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USB troubles - Problems and Software

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Thomas Zucker-Scharff
Veteran in computer systems, malware removal and ransomware topics.  I have been working in the field since 1985.
I have encountered many instances of people having trouble with their USB thumbdrives.  Some are minor, when the drive is okay but doesn't work in one particular machine, or middling, when their may be some problems or even malware on the drive, others are critical, when someone has something like their only copy of a grant or thesis on the drive and can no longer access it.

I've seen all that and more, but the problem is inevitably, what to do and how to do it.  There are several solutions and most of the time I have found that I can solve the problem and retrieve the data without too much angst.

I have a slew of windows utilities, most freeware, that will take care of almost anything.  My last resort is usually popping the drive into a UNIX based system, like UBUNTU, to bypass any operating system problems.

Let's look at a particular incident.  Some time ago a graduate student came to me frantic because she couldn't see any of her data on her USB drive, which had her thesis on it and hadn't been backed up (don't let me even go there right now).   She asked if I could try to recover whatever I could.  I told her I would try, but not to get her hopes up (I take most of my working cues from the Original Star Trek's Scotty, who said he multiplied his repair estimates by a factor of 4 to maintain his reputation as a miracle worker - see this blog).  I ran a couple of my tools on her drive and in no time had all her files back.  This was a relatively easy one.  When she came back the next day, I gave her back her USB reformatted and the files back on it and a CD with her files.  I also suggested as sternly as I could that she backup her files at least once an hour.  It was especially irksome since she was using a MAC, but had neglected to turn on Time Machine or Time Capsule or whatever it was called back then.

This is the general problem I get.  Every so often you run into one where you need to plug the drive into a UNIX based machine, I have one running just in case, in order to read the drive and back it up.

Then there is the most serious problem, the drive is not only not recognized, but it pops up no error message and no light goes on (if it has one built in).  This drive is basically toast.  The only sure way I have found to get something like that back is to send it out.  There are many reputable places.  Most will give you a quote for free and some will even guarantee recovery.  I have used drivesavers in the past, and they have always come through (but they are expensive).  I did a quick search and found these:
 
A friend of my daughter recently asked her to ask me if I could help her out with a totally defunct USB.  I was never told what data was on it, just that it was really important (probably part of her senior thesis).  I had to give her back the drive, because I was unable to do anything with it (it wasn't even recognized by UBUNTU - the light on the USB never even lit up).

I have had success with many others and recommend the tools below - the first two are ones I prefer more than the others, once you try them you will see why.  Note that the Stellar product should be bought - the trial "free" download only allows you to view what files can be recovered.  I've tried to put some attributes with each one indicating what the operating system requirements are (OS is for Operating System) and what file systems are supported (FS=file systems).  I have also attempted to indicate if the software runs on either 32bit, 64bit or both platforms.  Some of the software links will also have a portable link next to them if that is applicable.  Whatever is indicated, I have run all of these on my Windows 7 x64 box):

Recuva FREE (OS:windows XP,Vista,7,8,8.1 32 and 64 bit) / FS:FAT32,FAT,exFAT,NTFS,SSD,VHD,Ext2,Ext3 Portable:  Recuva is from Piriform and can be completely portable.  It can recover all files ever deleted on a drive, assuming that they have not been over written (that is why one should never, I repeat NEVER, write to a drive you wish to recover information from).  Recuva can run from another USB stick - so no install, that may wipe out the data you are trying to recover, is necessary.

