Data Recovery from a Re-Formatted exFAT/FAT Disk

More and more drives are using the exFAT file system. With better cross-platform support than NTFS and greater flexibility than FAT32, exFAT is the de facto file system for SD cards over 32GB and is quickly becoming a popular default choice for mobile platforms and external hard drives as well. To meet the growing need for data recovery capabilities with the latest file systems, R-Studio comes fully equipped with the ability to recover data from an exFAT disk.

In this article, we'll walk you through a typical exFAT data recovery scenario. Because exFAT disks are often used in portable or removable storage, they are susceptible to accidental deletion or reformatting to another file system. For this walkthrough, we'll show you how to get your files back after an exFAT partition was deleted and then recreated in the same place on the drive.

Important Notes Before We Begin
This article only applies to exFAT or FAT formatted devices. If you need to recover data from other disks, see our other articles:

The major differences between exFAT and FAT are:

    The exFAT file system is usually used on large (64+ GB) memory cards and USB sticks, and on external hard drives in a multi-platform environment, as all major OS provide full access to exFAT devices.
  • The FAT file system is usually used on smaller (up to 32+ GB) memory cards and USB sticks. It may also be used on smaller hard drives (40 to 50 GB, or less).

Your disk is in good physical condition
We presume that your disk is in good physical shape. If not, it's best to seek out the services of a professional data recovery specialist. Beyond checking that the cables are firmly connected, any "do it yourself" data recovery efforts may actually worsen your chances of recovering the data if your disk has a serious physical malfunction. Signs that a disk has a physical failure include:

  • The system does not recognize the device at all, or it appears with an unusual or garbled name.
  • A S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology) utility warns that a severe hardware failure event has occurred. R-Studio can check S.M.A.R.T. conditions of your disk, and we explain how to do that below.
  • The hard drive makes unusual noises, clicks, or takes a very long time to spin up and initialize.
  • Bad blocks continually appear on the drive.

All these cases are best handled by qualified data recovery professionals. They have special equipment, software, and, most importantly, the required skills to work with such drives. Neither R-Studio nor other data recovery software will help you in such cases. Moreover, any further tampering with such a drive will surely inflict more damage to your data. Quite often, such damage will render the data completely irrecoverable.

And one last reminder...
Do not write anything on the disk from which you're going to recover data! The new data may overwrite your old files, and you may lose them for good.

Test Disk Setup: Initial Folder Structure and Files on the Drive
To show you the recovery process, we prepared a test disk with a typical set of user files that may be on an external exFAT disk, scattered over a certain folder structure:

Documents:

  • Archives: .zip files created in WinZip
  • PDFs: .pdf files created in Adobe Acrobat
  • Microsoft Office: .doc and .docx files created in Word; .xls and .xlsx files created in Excel
  • OpenOffice: .odt and .docx files created in Writer; .ods and .xlsx files created in Calc

Multimedia:

  • Music: .mp3 files
  • Pictures: .jpg and .png files
  • Video: .avi, .flv, .m4v, .mov, .mp4, .mpeg, .mts, and .mkv files.

The root folder of the test disk is shown in Fig. 1.
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Fig.1: Root folder of the test disk
Click image to enlarge

After setting up the files, we simulated a disk re-format. To do this, we took our exFAT disk and deleted the exFAT partition. Then, we recreated it in the same space on the disk using the Disk Management tool in Windows. Upon doing this, the disk will initially appear completely blank.

Data recovery process
Preliminary preparation:

  • Before you begin, prepare a storage place large enough to store all recovered files. It may be any disk visible by the operating system including an external or network drive. Do not try to save the files on the disk from which you're going to recover them.
  • If you haven't already, download and install R-Studio. Right now, it is not necessary to buy and register the program. R-Studio in its demo mode allows you to perform all the necessary data recovery operations, except saving the recovered files. This lets you see if it can successfully recover your files and therefore, if it's worth buying. You will not have to re-install or restart R-Studio to register it.
    Note: We'll use the Windows version of R-Studio to show the process of data recovery, but these directions are fully applicable to the Mac and Linux versions of R-Studio. The panels and dialog boxes will have a different look and feel, but the functionality is the same.
  • Connect the disk to the R-Studio computer. Use the fastest interface available: the SATA ports are the fastest, but the speed of USB 3.0 is sufficient. USB 2.0 may be too slow for large disks. Please note that many external USB drives have additional eSATA interfaces.

1. Start R-Studio and locate the re-formatted disk (the test disk) and the disk intended to store recovered files (the storage disk).
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Fig.2: R-Studio main panel with the re-formatted disk
Click image to enlarge

Before proceeding, check the S.M.A.R.T. attributes for the reformatted disk:

  • If the health status is CAUTION, there may be minor problems with the disk, but it should be safe to use the disk for data recovery purposes. The problems are likely to worsen, so check the S.M.A.R.T. parameters periodically to ensure that the health status hasn't gone to BAD. Creating an image of the disk is recommended, but this will require additional storage space.
  • If the health status is BAD, the disk conditions are critical and chances of hardware failure are high. The best recommendation for this case is to stop working with the disk and bring it to professional data recovery specialists. You may continue to work with the disk at your own risk, but disk imaging is very strongly recommended.

