6 data recovery tools for SD cards, USB drives and more

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.

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.

Best practices for recovering data from mobile drives

Restoring data from USB drives and memory sticks comes with some of the same caveats as any other data-restoration effort. Here are a few useful tips:

Use write protection. To prevent further accidental destruction of data, mobile storage devices should be mounted as read-only whenever possible before you attempt any recovery operations. SD cards typically have a write-protect switch, which makes it easier to protect them before attempting a recovery operation. Removable USB drives are a stickier wicket, since Windows does not have a way to manually mount their file systems as read-only. There is a Registry setting that works with Windows XP SP2 and higher; it forces all USB mass-storage devices into read-only mode. (Note that any program that expects the device being recovered to be writable, such as Remo Recover, may balk at this.)

Be patient. If you're using a program that supports deep scanning at the cost of a slower recovery process, use it. The speed of this type of scan depends on your system's CPU rather than its I/O, as most of the work involves matching file signatures and checking for false positives. If you're in a hurry, run a deep scan using the fastest machine you have access to.

Remember to use the "Safely Unplug Hardware" option. Memory cards and sticks generally tolerate immediate removal, but do yourself a favor and remember to safely eject these devices before removing them, just to be sure. This cuts down on the possibility that data will be lost in the first place.

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.

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.

Recover My Files

GetData

Price: $69.95 (Standard); $99.95 (Pro); $299 (Technician). Free trial available (only previews files)

OS: Windows 98 and later

Recover My Files comes in a few different iterations. The version I reviewed ($69.95) helps you recover a variety of file types from conventional FAT/NTFS partitions; there are also Pro ($99.95) and Technician ($299) versions that both add HFS and RAID support. The Technician version also includes a USB hardware dongle that activates the software. If you only need to restore image files, GetData also offers a $39.95 app called Recover My Photos.

On startup, Recover My files gives you two choices: recover individual files or recover files from a whole drive (for example, one with damaged partitions). The former simply scans directory structures for evidence of deleted files; the latter deep-scans the whole file system and attempts to reconstruct lost partitions or directory structures.

What's great about the deep scan is it's tunable. The default version of the scan looks for common file types such as images, documents and music. The most intense scan runs more slowly and may turn up more false positives, but it tries to match a much broader -- albeit less widely used -- range of file types, such as database files or fonts. If you want, you can speed up the search by concentrating on specific file types if you know what you're looking for. (There's a version of this same feature in PhotoRec, but it's made a lot more accessible here.)

Files found during the scan will show up in a directory tree, with previews if available, on the left side of the application window. If the files you're looking for show up early in the process, you can abort the scan and just recover what you need. A "Search" tab also lets you ferret out files by various criteria, including data inside a given file such as a key phrase.

Once you've tagged the files to be recovered, they can be saved to any other device, with issues that came up during the save (path names being too long, files automatically renamed because of collisions, etc.) tabulated at the end.

It took 9 minutes and 18 seconds to scan my 8GB memory card and flash drive, but that was with only the most basic file-recovery options enabled. If I wanted to recover my CR2 files, I needed to widen the search to include those, because the CR2 format wasn't in the default file set. That scan took about 18 minutes. Scanning for all possible file types supported by the program slowed the search down to 2 hours, 18 minutes (so you can see how a focused scan saves time).

Bottom line

The high price tag for GetData's Recover My Files is a bit off-putting, but the program did an admirable job of scouring and recovering files from my test media -- as long as you don't mind being patient while waiting for the best possible results.

Recuva

Piriform

Price: Free; home ($24.95) and business ($34.95) support available

OS: Windows XP and later

Say the name out loud: It's pronounced like "recover" -- which is exactly what this snappy little program does, and in a highly automated way. The free version of Recuva is full-featured but doesn't include any type of support. Piriform sells support to home users for $24.95, and it offers a business-support license for $34.95.

When first launched, Recuva starts in wizard mode, which prompts you with basic questions about what you're trying to restore -- a specific type of file, a specific drive, or even a specific type of drive -- and then gets to work. It took about 10 minutes to scan my 8GB card and I was able to run the scan unobtrusively in the background.

After the scan, Recuva presents you with a very detailed breakdown of what files were found. Click on any file and you'll be given detailed information about it -- how healthy the file was (i.e., whether or not it was partly overwritten), a hex dump of its header information, and even a preview for certain supported file types such as JPGs. Files to be recovered can also be browsed as thumbnails, which is handy if you're looking for one image among many. Note that file names are generally not recovered; the resulting files are given arbitrary names and have to be renamed manually.

Advanced options allow you to recover files that haven't been deleted -- e.g., from damaged drives -- or to try to restore the original folder structure of the source media. Recuva can also securely erase files found during a recovery operation, a handy way to make sure a given file has been properly destroyed if you're concerned about security.

All the test files I looked for were recovered, although Recuva interpreted my CR2 files as TIF images. It still recovered them properly, though, and they were fine once renamed.

Bottom line

The wizard-guided interface for Recuva makes the recovery process a snap. The quality of the program's file recovery and the price (free) make it a solid choice for the average Windows user.

Remo Recover (Windows)

Remo Software

Price: $39 (Basic); $49 (Media); $99 (Pro). Free trial available (only previews files)

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