Disk Commander from Winternals Software is one of the most comprehensive data recovery products that I’ve ever used. Disk Commander helped me bail out myself and my end users in several tough situations. It allowed me to recover data I thought was lost forever. No help desk should be without this tool.

File recovery and a whole lot more
Unlike many disk recovery utilities, Disk Commander isn’t a deleted file recovery utility (although it can recover deleted files). Instead, the utility actually reconstructs damaged files. It can also rebuild a corrupt partition and recover data from a formatted hard disk, even if the disk is unbootable. While many other disk recovery utilities limit you to recovering data from a single hard disk, Disk Commander allows you to recover data from stripe sets, mirror sets, and volume sets. The only prerequisite is that the hard disk must be physically functional. If the disk has a problem, such as a dead motor, Winternals recommends shipping the drive to a data recovery lab.

Disk Commander offers flexible installation. You can install it on a functioning hard disk, run it from a set of boot floppies, or run it from a floppy disk at a DOS prompt (Figure A).

Figure A

However, only running from a set of boot floppies gives you access to the product’s full functionality. The hard disk installation and the DOS installation are both subject to restrictions of the underlying operating system. For example, when run from DOS, long filenames aren’t supported and neither are normal RAID devices.

Using Disk Commander
Disk Commander is fairly simple and straightforward to use. The software wizard asks you several questions about your data recovery needs. You’ll begin by selecting the drive letter associated with the damaged hard disk. You can then choose to try to salvage deleted files. If you need to perform any other type of repair on the volume, you must tell Disk Commander that no drive letter is associated with the hard disk.

Next you must tell Disk Commander whether you want to recover regular and damaged files or files that have been deleted from the partition. If you choose to salvage deleted files, Disk Commander scans the hard disk for anything that can be recovered. It will then present you with a directory tree style view of salvageable files (Figure B). You must then select which files you want to recover along with a location for Disk Commander to copy those files to.

Figure B

If you tell Disk Commander that the damaged hard disk (or partition) doesn’t have a drive letter, Disk Commander performs a thorough scan of the hard drive. The scan might take a while to complete, but the results are worth the wait.

When the scan completes, Disk Commander will show you a report of the disk’s partition scheme. The wizard then asks you whether the partition scheme accurately displays what should be on the disk. If you answer No, it will launch a more thorough scan, which can take an entire day to complete. At the end of the scan, Disk Commander will display a graphical representation of the partition table, including missing partitions and volumes.

You may then select an area of the partition table and an action, and then click Next to perform the action. For example, you could select a damaged partition and click the Recover Entry button. Or you could select a damaged master boot record (MBR) and click the Rewrite MBR button. Also, the software includes a Volume Details button that allows you to gain detailed information on a partition or volume you’re about to repair, which is a nice touch.

Before executing any instruction that will modify the partition table, Disk Commander gives you the chance to copy the partition table to a floppy disk. That way, you can revert the system to its current state should you make a mistake that damages the partition table more than it was.

Well worth the cost
While there are plenty of other data recovery tools out there, each technique you use unsuccessfully decreases your chances of a successful recovery through another method. Most disk recovery utilities modify the data on the hard disk, and once a utility has modified the already damaged hard disk, it becomes that much tougher for another utility to pick up the pieces. So, if your data is important to you, I recommend spending a few bucks for Disk Commander instead of risking further damage to your data with a lower-budget data recovery utility.

Disk Commander is designed to work on a system with Windows 9x, NT, 2000, XP, or Me—although the operating system doesn’t have to be functional. You can buy a copy of Disk Commander for $299 directly from Winternals Software. Volume licensing discounts are also available.