If the S.M.A.R.T. attributes of the disk are OK, we can start data recovery.

2. Select the re-formatted disk and click the Scan button. The Scan dialog box will appear.
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Fig.3: Disk scan dialog box
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Since we know the file system we are trying to recover from, we can improve R-Studio's results and performance by specifying the file system of the re-formatted disk. Click the Change... button next to File Systems and leave only the FAT/exFAT file system selected. Also, it's a good idea to save scan info for the disk in case you have to stop data recovery and resume it later. The next time you open the disk in R-Studio, you won't have to re-scan the disk, you can simply reload the scan information from the previous session.

Check that the Extra search for Known File Types option is selected and click the Known File Types... button.
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Fig.4: Known File Types dialog box
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Specify only those file types that you believe resided on the deleted disk. The best way to do that is to click the Clear button and then select the necessary types in the list. Then click the OK button and return to the Scan dialog box. Click the Scan button.

R-Studio will start scanning the disk showing the progress.
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Fig.5: Disk scan in progress
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4. Inspect the scan results and find the recognized partition which corresponds to the deleted disk.
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Fig.6: Scan results
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In our case, this is the Recognized2 partition.

If other partitions once were on the disks, R-Studio may find them. You will have to determine which of the recognized partitions is the one you are looking for. In most cases, the partition you are attempting to recover will be the same size as the existing logical disk. See R-Studio online help for more details: Data Recovery Using R-Studio.

5. Double-click the Recognized2 partition. R-Studio will enumerate files on it and show the folder tree.
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Fig.7: Files and folders found on the deleted disk
Click image to enlarge

6. Inspect the folders and files on this partition. These are remnants of the file system that existed on the deleted disk.
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Fig.8: Files and folders from the Documents folder
Click image to enlarge

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Fig.9: Files and folders from the Music and Video folders
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Fig.10: Files and folders from the Photos folder
Click image to enlarge

If you are searching for a particular file or set of files, you can use the advanced find and mark capabilities of R-Studio. See R-Studio help for more details: Searching for a File.

As you see, we could not find files from the root folder of the deleted disk, which is typical when an exFAT or FAT disk that has been re-formatted. That means that the information about those files (the meta-information) is no longer left on the disk, but the content of the files is most likely still recoverable. R-Studio can find the files by using a Search for Known File Types (raw file recovery using file signatures). The program places such files in the Extra Found Files section. So, we'll try to find them there.
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Fig.11: Files found by their file signatures
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When files are found using only this method, their filenames and timestamps cannot be recovered. Also it's impossible to recover the folder tree they were in. But the content of the file can usually be recovered in its entirety.

If you see a file in this section with a correct filename and timestamp, that means that it's also been found in the remnants of the previous file system, and it's not necessary to recover it as part of the raw file recovery process. It will be recovered from the file system remnants with a proper filename, timestamps, and within its folder tree.

7. Use the built-in Previewer to estimate chances for successful data recovery. This is particularly useful with large picture files. Double-click a file to preview it.
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Fig.12: File preview
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If the file appears correctly, you can purchase a license and register R-Studio. Now you may start saving recovered files.

8. Select the files and folders you want to recover and specify the place to store recovered files.
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Fig.13: Files marked for recovery
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If necessary, specify other recover parameters. See R-Studio help for more details. Then, click the Recover Marked button.

R-Studio will start recovering files showing its progress.
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Fig.14: Data recovery process
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When the recovery finishes, R-Studio will show a final report with the recovery results.
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Fig.15: Data recovery results
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Data recovery results
To view the recovered files, browse to the folder where you saved the files from R-Studio's file recovery.

For our test scenario, you can see that almost all the files and folders were correctly recovered with correct filenames and all other their attributes. The only exceptions are files from the root folders, which were correctly recovered, but without their filenames and other attributes. Also the first-level folders in the root folder lost their names.
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Fig.16: Data recovery results
Click image to enlarge

Conclusions
Our test case has proven that R-Studio is an effective tool for recovering data from FAT/exFAT disks after they have been re-formatted or recreated. In our test scenario, we had a 100% success rate in terms of recovering the data from all the files that were on the deleted partition. This success is owed in part to the fact that no new data was written to the disk after the deletion occurred. Your mileage will vary depending on your specific data recovery scenario, but in most cases, a combination of R-Studio's analysis of the previous file system on the disk and a Search for for Known File Types will recover most of the data on the disk. In the latter case, the files and folder names in the root folder may be lost, but the data will be intact.

If you have a FAT or exFAT disk that has been accidentally deleted or reformatted, try performing the steps above in the demo mode of R-Studio. If you can successfully find and preview the files you are looking for, go ahead and register the product to get your files back. As long as your drive is in good physical shape and you do not write any new data to the disk, attempting a data recovery with R-Studio in demo mode is risk-free and can tell you immediately if your data is recoverable.

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