Data Recovery Digest

Do-It-Yourself Windows File Recovery Software: A Comparison

results »

Free Photo Recovery Tools: Performance Showdown and Feature Comparison

At DataRecoveryDigest, we regularly test and review the top commercial data recovery programs for our annual pro and DIY file recovery software comparisons. But what about free data recovery options? The fact of the matter is that you won't find a fully-functional, comprehensive data recovery product that doesn't come with a price tag. That's because a good, reliable product involves thousands of hours of development, coding, testing, bug fixing, and support—it's a full time job for an entire team of developers. The good news, though, is that you can often find free versions of these pro level products that can be major lifesavers if you have an emergency data loss situation. Such free or evaluation versions are meant to show you the data recovery results you can expect from the full version and help sway your decision before making a purchase.

So, in the same spirit of our DIY and professional data recovery software reviews, we decided to take a look at your options for free data recovery tools. Granted, a free program will have far fewer features than a full-fledged tool, so our evaluation will not go as far in depth. But after reading this article, you should have a good idea of which programs are worth your time and which program has the best chances of recovering your data for free.

For our tests, we focused on recovering lost photos. Free data recovery software is targeted at home users, and for most home users, photos and videos are the most precious data they own—and the most prone to data loss. According to statistics put together by Mylio, the number of photos stored worldwide is estimated to be 4.9 trillion. Nearly 80% of the pictures taken in 2017 will be mobile photos. Mobile photos, whether they are taken by phones, tablets, dash cameras, etc., make taking photos incredibly easy, but at the same time, make losing photos incredibly easy, too.

Many free data recovery programs are sufficient enough to restore some or all of your lost photos. These programs typically have a simple, straightforward interface and support FAT and exFAT file systems, which are the most commonly used file systems for SD cards.

To select our candidates, we took a look at some of the free versions of the full-featured products that we've already reviewed for our annual reviews. We also searched the web for some of the highest rated free file recovery programs. Here are the programs we chose to review:

Product Desciption
Recuva 1.531087 (64-bit)

Free; can be upgraded to commercial Recuva Pro. One of the most popular free file recovery programs.

Pandora Recovery 2.2.1


R-Undelete 5.1.165337

Free for file recovery from FAT/exFAT devices; can be commercially upgraded to work with NTFS disks. It’s a lite version of a well-known professional data recovery tool, R-Studio.

PC INSPECTOR File Recovery 4.0


EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Free 11.0.0

Free recovery for 500 MB of data. This is the free version of the commercial program EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard which, of course, has no such limitation.

PhotoRec 7.0

Free. Another very popular free graphic file recovery program. Open sources.

To test the free programs, we repeated a data recovery job that we had already completed for a customer using another professional tool. We took the same SD card that we had recovered lost photos from and attempted to recover the same photos using the various free data recovery programs. Our review criteria included, first and foremost, how many of the missing images were recovered, but also how well the programs recovered the file and folder information and how intuitive the program was for non-experienced users.

FAT32 SD Card Test Description
  • Media: 32GB Kingston SDHC card
  • Data set: Photos in a DCIM folder on the card
  • Other files on card: HD video from a SONY HDR-CX250E camcorder
  • Cause of photo loss: Accidental deletion done from the camcorder

The card was a FAT32 device, with a standard folder structure for HD video. The camcorder deleted everything from the DCIM folder and created a new folder structure and index database within this folder.

This is a rather common data loss scenario. Most devices will ask to initialize or format a card when it's first loaded. For blank cards, this isn't an issue. But if you inadvertently pick up the SD card that you normally use for a smartphone or a still photo camera, then you could end up accidentally deleting everything on the card.

Our test objective was to scan the device and recover the photos. Like most users, we were primarily concerned with getting the actual content of the photos back–additional information and files would be nice to recover, but not essential. However, during our tests, two of the programs restored the original folder structure and file names, exceeding our expectations. While our focus was on recovering the data, we duly noted these programs that went above and beyond.

FAT32 SD Card Test Results

All programs completed the card scan within approximately 15 min, except for PhotoRec, which required considerably more time.


All photo files were correctly recovered. The original folder structure was not recovered. File names were partially recovered—the first character was lost and was replaced with an underscore: _. As noted above, this isn't a major issue. Since most of the original file names were there, it was easy to rename them to their original names.


During performance of our test, Pandora crashed several times. In spite of the buggy software, we were able to complete the scan and complete the test. All photo images were correctly recovered. Neither their file names nor folder structure was recovered.


All photo files and subfolders were successfully recovered, with the correct folder structure, and file and folder names. This included various camera index files, which made it possible to reconstruct the entire photo database. This made it so the camera recognized the photos as if they were the ones originally taken by the camera. In fact, we were able to completely restore the card to the state it was in before the photos were accidentally deleted.


