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How to Choose the Best Mac Data Recovery Software?

The top performers in our review are Data Rescue 4, the Gold Award winner; R-Studio for Mac, the Silver Award winner; and Stellar Phoenix Mac Platinum, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing an application to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.

You're having a bad day. You've lost all the photos of your baby. Maybe you've lost critical account info for your business. Perhaps you've lost a 20-page research paper and it's due in the morning. Whatever your reason for visiting our comparative review of Mac data recovery software, it's understandable to feel a sense of panic coming on. Take a deep breath and stop using the device with the lost data, because we have some good news: Depending on when the data was lost, you still have a great chance of recovering it.

Data loss is a real threat for everyone, even Mac users. It can feel endlessly frustrating and disheartening to discover that your files aren't on your computer anymore. Your own personal data loss story can be as tragic as it can be tediously pedestrian. Maybe your story begins in the smoky ashes of a house fire, or maybe it begins with accidentally deleting the wrong folder and emptying the recycle bin. In both cases, recovering all or some of your files is possible. The difference is determining whether the scenario is physical or logical in nature.

Physical data loss occurs when the actual components of your hard drive are damaged or worn out. Physical components are just like any other device. They will wear out and stop working. You hear odd clicking noises coming from the hard drive. The computer doesn't recognize the drive. You dropped your computer or recovered it from a fire, flood or other disaster. In these instances, Mac data recovery software won't help you. You'll need to send your hard drive to a hard drive recovery service so that trained recovery technicians can open the drive in a certified cleanroom. As a result, physical data recoveries are costly, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

Logical data loss occurs when the file path has been removed or corrupted. There's nothing wrong with the physical device; rather, there is something wrong with the logical steps that your operating system uses to access the file. To picture this, imagine that your hard drive is like a giant warehouse that stores all your files. Your operating system is like the warehouse foreman holding a clipboard. The clipboard lists all the locations within the warehouse where every file is stored. However, files aren't stored wholly in one place. They are stored in parts, scattered throughout the warehouse. So when you request a file, the warehouse foreman looks at the directory, pulls the parts from the warehouse and assembles the file for you.

When you delete a file, you're only sending the file path to the recycle bin, not the actual ones and zeros that make up the file. So when you empty the recycle bin, you've removed the file path from the warehouse foreman's directory. The ones and zeros of the file are still in the warehouse, but the foreman simply doesn't know where to look. To make matters worse, when you empty the recycle bin, you're telling the foreman to recycle that space with new data. This is why it's critical that you stop using the hard drive once you've realized that data loss has occurred – the longer you use your computer after experiencing data loss, the chances of successfully recovering data are dramatically diminished.

If the ones and zeros on the drive have been overwritten, the file cannot be recovered. This is the biggest risk to recovering data. To understand this, it's important to know how a hard drive works. When data is written to a standard hard drive, an actuator arm magnetizes or demagnetizes a specific area of the platter. When the area is magnetized, it represents a one. When it is demagnetized, it represents a zero. These ones and zeros are the building blocks to your file. When that specific area of the platter is written to new data, the ones and zeros are changed and the old file is unrecoverable.

To illustrate this point, we created a 5GB partition on a hard drive and filled it with videos, documents and pictures. Then we deleted the data and emptied the recycle bin. To simulate several weeks of continued use of the drive, we added 1GB of music to the partition. Then we tried to recover as much of the original data as possible with each program. It's tempting to assume that only 1GB of the original data is overwritten by the music. After all, five minus one equals four. However, since files are written in blocks randomly spread over the drive, the music is spread over the drive, leaving a very small percentage of files untouched. In fact, none of the software we reviewed successfully recovered more than 0.5 percent of the original data.

Mac data recovery software is like your friend who loves putting puzzles together without the box. The software simply scans your hard drive and tries to put the puzzle back together by looking for patterns among the data. Once the scan finishes, you can preview the results. If the software is good, you'll find all your lost files, reassembled completely as they were, and you can restore the data. No harm. No foul. However, we found that many recovery applications we reviewed are better at recovering photos, while others are better at recovering documents. The best Mac recovery software should have a high success rate with any file type. To learn more, read our articles about Mac data recovery.

