A few months ago a representative of Stellar Data Recovery contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing their product Stellar Phoenix Macintosh, a data recovery application. I was happy to oblige. At long last, here’s my assessment.
If you’ve read many of my tech tip articles, you know that I’m a staunch advocate for setting up robust, redundant and automated data backup systems. If one has such systems in place then one’s likelihood of actually needing a tool like Stellar Phoenix Macintosh should be slim. However, the need for such tools can still arise for a myriad of reasons. Maybe one hasn’t yet copied photos from their camera’s SD storage card to their computer. Maybe one uses a USB flash drive to move files around and doesn’t backup this drive. Maybe one’s backup is misconfigured and it isn’t actually backing up an important folder. Any such drive could fail or a user could accidentally delete a file. Anybody could end up needing a data recovery tool such as Stellar Phoenix Macintosh.
Stellar Phoenix Macintosh has a simple user interface which includes buttons to recover data from various types of drives, including iPods. It also has a button dedicated to photo recovery. Within the main Drive Recovery section it provides options to try to recover deleted files, files from re-formatted drives and from drives which don’t mount. I happened to have two non-mounting drives sitting around. One was an external firewire hard drive and the other was a USB flash drive. Both were personal drives I’d used for years, but had stopped working properly in the past six months. Nothing critical was on either drive, so I had only made half-hearted attempts to figure out what was wrong with them previously. I’d been unable to get either drive to mount. Not surprisingly, Stellar Phoenix Macintosh wasn’t able to see them or recover any data from them. I didn’t really expect that it would since I suspect that there were physical problems with the drives. If I had really needed to get data from these drives I would have sent them to a professional data recovery company, like Drive Savers, which has a strong track record of being able to recover data.
Next, I took a fully-functioning external firewire drive that contained a backup copy of some of my music and movies. I put all of my files into the Trash and emptied it. Then I asked Stellar Phoenix Macintosh to try to restore the files. I used it’s Deleted File Recovery feature. I showed it the external drive and let it scan the entire 60 GB drive. Understandably, this was a time consuming process since it needed to scan every block. I don’t know how long it took since I went to bed, but I’m sure it took more than an hour. By morning it had finished, but I didn’t have time to finish restoring my files, so it conveniently let me save the scan file, presumably some sort of directory of the drive. Subsequently, I used Stellar Phoenix Macintosh’s Resume Recovery feature. This let me pick up where I left off.
Stellar Phoenix correctly listed the folders I had deleted. I started to navigate through this folder list and it correctly listed the names of sub-folders and sub-sub-folders. What annoyed me was that Stellar Phoenix’s window could not be resized. Additionally, the 3 sections within it’s window could not be resized either. This made it cumbersome to navigate through the folder hierarchy. This is a significant shortcoming of the application’s user interface. Up to this point, I had liked the interface. The buttons had been simple, well-labeled and explanations of their functions were frequently listed on screen, so it was quite jarring and annoying to suddenly realize that I couldn’t resize the window at all. However, I continued with the data restore. I selected about 10 mp3 files as well as a number of PDF documents and Microsoft Word files. I clicked the Recover button, waited a few seconds and the files were saved to a new folder on my Mac’s Desktop. I was then very disappointed when I tried to open these files and not a single one could be opened properly. I’m not sure why. Stellar Phoenix had done an admirable job of seeing the deleted files, as well as their file names and folder structure. All of this is important, but it failed in the final and most important step of successfully recovering the files.
I wanted to give Stellar Phoenix another chance so I took a healthy 1 GB USB flash drive, formatted it, copied a few files onto it and then deleted them a few minutes later. I then had Stellar Phoenix scan the drive, which took about 10 minutes. It was not able to recover the folder structure or the file names, but it did create folders for each type of file it found. In other words, it created folders for PDFs, JPEGs, Word and RTF files, for example. I then asked Stellar Phoenix to recover the files. It did so and all of the files opened properly. I was pleased with the results of this simple test. I should mention, however, that in a real world situation of recovering a few files from a hard drive that has been used for years, the inability of data recovery software to recover filenames and folder structures can mean that one could have to spend a fair amount of time locating the few desired files from a larger pile of recovered files.
In conclusion, Stellar Phoenix could be useful as a data recovery tool, certainly for recently deleted files and possibly in other situations. However, the lesson that I take away from these experiments is that data recovery is not always possible. Even when it is possible, it can be time consuming to conduct drive scans and locate the particular files you need. If you need to employ a professional data recovery service, it can be very expensive. Thus, I think it’s more prudent to setup, monitor and test robust, redundant and automated backup systems so you can hopefully avoid having to rely on data recovery products at all.