All photo files were correctly recovered. The folder structure was not. File names were recovered except for the first character, which was replaced by an underscore: _. Saving the recovered files took an unexpectedly long time: 17 min while the other programs only took about 3-5 min.

EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Free

All photo files were correctly recovered. The folder structure was recovered, too, including all index files. The first characters of the folder and file names were lost and replaced with a pound sign: #. After manually renaming the files, the camera recognized them as the original files; however, there were issues with the database. The program recovered files only within its free recovery limit, 500 MB, which appeared to be a half of all deleted photos. As a result, the camcorder reported errors when trying to reach the missing files.


All files were correctly recovered. The filenames and folder structure were not recovered. As noted above, the disk scan took an unusually long time: about 60 minutes, compared to the 15 minutes for the other programs. Also, there was a large amount of "false" files recovered which, upon viewing, were just junk files and not viewable photos. Because the file names weren't recovered, this was particularly cumbersome because it required sifting through numerous garbage files in order to ensure that they weren't the photos we were actually trying to recover.

FAT32 SD Card Test Summary

The two programs that performed the best in our test were R-Undelete and EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Free. Both programs recovered all the photo files, but they also went above and beyond by recovering the folder structure and the database index files, which were used by the camera. R-Undelete edged out EaseUS Data Recovery by recovering the complete filenames as well, essentially rebuilding the camcorder card to its previous state before the deletion. Furthermore, EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Free has a 500 MB recovery limit. R-Undelete has no such limitation for FAT/exFAT formatted drives, making it the superior free data recovery tool.

Meanwhile, Recuva delivered in terms of reliability and performance. Like the other programs, it recovered all the photo files. It even recovered partial file names. Overall, though, Recuva fell short of the performance displayed by R-Undelete and EaseUS.

Pandora and PC INSPECTOR, which are lesser known free data recovery utilities, had acceptable performance, but had a couple drawbacks. While both programs recovered all the photo files, Pandora crashed several times during the test and PC INSPECTOR took an unusually long time to save the recovered files.

And the real disappointment was PhotoRec. Despite its reputation, it performed very slowly and returned a number of false recovered files. These "garbage" files muddied the results and made the file recovery process far more cumbersome. It also has a pseudo-graphical interface which may be intimidating for inexperienced users, since it resembles a command line interface.

Reformatted exFAT SD Card Test

We were about to conclude our evaluation, but at that time we got another real world photo recovery case. This time it was a reformatted exFAT SD card from a Samsung smartphone. So, we decided to put the same programs to another test.

exFAT SD Card Test Description
  • Media: 64 GB GERFFINS microSDXC card
  • Host Device: Android Samsung Note 2 smartphone
  • Data set: Various smartphone files (photos, music, and Android OS files)
  • Cause of Data Loss: Complete smartphone re-initialization during which all user data was erased. The card remained in the phone during this process and the files were erased, too.

When we examined the card we found that the card was an empty exFAT device. Apparently the phone reformatted it and created a fresh exFAT file system. Our objective for the test was to recover as much data as possible from the reformatted SD card. As with our previous test, we had already recovered the data for the customer using a professional data recovery tool. This gave us a good idea of how much data on the card was recoverable.

Reformatted exFAT SD Card Test Results

All programs took about 15 minutes to scan the card. This included PhotoRec, which performed much worse than the other programs during the FAT32 test—it took about 60 minutes for the FAT32 test, while the other programs completed the scan in 15 minutes. PhotoRec's scan time for the exFAT test was comparable to the other programs.


For the most common file types, such as photos, mp3 files, and mp4 files, Recuva recovered all of the files. The folder structure was not recovered. File names were recovered correctly for most files. Files from the root folder were recovered correctly, but without their original names.


Pandora does not support the exFAT file system. No files were recovered.


For the most common file types, such as photos, mp3 files, and mp4 files, R-Undelete recovered all the files. Furthermore, R-Undelete recovered a number of files used by the Android operating system. The files were recovered with their correct file and folder names, except for files and folders at the root level. Files and folders at the disk root were recovered, but without their original names. Upon renaming the files manually, the device recognized the card as if it was the original card created by the phone.


PC Inspector does not support the exFAT file system. No files were recovered.

EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Free

User files of the most common file types—mp3, photos, mp4, etc.—were recovered but the folder structure was not. Due to the free version recovery limitations, only 500 MB of data was recovered.


All common files types, like jpg, png, mp3, and mp4 were correctly recovered. Neither their file names, nor folder structure was recovered at all. Also, as with the FAT32 test, there were numerous “false” files recovered.

