Windows 10: Where are my files?

I have gotten three calls in the past month from friends asking for help.  They updated their computer to Windows 10, and all of their files are gone, just like that.

It seems that there are a couple of questions that are either misleading, hard to read, or easy to overlook… One of them says something to the effect of ‘Do you want to retain your files, or do you want to delete them all and start from scratch?’  This is one of the reasons why you should never do anything using the Next-Next-Next-Done methodology of installation, rather you should read what you are doing… and carefully.

So what do you do when you realize that all of your files are gone?  ‘Hey look!  Windows just reformatted my hard drive and it’s nice and clean!’  STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING.

When Windows – or most any tool for that matter – reformats your hard drive, it is not actually deleting the files that were there… it is just deleting the pointers to those files.  The hard drive index – or the file allocation table – is deleted… and your hard drive looks blank.

Fortunately there are tools that know how to look for those ‘deleted’ files, and restore them.  You might have to pay for such a tool, but in the end it is probably worth it.

Now here’s the thing: the files that are ‘deleted’ are no longer protected… so if Windows tries to save a file over that file, it will be truly gone.  So the best thing to do is as follows:

  1. Shut down your computer.  Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.  Don’t check your e-mail, don’t look up movie times.  Just shut it down.
  2. Call a professional.  Yes I know, these days everyone seems to know how to use computers, and the instructions are pretty simple.  However IT Professionals usually know a few tricks that laymen do not, and your files and data are definitely worth whatever fees you will have to pay.
  3. The professional will remove your hard drive from your computer and connect it as a slave on another system; this means that Windows will not try to write to the drive while it is on.
  4. He or she will then run the data recovery tools; a deep scan can take several hours, and is usually required in the case of a formatted drive.
  5. Together with the professional you will select the files and folders that you want to recover.  Don’t worry about anything in the myriad c:\Windows and c:\Program Files directories… what you usually want is under c:\Users. 
  6. In most cases it is a good idea to recover the files to a different drive, and then copy them back to your drive when you are done.  It may take a few hours, but in most cases your files will be worth the wait.

I have a favourite tool that I use to recover my files, but there are several out there.  Your IT Pro should have something that he or she likes, and if they don’t then you are probably better off finding another IT Pro.

And remember… Next – Next – Next – Done can cost you.  Take the time to read what you are doing!

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