Stellar Phoenix Windows Data Recovery PAID (OS:XP,Vista,7,8)  FS:FAT/NTFS/exFAT
Undelete Plus PAID (OS:XP,2003,Vista,2008,7,8 32 and 64 bit)
Glary Undelete: FREE/PAID (OS:98,ME,2000,XP,2003,VISTA,7 FS:FAT/NTFS/NTFS+EFS) The pro version of Glary is excellent!
ADRC Data Recovery Tools FREE (OS:95,2000,XP  it works on 7 although this is not stated on the website)
Bplan Recovery FREE trial is for viewing only  (OS:XP,2000,Vista,7,8 32/64 bit)
Wise Data Recovery FREE (OS:XP,Vista,7,8) Portable
Data Recovery FREE (OS:9x,ME,NT,2000,XP,Vista,7 FS:FAT12/16/32 NTFS EFS)
Memory Stick Data Recovery (by EaseUS) FREE - up to 2gb of recovery (OS:2000,2003,XP,Vista,2008,7 FS:FAT,NTFS / MAC version as well)
Orion FREE (OS:XP,Vista,7,8 64 bit only  FS:FAT/NTFS)
Pandora Recovery FREE - but although it ran I couldn't do anything (OS:XP,Vista,2000.2003 works on 7 although not stated on website) FS:FAT16/FAT32/NTFS/NTFS5/NTFS+EFS
PCI File Recovery FREE  (OS:95,98,ME,NT,2000,XP works on 7 although not explicitly stated on website probably due to the fact that it can't exit well)
Pen Drive Data Recovery PAID - this is a DEMO version which only allows you to view files (OS:Windows-all)
Puran File Recovery FREE (and easy to use) Portable /32 bit or 64 bit versions/ OS:XP,2003,Vista,2008,7,8 FS:FAT 12,16,32/NTFS
Restoration FREE (although this installed it crashed everytime I ran it)  (OS:Windows-all) Portable
Undelete My Files FREE (OS:Windows-website doesn't say, although it runs on my 7 64 bit box)
Yodot File Recovery FREE and Buy Now versions - It installed but I couldn't run it on my computer. (OS:2003,2008,2000,XP,Vista,7,8 / MAC OSX 10.5/10.6/10.7/10.8 Android: See windows compatibility)
TestDisk/Photorec (OS:DOS/W9x,NT4,2000,XP,2003,Vista,2008,7 Linux, FreeBSD,NetBSD,OpenBSD,Solaris,MAC OSX) FS:FAT/NTFS/exFAT/ext2/ext3/ext4/HFS+/and more Portable

There is a good review of some software here:

http://pcsupport.about.com/od/filerecovery/tp/free-file-recovery-programs.htm

There is also a very extensive review here of the top ten software  data recovery products (I felt extremely happy to see that this review, also thought that the Stellar Phoenix product was number 1).  Be warned though that those in the article are all paid products.  Some of the ones I've indicated above are free and still excellent.  Remember though that you usually get what you pay for, so beware.

In general, I tend toward portable versions of the software if at all possible.  So check that out as well.  If you have to install software you could easily overwrite the files you are trying to recover.   If the files are on a USB and you are installing on a computer, or different USB, than no problem.
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LVL 38

Expert Comment

by:lherrou
Great article, and some great tools. I clicked the Helpful checkmark above!

By the way, many of these tools also work on other forms of flash memory, like camera and cell phone SD cards.
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Expert Comment

by:jlipschitz
I recommend that users use a cloud based service rather than a thumb drive.  They can configure synchronizing with their laptop or desktop computer to ensure that files are backed up.  Thumb drives get wet, lost, stolen, damaged, etc.  There are so many could solutions that are free with tons of storage, it just seems to make sense.

We have also had the issue of thumb drives dying.  I always find that the Mac OS reads them the best when Windows and Linux do not recognize it.

You mentioned some good tools.
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Author Comment

by:Thomas Zucker-Scharff
Thanks for the comments.  I like cloud based services best myself.  Have you tried spideroak?
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by:jlipschitz
I have not.  I have been using OneDrive, formerly Skydrive.  I use it to store personal pictures, which is something that I cannot lose.  I use it to share files with family and friends and the space is very cheap.  Spideroak looks pretty good.  2GB is pretty small though.  I have 60GB of space for $25 per year from OneDrive.
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by:Thomas Zucker-Scharff
Yes if you have something you use, you tend to want to stick with it.  Spideroak's pricing is fairly good.  If you have an edu address you can get 200gb for $100 a year or if you took advantage of their offer on world backup day, unlimited storage for $125/year!

If it is just pictures, why not use flickr.com - 1tb free for anyone who signs up.
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Expert Comment

by:lherrou
Opendrive is good too. 5GB for free, $13/mo for unlimited storage (caps on daily download, though).
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LVL 31

Author Comment

by:Thomas Zucker-Scharff
opendrive sounds like a good alternative!
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Expert Comment

by:Edwin Garcia
Great tools you've mentioned there! Nice Article for those in trouble using USB. Cloud solutions were great too, we will never escape using cloud. Thanks to those expert suggestions. I've learned a lot. God Speed!
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