support.

We first tested Disk Drill Pro on a hard drive that did not have the Recovery Vault enabled, and after a quick scan it was indeed able to "see" a number of recently-discarded files and recover them. We did notice there was no direct way to search or recover from JUST the normally-invisible ".Trash" file on volumes (as one would want in the scenario where they just deleted the file), but did note that the recovery system appears not to care too much about media types as long as they are either HFS or FAT formatted (NTFS drives can be scanned, but can't use Recovery Vault). Thumb drives, camera cards, SSDs and hard drives are all treated the same.





Strictly as a recovery tool, Disk Drill Pro is at first pretty much the same as most others -- it bypasses the directory and scans the disk to find file fragments, essentially building its own directory to work from. It automatically recognizes most common file types and, assuming the fragments add up to a whole file, can recover them (with a report of how likely full recovery is). Where Disk Drill stands out is in its Recovery Vault, a preventative measure users can employ prior to any losses and which greatly increases the chance of successful recovery.

Not to be confused with the recovery partition of Lion or Mountain Lion -- which allows users to boot up their Mac and repair a corrupted disk or directory -- Disk Drill Pro's Recovery Vault can work in two ways to make files more recoverable: on a boot drive, the program is set to automatically make an index of the metadata of deleted files. On non-boot drives, users have the option of the Recovery Vault's method (which takes up very little drive space since it doesn't save actual files -- just the data that will make them easier and faster to recover) or the Guaranteed Recovery protection option, which simply copies (to an invisible directory) everything that's been deleted -- taking up a lot more disk space but offering a nearly fool-proof way of getting back an important document that was deleted, even if the deletion occurred long ago and was only recently noticed.





We tested the system by turning on the Recovery Vault on an external drive and a thumb drive as well as a boot drive and deliberately deleting files by throwing them away and emptying the trash, a relatively simple test that most recovery programs would have no trouble with. Sure enough, the program had no issues at all -- but unlike some other recovery programs we have tried, the unusual file type we chose (an MKV file) did not pose a problem, allowing Disk Drill to recover it completely, filename and attributes intact. It even put it back in the same directory from whence it had been tossed (though the program recommends users not do this during the recovery, and doesn't allow it at all on the boot drive, as it lowers the chance of success).

Further testing with various file types (including non-standard ones like Appleworks documents) confirmed the ability of the Recovery Vault to restore files completely as they were without any intervention on the part of the user, a nice touch. We've seen where other programs could restore pictures or Word files with little difficulty, but leave us with a nearly-unusable (to many users) generic file type if we tried to recover something outside the list of formats it knows about. Score one for Cleverfiles.

As a supplement to regular backups (a position the program makers stress) and an emergency tool, we think Disk Drill Pro takes the right approach -- a calm, helpful and educational tour combined with preventative protection that should allow most users to get back recently-lost files without fuss or bother. Using the Guaranteed Recovery option on non-boot drives adds a convenient if space-consuming safeguard against lost files that have been gone for a long time, though for boot drives Apple's own Time Machine is the default option for long-term recovery of lost files, and relies on external drives rather than just storing deleted files on the same drive: a better approach, and one that Cleverfiles should consider adding as an option in a future version.

We would be remiss if we didn't mention that Disk Drill also offers a conventional drive S.M.A.R.T monitoring toolset, a drive temperature monitor (though most users have little understanding of what constitutes a normal or safe drive operating temperature, and Disk Drill doesn't give them any context) and an option to password-protect the Recovery Vault or saved scan sessions. The program can also be of assistance in resurrecting lost partitions (even Windows partitions, since the partition map is still part of the Mac's directory) -- thankfully, we never got the "opportunity" to test that aspect of the program, but partition corruption can happen as easily as directory corruption, and not every recovery program will deal with that possibility.








Our main complaint with Disk Drill is its habit of listing all the files in a particular directory when looking to undelete protected items, not just the file(s) that were recently deleted. Of course, users can quickly figure out by looking at the directory in question which files don't need to be recovered, and they are listed as having a "poor" chance of recovery anyway so it is fairly obvious -- but anything that raises any possibility of confusion runs counter to the strong introduction of user awareness the makers infused into Disk Drill, and files that don't need recovery should be masked in our opinion.

The Recovery Vault options are what users are really paying for -- most of the other basic functions of Disk Drill, like the S.M.A.R.T and temperature monitoring, can be replicated through freeware or shareware. That said, the recovery aspect is indeed a killer feature, and the best implementation of the "alternative disk index" idea we've seen. Particularly when combined with the program's friendly but professional software design and ability for users to customize and add to the list of "default" file types it should be able to identify, we have no trouble recommending the program for what it does. Disk Drill Pro lets users get their lost files back, with minimum hassle and no complicated setup.

by Charles Martin


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