Find files you thought you’d lost forever

Over the years files can easily get lost on your PC. Here’s how to identify
mystery fi les and unearth missing ones

It’s rare to run out of storage space on
our computers these days. Th e hard
disks are now so generous that it’s
more common to lose items stored on
our PCs than to run out of disk space in
which to save them. Part of the problem is
that we routinely download files, but they
don’t always end up where we expect
them to. You might have a Downloads
folder you regularly check, but many
programs store associated downloads in
their own folders or in hidden places that
Windows Explorer doesn’t usually reveal.
Photos, music and videos you import
from your camera or phone ought
to end up somewhere obvious, but
proprietary file formats can make
it harder to work out whether that
unintelligible file name is the video
clip you were looking for or
something else entirely. There are
so many file types and few programs
that will open everything doesn’t help.
However, the files that you thought
you’d lost probably aren’t missing at all.
They’re just hidden in plain sight.
Here’s how to fi nd, identify and open
assorted files scattered across the vast
swathes of your PC’s hard disk and

Find files you thought you’d lost forever


Restore files you didn’t intend to

Files you delete aren’t deleted at all.
They’re simply sent to the Recycle Bin. To
restore a file that has only just been
deleted press Ctrl and Z while in Explorer
or the Desktop.
Files stay in the Recycle Bin until it is
manually emptied. To browse all deleted
files, double-click the Recycle Bin on the
Desktop. In Windows Explorer type ‘recycle bin’ into the address
bar at the top. You can also open
the Recycle Bin by pressing
Windows key and R and typing
‘shell:recyclebinfolder’ in the Run
box. Click OK.
To restore a file from the Recycle
Bin, right-click it and choose
Restore. To see the original
location of a deleted fi le, rightclick anywhere within the right
Explorer pane, choose ‘Group by’,
Original Location. Choose Group
by, Date, Size, Name or Date of
deletion to search by these criteria

Recover deleted files from a USB drive or SD card

USB drives, camera memory cards, CDs
and DVDs do not have a Recycle Bin. Files
you delete from any of them are instantly
deleted. If you need to undelete a file that
was stored on a removable drive use
Recuva ( This free tool
can often recover files even if they are
damaged or the storage drive has since
been formatted. Recuva works on
computer hard disks too. There is more
chance of success if Recuva is used
immediately after the problem occurs. The
files it finds should always be recovered to
a different drive.

Recover deleted files from a USB drive or SD card

Recover unsaved Word files
Versions of Microsoft Office 2007 onwards
have AutoSave and AutoRecover features
that automatically save documents if the
computer crashes. The next time you start
Word, or another office program, you’ll see
your recovered documents in a separate
pane on the left of the main screen. These
files can be retrieved by clicking to open
them and then saving them. Depending on
your Office preferences, unsaved
documents may be opened automatically
when you restart the program after a crash.
To increase the frequency of these
automatic saves, go to Options (first
click the Office button in 2007/2010
versions, or File in 2013), click Save then
set a time in ‘Save AutoRecover
information every x minutes’.

Recover deleted files from a USB drive or SD card

In Office 2010 and 2013, tick ‘Keep the
last autosaved version if I close without
saving’. The most recent auto-saved version
of your document will be opened the next
time the program is run.
Other programs you install may have
similar recovery features. If so, the help file
or options menu should state how to
recover your unsaved documents.

Restore a previous version of a

In the Business and Ultimate editions of
Vista and all editions of Windows 7 there’s
an option to restore an older version of a
file or folder. It
does this using
System Restore.
Windows saves a
version of your
documents every
time a System
Restore point is
created, which is
usually daily.
To find these
previous versions
right-click any
file or folder in
Explorer, choose Properties, Previous
Versions. Select the file version you want
to restore, click Open, Copy or Restore. If
you choose Copy you can save the earlier
version to a different location. If you
choose Restore, Windows replaces the
current version of the file with the older
If you have Vista Home you can instead
use the free Shadow Explorer program
( to access
previous versions of your documents.
In Windows 8, File History regularly
saves copies of files to a partition, external
drive or network folder. To configure this,
go to Control Panel, ‘Save backup copies of
your files with File History’, Turn On, then
follow the instructions given.
Find out where a file was saved
Windows’ list of recently opened
documents can often help find a missing
file. Even if the file has been moved, the
recent document list may show its name,
which helps when
searching for
it. You’ll find the
Recent Items list (My
Recent Documents
in XP) on the Start
menu in XP, Vista or
7. In Windows 7 and
8, recent documents
are also shown in
the Jump List of any
program pinned to
the Taskbar.
Right-click its
Taskbar icon
to show this.
Recent files are
also often shown
within programs.
Try opening the
program the file
Recuva can even restore files from formatted memory cards
Increase Word’s Autosave frequency to increase the chance of recovering
was created in and see whether it is listed
in the File menu. Many programs
remember where the last file was saved. If
you can’t remember where you saved a
file, create a new document, click Save
and see where the program tries to save it.
Your missing document may well be
saved there too.

