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It's a cold day in January, and your car won't start. There's not even a hint of life. Fortunately, with the help of a neighbor's car and a pair of jumper cables, you get the engine rolling again. Similarly, there are tools you can use to restore Mac files you've given up on.

Your best defense against data loss can be summarized in two words: save and backup . If you hit the Save button frequently, you'll probably never lose more than a bit of unsaved data. And if you regularly make backups of your documents to media other than your hard drive, you won't have to worry about losing your backups.

Frequent saves and regular backups will provide a good deal of security, but you can still lose data. For instance, your Mac may crash before you have a chance to save a file, or you may write over a version of a document and then want the original version back. Before you throw up your hands and start over, remember that there's hope for recovering what you've lost.

Which recovery method you use depends on how you lost your data. Here's a guide to determining the right method for your specific circumstances.

Contributing Editor TED LANDAU heads up the MacFixIt Web site ( ) and is the author of Sad Macs, Bombs, & Other Disasters , fourth edition (Peachpit Press, 2000).

1: Overwritten

Suppose you open a previously saved document, make changes to it, and resave it. Too late, you realize that you need that earlier version. You can get it back if you've planned ahead.

If you work in Microsoft Word, the best defense is to use its Versions feature to save each version of a file that you think you may need later. Select Versions from the File menu and click on the Save Now button (A) . When you reopen the document and select the Versions command, you'll get a list of all the versions you stored. Select the one you want and click on the Open button, and you're back in business (B) .

For other applications, utilities such as Aladdin Systems' FlashBack ($30; ) and Power On Software's Rewind ($100; ) can serve the same purpose.

2: Unsaved
When you lose an unsaved file, you may think it's lost forever. There's hope for at least a partial recovery, though, if what you lost was text.

Your recovery chances are greatest if you use a text-capture utility before disaster strikes. For example, the Ghostwriter feature of Casady & Greene's Spell Catcher ($49.95; ) records your keystrokes as you type. To enable it, open the Spell Catcher Preferences dialog box, choose the Ghostwriter tab, and select the Ghostwriter On option (A) .

Then if you lose unsaved text, just find the files containing your unsaved data in the Ghostwriter Files folder. Go to that folder (System Folder: Application Support) and look for the folder with the current date. Inside it will be another folder with the name of the text application you were using (for example, "AppleWorks"); inside that will be one or more files containing your unsaved text. Don't expect miracles - the recovered text is unformatted, and any text you deleted while typing will be interspersed with the text you want. But for times when any recovery is better than none, Ghostwriter does the trick.

If you use Microsoft Word, you have built-in help. It saves copies of open files periodically as long as you use the Auto Recover option (to turn it on, go to Preferences and click on the Save tab). The copies that Word saves are temporary; the program deletes them when you close the file. But if Word crashes or a power failure occurs before you close, all of the Auto Recover files will appear when you relaunch Word.

If disaster strikes before you take any of these precautions, give Thomas Riley's Search & Rescue ($15; ) a try. It scours your Mac's RAM, recovering any text it finds - even from unsaved files. Just enter a phrase from the missing text into Search & Rescue's Text box (B) and click on Search, and the program will list all locations in RAM where it finds that phrase along with some surrounding text (C) .

3: Deleted

You just selected Empty Trash to delete a file, and now you want it back. Don't despair. The file is still there, even though the Finder doesn't show it. But you have to act quickly, or the file will soon be overwritten, never to be seen again.

As before, you'll have the most success if you're prepared. In this case, install and enable either the FileSaver feature of Symantec's Norton Utilities ($102; ) or the Trash Cache feature of Micromat's TechTool Pro ($98; ). (Power On Software's Rewind will also recover deleted files. The product was not available for this article.)

To recover deleted files with Norton Utilities, select UnErase from the window that appears at launch, and then click on the Quick Search button. In the resulting window, look for the name of the file you want back, select it, and click on Recover. Your chances of getting an entire file back are best if you enabled FileSaver before you deleted the file, but UnErase may work even if you didn't.

For TechTool Pro, enable Trash Cache from the TechTool Protection control panel. To recover a lost file, return to the control panel's Trash Cache window, click on the Display Cached Files button (A) , and drag the file you want from the list that appears.

4: Damaged

A file may unexpectedly refuse to open, with your Mac complaining that the file is damaged. If the document can be accessed through more than one application, try them all. One may succeed where the others failed. Otherwise:

Try to import (or place) the contents of the damaged file into a new document. This can work with any application that has an Insert, Import, or Place command. For example, if an AppleWorks document is damaged, try the following: Open a blank word processing document. Choose Insert from the File menu. In the dialog box that appears, select the unusable document, and click on Insert.

If your problem is specific to QuarkXPress, try Markzware's MarkzTools ($190; ). It repairs corrupted QuarkXPress files.

As a last resort, try to salvage text or graphics from a document via a data recovery utility such as Abbott Systems' CanOpener. Launch CanOpener ($65; ) and select the damaged file in the upper left pane of the CanOpener window (A) . A list of the file's text and graphic resources will appear to the right (B) . You can view or recover any item in the list by clicking on its name and then selecting View or Save As from the Item menu.

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