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TECH Q&A

How do I retrieve a lost file?

By Shawna Cobb, Boulder, Colorado

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Ack! I was modifying data in a very complex Excel spreadsheet for a good part of the day and now...I can't find it! I'm always very careful to press the "save" button every five minutes or so, but where did it go? It can't have just disappeared, right? Help!

Expert Bio Picture

Tech Expert Chris Pirillo President, Lockergnome.com

Expert Answer:

You'd be surprised at how often this happens -- I get this a lot.

So you've typed your fingers to the bone and the light of the monitor has burned your retinas with images of numbers and calculations. Many long hours of work accomplished, you save it all and shut down the computer, planning on continuing after a good night's sleep.

The next morning, with a mug of coffee the size of a school bus in hand, you boot up and search for yesterday's work. And you keep searching, because it's nowhere to be found! Your field of vision narrows to pinpoints as cold panic washes over you.

The logical part of your brain is trying to calm down the runaway train that the rest of your senses have become, because it knows for a fact that you were careful to frequently save your work in spite of what looks like evidence (a whole lotta nothin') to the contrary.

I'm going to side with that logical part of your brain and advise you not to panic. As long as you pressed that save button, didn't get any error messages for your trouble, and your hard drive still boots up, that data is somewhere on this side of oblivion. Take a deep breath -- that data isn't as much of a needle in a haystack as you may think.

Remember, files that you create (or edit or view) exist independently from the programs that were used to create or modify them. This is why you can exchange files with people through email without having to include entire applications. And while most applications have default folders where the files they create (such as the Excel spreadsheet mentioned above) are saved, the path to such a folder may have been changed (by you or another user, either accidentally or on purpose). This is likely the reason your mischievous file has gone missing like a tax cheat on the quick train to Disappearsville.

If you're using Windows, the most obvious solution to finding lost files would seem to be by using its built-in search features. Sadly, XP's search is lackluster and Vista had its chance to wow us with some major improvement in this area and... didn't.

A couple of third-party applications rose to fill in this mournfully neglectful gap, however. The Google Desktop search tool is as speedy and accurate as its far-famed online search engine, though some people are alarmed by a persistent (and reeking of hogwash) rumor that it potentially compromises user privacy.

Me? I just happen to prefer the alternative: a peppy little search utility called Copernic. It's amazing. Free, easy, and complete -- everything you'd want in a desktop search tool. Nothing has beaten it in all these years that I've known about it. It's simply impossible to top on the Windows platform.

If you're on a Mac and using OS X, Spotlight comes with your operating system and is actually quite useful -- I'd even go as far as to say it's awesome.

Still, we all like having options, and you've also got HoudahSpot (shareware) and Quicksilver (open source) if you want to try something a little different from the default.

Then again, maybe you just saved that errant file directly onto your desktop? You'd be surprised at how often this happens -- quite frequently.

Anyone out there have any other suggestions for efficient ways to find those hard-to-reach files that I missed? Drop me a line and I'll pass it on.

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