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Find files in any location

Windows Search is very useful for finding
misplaced files. It was introduced with
Windows Vista. Windows Explorer has a
search box at the top right that searches
in the current location, as shown in the
address bar. It will also search any
subfolders in that location. To search the
entire computer, select Computer in the
left-hand navigation pane. If you know
the rough location (Documents, for
example), choose this instead to narrow
down the search.
It is much easier if you know the name
of the file, but you can also search by file
type. In Windows 7 or 8, type ‘kind’ in the
search box and choose a document type
from the dropdown list. In Vista, search
first for *.* (this means ‘all files’). Next,
click Search Options, Search Pane. You’ll
now see a menu bar showing common
file types.

Find anything in XP

XP’s search feature is not particularly
good. Click Search on the Start menu,
then follow the wizard. Unless you click
‘All files and folders’, XP’s Search tool will
only look for the contents of files. To
overcome, choose a file type, click ‘Use
advanced search options’, then type the
search term in the ‘All or part of the
document name’ box. To search in hidden
folders, click ‘More advanced options’,
‘Search hidden files and folders’.

Find anything in XP

You will get better search results in XP
using the free Everything (www.voidtools.
com). This is amazingly fast and can find
any file on the computer. It starts by
showing you a list of all files, then
narrows down the list as you type details
into the Search box at the top. To find a
particular file type, click Search
and select a file type from the menu. To
see where a file is stored right-click it and
choose Open Path.
Everything also works well in Vista, 7
and 8.
Find files without knowing
what they’re called
If you can’t remember a file name, but
know the approximate date it was saved,
try search by ‘date modified’. In XP, open
Search, click All files and folders, then
‘When was it modified?’. To show all files
created during a certain period, use an
asterisk (*) as the search term. If you
know the file extension, this will speed
up the search. For example, type *.doc* to
look for all Word documents.
In Vista, choose the search area from
the left pane, narrowing it down as much
as possible. It’s a good idea to start by
selecting your user name as this ensures
only documents you’ve created will be
shown. The newest files will be shown at
the top. In Windows 7 or 8, search across
all Libraries by clicking Libraries in the
navigation pane. Enter *.*in the search
box. Again, results will be sorted by date.
Search for files by
what you’ve written
Windows can search the text
of any files containing text.
This feature isn’t reliable in
Windows XP. If you can’t
remember the location or file
name, but remember an
unusual word or phrase in
the document, try searching
for this. Enter your keyword
in place of a filename. It
works surprisingly often.
Search non-indexed files
A file usually needs to be stored in an
indexed location for Windows to search its
contents. The standard indexed locations
are the default folders in My Documents,
Music, Videos and all Libraries in Windows
7 and 8. To get Windows to broaden this
search, open Explorer in Vista or 7, click
Organize on the menu, choose Folder and
Search Options, Search, then tick ‘Always
search file names and contents’. To include
hidden and system folders in searches, tick
‘Include system directories’. To search
within compressed files, tick ‘Include
compressed files’.
In Windows 8, open File Explorer, then
click the Search tab. Click Advanced
Options, and tick ‘File contents’ and
‘Zipped (compressed) folders’ in the
Non-indexed locations section.
Find Windows 8 files faster
In Windows 8, files can be searched from
the Start screen. Press the Windows key
and Q, then Files. Type in a search term.
Use partial names if you can’t remember
the full file name. The results will appear
grouped by file type. Click
on a heading to see all the
files of that type.


Turn on file
The letters that appear after
the full stop in a file name
are its file extension. They
denote its format. For
example, Document.txt
has a file extension of ‘.txt’,
which is a text file type.
Windows hides these file
extensions in Explorer, but
it’s useful to show them
when trying to identify
files. In XP, Vista or 7, press the Windows
key and R, type ‘control folders’, OK. Click
View and untick ‘Hide extensions for
known file types’. Windows 8 has a box
labelled ‘File name extensions’ on the View
tab of File Explorer. Toggle this on and off
to show or hide file extensions.
Identify unknown file extensions
A number of websites list file extensions
and the programs needed to open them.
Try and www. The Wolfram Alpha
search engine
also provides a useful list. Type any
extension into the search box (including
the full stop), then press Enter. You will
now see a summary of what each file type
is and a list of programs that can open it.
Some file extensions are used by lots of
programs (for example, .bak is often used
to denote temporary or backup copies of
files) so you may need to confirm the
suggested file type at one of the other sites
we mention. This should provide a
consensus for uncommon file types.