Mac Data Recovery Software: What We Tested, What We Found

To test each data recovery software's aptitude for recovering a wide range of file types, we compiled folders of photos, documents, videos and music. In each case, we used a variety of file types. For example, the photos folder contains JPG, TIFF, GIF, PNG and other common picture files, while the document folder includes files common in an office or academic setting, such as DOCX, XLSX and PDF. To ensure that the environment was equal, each test was performed on the same desktop Mac. We performed the tests on a standard hard disk drive, a solid-state drive and a thumb drive. In addition, to account for variables, we performed each test multiple times so that the data represents an average.

It's important to note that a 1 percent difference in the success rate is significant. For reference, 1 percent of a standard 1TB external hard drive is 10GB of data. This can represent the loss of thousands of documents and photos, hundreds of songs, and dozens of movies. In other words, a product with a 99 percent success rate is significantly better than a product with a 98 percent success rate.

Lastly, we had a novice Mac user perform the tests to determine how easy the software is to use during each step in the process. In the vast majority of data recovery situations, not only does the end user have no experience with the recovery software, but they're also using the software in a stressful and frustrating situation. As such, it's important that the entire process be as stress-free and easy as possible. It doesn't matter how powerful an application is if the tools are too complicated for the user. As such, the best Mac data recovery software should balance performance with an intuitive interface.

Lost File Recovery
The most common cause of file loss is simple deletion. The scenario generally goes like this: You've deleted a folder without looking at the contents. Then you emptied the recycle bin. It isn't until later that you realize you actually need some of the files in the folder. In other scenarios, a virus may have corrupted the file path, or maybe your computer crashed while you were working on a paper. To test how well the software recovers lost files, we securely wiped a hard drive, and then added the folders of photos, documents, videos and music. Then we emptied the recycle bin. We scanned the drive and recovered the data with each Mac recovery software program in our review. After the data was recovered, we compared the original folders to the recovered data to determine the recovery percentage.

In many cases, an application would recover a file that appeared to be whole but would result in an error notice when we tried to access the file. Many of the programs recovered videos that, when played, produced a black screen with no audio. With music files, it was common to find more files than were originally on the drive because the software would mistakenly cut a song into hundreds of little snippets. In each of these cases, we only considered files that we could access and compare to the original as a successfully recovered file.

Reformatted Drive Recovery
In this common data loss scenario, you've attached an external hard drive to your Mac or transferred your hard drive to another Mac, but the format doesn't match the operating system. Your Mac asks you to format the drive. You hit OK and the drive is reformatted. The problem is that, when you access the drive, all the data is gone. Similar to the deleted file recovery, the files are still on the drive. Only the paths have been removed and the format changed to the iOS's new architecture. To test this, we simply added the photos, documents, video and music to the drive and reformatted it. Then we scanned the drive with the software to recover the files.

In some cases, the software has a specific "reformatted drive" scanning option. However, with some of the software, this scanning option failed to recover much data at all. In these instances, we scanned the drive again, but we used the deepest scanning option available with the software instead. In every case, this produced better results. As such, the scan that produced the best results was the only data we considered.

Ease of Use
As mentioned at the top of this article, if you're reading this, you've had a bad day. You don't want to use software that is just going to make you more frustrated and angry. It doesn't matter if you're an IT professional or if you struggle to find the power button – the best Mac data recovery software should be intuitive. You should never have to guess what the next step is in the process. As such, we looked closely at the interface of each data recovery application and gauged how easy it was to scan, preview, sort and recover your lost data on it. The best Mac recovery software has no learning curve.

We graded each step of the recovery process, from installation to recovery. We looked for clearly labeled scan and recovery buttons. We favored interfaces with clear definitions under the scanning options. We counted the number of mouse clicks between each step and how long it took a novice user to initialize a scan and a recovery. While it was relatively easy to initialize a scan with most of the programs, the recovery process after the scan proved to be the least intuitive step for most of them. The best recovery software leads you to recovery like a horse to water, while the least intuitive recovery software leaves you feeling like you're in the pilot's chair of a jet plane.

Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison from the companies or through retail purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.

What Else Is Important in Selecting Mac Data Recovery Software?

You might be trying to recover all the data from a 1TB external hard drive, or a single but critically important file from a crashed hard drive. Whatever the case, it's important to consider scan speed and recovery speed, as the sooner you can get your data back, the sooner you can put this unfortunate experience behind you.

Scan Speed
Sorting through all the data on a hard drive takes time. Some software can scan a standard 1TB hard disk drive in about five hours, while the slowest scan we reviewed would take over a week. We didn't find any correlation between scan speed and recovery percentage, so a slower scan doesn't mean that the recovery will be more successful. In fact, a high scanning speed simply means that you'll recover your lost data quicker, which means that you'll be able to put this frustrating ordeal behind you sooner.

We timed multiple scans on HDDs and SSDs. In almost every case, the scan on the SSD was dramatically quicker than the scan on the HDD.

Recovery Speed
Once a scan is complete, you have to recover the data, which means that the software writes the data to a new drive. As with the scan, this takes time. Depending on the amount of data you need to recover, your recovery could take a few hours to several days. The fastest recovery in our review was 300GB per hour on an SSD, which means you can recover a 1TB hard drive in just over three hours. However, the slowest recovery time we reviewed was 17.96GB per hour on an HDD, which means a 1TB hard drive would take almost two and a half days.

Fortunately, with every program we reviewed, you can specify the exact files you want to recover, so you don't have to recover the full drive if you only need a few files. Of course, it's important to note that in almost every case, the file names are going to be strings of unknown numbers. Data Rescue 4 and EaseUs Data Recovery Wizard were the only programs that recovered original file names in our tests, though not always accurately – it wasn't uncommon for a song to have the incorrect band and song name assigned to it. In either situation, you can preview the file before you recover. So if you just need to recover one file, you'll have to comb through the files in the preview.

Help & Support
Data recovery is a stressful and frustrating experience. The best Mac data recovery software comes with exceptional support to make the process as smooth as possible. We looked at how you can contact the support staffs of the manufacturers, whether they had a phone number and live chat options. We also looked at the resources on the developers' websites – tutorials, articles, FAQs and manuals. You should have little trouble receiving the help that you need with the best software.

Mac Data Recovery Software: Our Verdict and Recommendations

The Data Rescue 4 earned our Gold Award for best Mac recovery software because it has an exceptional balance of performance for all file types and ease of use. Your grandmother could use this software in her sleep. It's that easy. R-Studio for Mac earned our Silver Award because of its exceptional performance with all file types, but the interface is complicated and difficult to navigate. It's a bit like going from the driver's seat in a Honda to the cockpit of a jet plane. This is the consumer version of the software that digital forensics officers use to recover data from the computers of bad guys. Stellar Phoenix, our Bronze Award winner, also proved to have exceptional performance, but the scan and recovery speeds were the slowest in our review.

Most of the products we reviewed are around , but if you're strapped for cash, Cisdem DataRecovery is an affordable option at about . It had a success rate of 96 percent of lost photos and 98 percent for photos from a reformatted drive, but it didn't do very well with recovering documents, videos and music. Another downside is the lack of file organization after recovery. Most of the programs recover file types in a file tree, with file type given its own folder, but Cisdem has no organization to the recovery.

In the future, you should consider backing up your computer with online backup services or Mac data backup software. Backing up your computer protects your data and allows you to restore any lost files quickly and with little stress. It doesn't matter if you accidentally deleted files or if your computer was stolen or destroyed – backing up your data can turn a potentially devastating and time-consuming event into a minor distraction. The online backup services often provide infinite storage for a reasonable monthly fee, while backup software generally comes at a one-time cost but requires a second device or computer to store the backed-up version of your data.