Utility software

Roundup: 6 Data Recovery Tools for Portable Storage

As USB thumb drives and memory cards get larger and cheaper, it's getting easier to trust much more of your data to them. It's also much easier to mistakenly erase data or have them hiccup on you. And if you're in the habit of holding on to that data for too long -- for example, not transferring photos from your camera's memory card -- disaster is almost guaranteed to strike at some point. What happens then?

While there's no end of data recovery software packages out there, most of them are primarily designed to reclaim data from system drives. In this roundup, I look at the following six packages in terms of how well they recover data from mobile storage such as flash drives and memory cards: CardRecovery, PhotoRec, Recover My Files, Recuva, Remo Recover and Undelete 360.

Mobile storage devices can pose their own challenges for data recovery tools. A damaged device with no proper partition data might not mount correctly, making it impossible to use with tools that require a drive letter. Memory cards used in cameras can have data stored on them in oddball formats, such as Canon's CR2 raw-image format, a custom variant of the TIF format.

How We Tested

For testing, I used two storage devices: a Transcend 8GB SDHC card (Class 6) and an 8GB Kingston DataTraveler flash drive. Both were formatted as FAT32 and loaded with 5.8GB of files, a mixture of image files in multiple formats (JPG, GIF, PNG, Photoshop), audio files (variable bit-rate MP3), Microsoft Office documents, ZIP archives and PDF files.

I tested them using the Windows versions of these recovery apps. (Some of these products also offer versions for other platforms, which I didn't test; these are noted at the top of each review.) Tests involved selectively erasing and recovering files, and attempting to recover all files after a quick format (one where only the directory information is erased, not each block on the disk).

CardRecovery

  • WinRecovery Software
  • Price: $39.95
  • OS: Windows 98 and later. (CardRescue available for Mac OS X)

CardRecovery is the most focused of the applications reviewed here: It exists mainly to recover files from memory cards used in cameras. The only file types it works with are JPG and RAW-format image files, and video and audio files (e.g., AVI, MPG, MOV, MP3, WAV). It will not search for documents, archive formats, some image formats (such as Photoshop or PNG) and other day-to-day file types.

CardRecovery

On the plus side, CardRecovery offered the best detection of CR2 files I found. In addition, its wizard interface made the recovery process quite easy. To begin a scan, just enter a drive letter, a camera brand (optional) and/or a file type (also optional), and a destination folder in which to save the recovered files.

The results of the scan are shown incrementally, although there's no preview mode during the scan, which makes it harder to tell if a given file is in fact what you're looking for without stopping the scan. A full scan of each of my 8GB devices took just under 10 minutes.

Once the scan's complete, you can preview JPGs (but only JPGs) and the program window can't be resized, so you can't ever see more than six thumbnails on the screen at once. This makes it a little harder to deal with RAW-format files, especially since file names aren't recovered: It might be easier to just recover everything and sort it out later.

Because CardRecovery can only work with devices that have a drive letter, it may not be of much use if you're dealing with a card whose partition information is damaged and therefore can't be assigned a drive letter. (PhotoRec, in contrast, can work with any device even if there's no partition data.)

CardRecovery offers a free trial version that will scan media and find lost files, but you must buy the full version to recover them.

Bottom line

If quickly recovering data from cameras is a priority, CardRecovery might be well worth the $40. Since the trial version allows you to preview recovered files, you can try that first to see if it suits your needs.

PhotoRec

  • Christophe Grenier
  • Price: Free
  • OS: DOS, Windows 98 and later, Mac OS X, Linux (2.4 /2.6 kernel)

In some ways, PhotoRec is the most powerful application in this review. It can recover files from almost any device -- whether or not it's mounted with a drive letter, has a partition or is even formatted. PhotoRec has editions for multiple platforms: Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. And its creator claims it can detect and recover more than 390 types of files, and not just photos, as the name might imply. However, its very Spartan interface may be off-putting to users who expect a slick graphic interface.

PhotoRec

When you launch PhotoRec, you're given a list of all the available storage devices in the system: hard drives, attached removable drives or loaded card bays -- but not networked drives. Choose a device and a partition, set your search options (the defaults work fine for basic recovery), pick a place to save the recovered files to and the rest is pretty automatic.

A recovery pass can be halted and resumed later if need be, especially if the time estimate for recovery (which is gratifyingly accurate) runs into hours. A full scan of each of my 8GB devices only took about 10 minutes, although the "unformat" option (see below) easily doubled that.

Recovery searches can be performed on either the space marked as free or on the entire drive, regardless of what files already exist. One feature that goes hand in hand with this is the "unformat" function, which analyzes the entire drive for file system structures instead of simply looking block-by-block for valid files. This is useful if you want to recover directories instead of just files (although for the most part I was happy just to get the files back).

It's even possible to recover from a device whose partitions have been damaged or which has bad directory information. You can also add your own custom file types to the program if you're looking for files that aren't in PhotoRec's dictionary of signatures.

PhotoRec restored everything I was looking for, although file names weren't recovered and CR2 files weren't saved unless I enabled an expert option to save "broken" files (possibly because they were seen as damaged TIF files). Also, even though PhotoRec runs on Windows, don't expect a GUI: it has a command-line interface.

You also need to pay close attention to each of the available menu choices, since some of the most crucial options are not obvious. Finally, the online documentation isn't what it could be -- options like the FAT32 unformat command, for instance, aren't clearly explained there.

Bottom line

The lack of a graphical user interface for PhotoRec may be intimidating for some, but the sheer power and flexibility of the program can't be denied. I recommend that advanced users start here; they won't regret the extra effort needed to make the most of the program.

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