Identify files with no extension
If a file has no file extension, it could be
because it has been accidentally deleted. It
could also indicate a malicious file, so
make sure your security software is up to
date before opening it.
Notepad or the free Notepad++ (http://, can identify many
unknown files. Open the file in one of
these programs and there will sometimes
be a text reference to the name of the
program that created the file at the
top or bottom.
If you think the file may be a video
or photo, the free GSpot (www. maybe able to open
it. GSpot needs no installation.
Download the zip file, extract the
contents to a folder, then doubleclick the Gspot.exe file. Click File,
Open and browse to the unidentified
file. Details about the file type will
appear in the window. Using our
table of file extensions, rename the
file correctly to see whether this
Choose a default
program for a file
To change the program associated
with a certain file, right-click the file
in XP, Vista or 7, choose Open With,
‘Choose default program’ (in XP it’s
‘Choose Program’). Select the program
from the list.
In XP, Vista and 7 there’s also a useful
option to ‘Look for the appropriate
program on the web’. This opens a
Microsoft webpage showing details of the
file type and suggestions on how to open
Manage all file types
To manage all file types, in Vista or 7 click
Default Programs on the Start menu and
click ‘Associate a file type or protocol with
a specific program’. In Windows 8, open
Control Panel, click Programs, ‘Make a file
type always open in a specific program’.
Choose a file type, then Change Program.
Compatible installed programs will be
shown, so simply choose one.
To see files by type in XP open Explorer,
click Tools, Folder Options, File Types.
Click a file type, click Change and choose a
program. Choose a program from the
Recommended Programs section, as those
in the Other Programs section may not be
able to open the file.


There are thousands of file extensions and
formats, so we can’t possibly cover them
all, but here is a list of some commonly
encountered file types, split into categories.
Documents and text
.csv Comma-separated variable text
.doc, .dot Word documents and templates
.docx, .dotx, .docm, .dotm Word
document and templates (2007 onwards)
.html HTML web page
.odpOpenOffice presentation
.odsOpenOffice spreadsheet
.odtOpenOffice Document
.pdfAdobe Acrobat
.ppt, .ppsPowerPoint
presentations and slideshows
.pptx, .ppsxPowerPoint
presentations and slideshows (2007
.rtf Rich Text Format document .txtPlain text
.wbk Word backup file
.wksLotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet
.wpd Word Perfect document
.xls, .xlt Excel spreadsheets and templates
.xlsx, .xlst, .xlm Excel spreadsheet (2007
.xml XML web page
.xps Windows XPS Viewer
.bmpBitmap image
.dib Bitmap image
.gifGIF image
.ico Windows icon file
.jpg, .jpeg, .jpe, .jfif JPEG image
.pngPortable Network
Graphics image
.psd Adobe Photoshop image
.raw RAW camera image
.svg Scalable Vector Graphics image
.tgaTarga image
.tif, .tiffTIFF imagev
Audio files
.aacApple audio
.aiff, .aif Apple Audio Interchange Format
.asx Windows Media audio stream
.fla, .flac FLAC uncompressed audio
.m4aApple audio
.mp3 MP3 compressed audio
.ogg OGG Vorbis compressed audio
.ra, .ram Real Player audio
.wav WAV uncompressed audio
.wma Windows Media Audio
Video files
.3gpMobile video
.avi Audio-video interleave video
.flvFlash video
.mkvMatrushka video
.mov Apple Quicktime video
.mp4MPEG-4 video
.mpg, .mpegMPEG-2 video
.vobDVD video
.wtv Windows Media Center recorded
Other files
.zip ZIP compressed file
.rar RAR compressed file
.7z 7-Zip compressed file
.cab Windows CAB compressed file
.bak Backup or temporary files
.tmpTemporary files

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Show all Most Helpful Highest Rating Lowest Rating Add your review
  1. Finally a site I agree with. I have read some real rubbish today, so it’s a treat to read something useful. However I am using Remo Recover for a very long time until now its working well. Anyhow thanks for the info. I am grabbing the feed of your site.

  2. Can i recover unsaved .wma file. My computer got crashed in between an imp recording that i was doing. Please advice. This is a very important recording that i'm afraid might have lost.

    • Sorry. I don't knows if your file was store in hard drive ? Or if your file wasn't finish, when you produce it to wma, your computer crash and it doesn't complete, your file can't play. In this case, i think you should, open the software you use for recording or contact the company of this software. If it exist in hard drive, but can't open, i thinks you should use some software for repair wma file.

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