Reformatted exFAT SD Card Test Summary

As with the FAT32 test, R-Undelete outperformed the other programs, but this time with a more considerable margin. Recuva and EaseUS recovered the common file types, but R-Undelete recovered the more obscure Android service files as well as much of the file and folder structure. EaseUS continues to be hobbled by its 500 MB data recovery limit for the free version. Pandora and PC Inspector had no exFAT support at all.

PhotoRec performed better with exFAT than with FAT32 in terms of speed. However, as before, PhotoRec returned a number of junk files that made the results more tedious to pick through.

Overall Summary and Conclusion

In general we were satisfied with the results. All programs we had tested were able to recover photos from FAT32 SD cards and all except two support the exFAT file system.

Based on our test results, our top recommendation to home users looking for an effective free data recovery tool would be R-Undelete. We are quite familiar with R-Undelete, and we've tested it in our lab a number of times over the years. We were not surprised by the excellent results. For FAT32 and exFAT file systems, R-Undelete has essentially no limitations. Its performance when recovering data is on par with a professional data recovery tool, and it easily outpaced the other programs by recovering not just photo files, but other system and database files as well as the folder structure and file names. It performed even better on the exFAT file recovery test.

Other strong contenders were EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Free and Recuva. Both of these are reputable products that have high potential. However, EaseUS's free product has a strict 500 MB data recovery limit. Considering the high capacity of most SD cards, this effectively renders the product as an advanced demo version of the commercial program, rather than truly free software. Recuva did a good job of recovering data, but it did not recover the original folder structure like R-Undelete did.

The remaining programs had too many drawbacks to receive our recommendation. The lesser known Pandora and PC Inspector performed acceptability for the FAT32 test (except for a few crashes from Pandora and slow recovery from PC Inspector), but had no support at all for exFAT. PhotoRec failed to meet our high expectations—it was much slower on the FAT32 test, and in both tests, it returned a cumbersome amount of false files.

At any rate, all of the programs that we reviewed provide workable options for recovering photos for free. If you are facing an everyday photo recovery issue, these are worth a shot—you just might be able to get all your photos back without paying a single cent. However, it is our duty to provide the obligatory public service announcement: for critical data loss scenarios, you should always work with a professional data recovery service. In some cases, DIY data recovery attempts can actually worsen your chances of recovering the data, particularly when the SD card has been damaged, or if the program writes new data to the disk. But in cases where you have more to gain than to lose, trying out a quality free photo recovery utility may get you good results.

Beyond data recovery performance, there are a few other notable features that we didn't formally test in our evaluation, but may factor into your tool of choice. As you choose a free data recovery tool to meet your needs, consider our test results as well as the following:

Important Free Data Recovery Software Features

While less essential factors than data recovery performance, the features below will impact your experience with the program. An intuitive interface is essential for inexperienced users, while file search options and previewers will save you time when analyzing your data recovery results. Recovery of folder structure and file names is also beneficial, particularly when recovering a large amount of files.

Program Interface File search options Previewer Recovery of full folder structure

A guided step-by-step wizard interface.

Very versatile file search options, including searches for file and folder names, dates, sizes, masks, etc.

A very advanced previewer. Can show many graphic, multimedia, MS Office, files, etc.

Yes. The program tries to re-construct the initial folder structure as much as possible.


A guided wizard interface that walks the user through the file recovery process step-by-step. Can be switched to a File Explorer- style interface.

No file search options. Files can be found manually in a file list, or by browsing through the folder tree.

A basic previewer capable of showing most common files, like graphics.

No. Recovered files are saved into one folder.

EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard Free

A wizard interface which guides the user through the process of file recovery.

Very simple file recovery options: Search for file name, and limited file type filters: only graphics, Audio, Documents, etc.

A previewer capable of showing most common files, like graphics. It also can show MS Office documents when Office is installed on the computer.

Yes. The program tries to reconstruct the initial folder structure as much as possible.

Pandora Recovery

A guided wizard interface that walks the user through the recovery process step-by-step. Can be switched to a File Explorer- style interface.

Very simple options, like search for a file name, size, and date.

A basic previewer capable of showing most common files, like graphics.

No. Recovered files are saved into one folder.

PC INSPECTOR File Recovery

A pseudo-wizard interface that may still be confusing to novice or inexperienced users.

A very simple option: search for a file name. File masks can be specified.

No previewer.

No. Recovered files are saved into one folder.


A pseudo-graphic user interface which can hard to follow for inexperienced users.

No file search options.

No previewer.

No. Recovered files are saved into one folder.


No comments yet. Sign in to add the first!