Free data recovery does exist. And also, it doesn't. 

So here’s the situation, you’re sitting there tapping away on your keyboard, daydreaming about what adult beverage you will treat yourself to when you’ve finally got this long and important report completely written, when, just like that, your screen goes blank. 
You tap a few more keys on your keyboard hoping it will spring back to life. Nothing
A small wave of panic hits you – did I have auto-save on? If so, when did it last save my document? In fact, did it save my document at all? 
Reluctantly you hold down the power button for as long as it takes to reboot your system expecting the tried and tested ‘switch it off then switch it on again’ routine to work, but then you see it. Gobbledygook. The blue screen of death. 
You try again, but without success. You now not only start worrying about how much of your report has just gone up in thin air, but what about all those other files you have been working on since you were last physically connected to (and hopefully backed up by) the office network. 2 months ago. This could be a problem, but where to start? 
You fire up your iPad and type in 'laptop data recovery'. In an instant, you see links to free data recovery software, free hard drive evaluation, no-fix no-fee data recovery services and all manner of other seemingly positive signs, surely this is too good to be true? 
Well let’s have a closer look at your data recovery options, and consider whether there is any such thing as a free lunch after a data crunch... 

Free data recovery software. 

There are many, many data recovery software products out there, some good, some bad, some free, some paid. So what can you expect? 
Firstly the good news: some free data recovery software products are actually great! They do a good job of recovering files in a non-destructive way, and if there is no physical problem with your media then this might actually be a decent solution for you. 
The catch? Well, some software products are free for a limited time period, free for certain types of data only, free for a certain number of files only or free if you consent to being added to a database somewhere. 
Whilst all of the above might be fine for your situation, you need to check the definition of ‘free’ before you waste time and energy on a product that is never going to help – hard drive scans can take hours if not days, and you haven’t got that much time to waste. 
Now the bad news, some free data recovery software products are not great. 
They could not work at all (costing you those hours of your life waiting for them not to scan, then not to recover your data) 
They could partially work but also partially make a mess of something else (not enough care taken to prevent the overwriting of potentially recoverable data, or code not tested well enough) 
Worse still, they could not be data recovery tools at all, just viruses and ransomware dressed up as data recovery software. 
Do a bit of research. Or ask someone that knows. This sounds simple but really could save you a lot of time, and ultimately be the difference between a full recovery and a complete loss of data for ever. 
There are several reputable data recovery companies that also sell software for the DIY market. This is a great place to buy because not only are you sure that they know what they are doing when it comes to recovering data, but they will also have an on-ramp from their software to their more sophisticated engineer-assisted services should they be required. 
In some cases a limited version of the software will be available, in other cases the cost of the software will be discounted against other services should they be required, so the small investment (from around £50) here is almost always worth it if you value your data. 

Free data recovery services. 

Data recovery, in a lab or clean room environment, is a complicated and expensive endeavour. It requires years of training, usually a dust-free workbench or two, thousands of pounds worth of hardware and specialist tools, not to mention expensive or custom-built data recovery software, which could have cost millions to develop. 
So no. You won’t get free data recovery services. 
What you will get, however, is free advice, and often a free physical examination, and in some cases, even a free sample of recovered data. All of which has value. 
So if we accept that you won’t get all your data back for free, let’s at least ensure that you get what you pay for, and that you are not paying for nothing. 
A free consultation is a good starting point. Discuss with the data services representative what happened, what data you’ve lost and when you need it back by. They should be able to give you a good, informed estimate as to the recoverability under these circumstances, as well as a rough cost to get the work done. Don’t pay yet, there is more value to be had for free… 
After the phone consultation, assuming you feel comfortable with the potential cost, and the credentials and knowledge of the person you’ve been speaking to, get the drive in for a free evaluation
Most reputable data recovery companies will perform an engineer-led analysis of your drive for free, and take the hit on the cost of this stage as they understand it is a hard sell getting the customer to part with money for, at this stage, not a lot… 
Now you feel good about who you’re dealing with, you have an engineer report on your device issues and a solid estimate of how much data will be recoverable, and they even collected your device on their DHL account. So far so good. So far so FREE! 
So what part of the data recovery process should I pay for? 
If the prognosis is bad, you don’t feel like you trust the data recovery company, or the fee is far greater than the value of the data / you’re willing to pay, ask them to return your media and walk away. 
You should be under zero pressure to proceed, or pay for anything up to this point. If you are now asked for evaluation money or feel pressurised in any way, see that as a red flag. A legit company wouldn’t do this. 
If, on the other hand, you’re getting a good vibe, the engineer feedback is positive, and the fixed price for recovery is reasonable and affordable, well now is the time to commit to the recovery fee. After all, they’ve gotta make their money somehow, right? Just be sure to avoid any hidden additional costs and stand firm on the no data, no fee promise. 
Is there any last value to be had here? 
Well, if the recovery is not 100%, or you are unsure as to whether or not the files you need are guaranteed to open, ask the data recovery company to do this for you – either send some sample files for you to check before you pay, or have them open some and confirm all is good. After all, the service only has value if you get the data back that you need… 

Free data recovery via insurance. 

One last point to make here is insurance, and there are two angles to consider. 
Firstly, are you insured for data loss? Increasingly household and business insurance covers costs associated with data recovery, and it might well be worth checking / making a claim to cover these costs. 
Cyber-attack and ransomware policies are much more common now too, so depending on the nature of the data loss you might be covered. 
Secondly, is your data recovery covered by a specific data recovery plan? 
Some companies buy company-wide data protection products to more ably predict the cost to the business of these unforeseen events, so check with your IT manager. And depending on where you bought your device, some extended home warranties have provisions for data recovery too. 
So that monthly fee you’ve been paying for protection (that you’ve meant to cancel since the day you bought your laptop but never got around to it), well maybe now it is time for that investment to shine! 
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