How to Recover an SD Card with Ease and For Free (Hopefully)
The CEO is waiting and people are staring at you from behind their fake oak desks. You open your laptop, confident that your carefully crafted presentation will impress them, only to find that it’s gone. The files have vanished. In a situation like that, you need to know how to recover an SD card.
Data loss can be embarrassing, expensive or worse. Losing photos can be upsetting. Losing business information can cost you money or your job and, if your data includes medical information, or you have an especially violent boss, it could even be life-threatening.
Fortunately, there are options for those who find themselves in such a situation. We’ve put together this guide to help you recover your data and save your day.
It should go without saying that you attempt these solutions at your own risk. If your data is valuable to you, financially or emotionally, it might be worth finding someone that offers professional data recovery, but there are plenty of things you can try yourself.
Why Data Can’t Be Recovered
There are different reasons for file loss, which affect how easy it will be to recover the data. Accidental deletion gives you a strong chance of recovery. When a file is deleted, the device typically only removes its entry in the file indexing system. The data remains intact.
If you add or remove files after that, though, the data may be overwritten as the operating system will treat the space it occupies as empty. That means you should avoid making changes to cards you want to recover files from because they could cause permanent data loss.
Physical problems with the card can make data difficult or impossible to recover, so even the best tool will not work all the time. SD cards are not robust and break easily. The write protection tabs are flimsy and can get stuck or fall off.
Card readers fail, too. If the problem is with the reader, our recovery options won’t help, so verify that it’s the card by trying it in another reader or testing your reader with a different card.
Backing Up Your Data: the Joys of Hindsight
We’ll start with the most important tip of all — backup. Those of you who searched for this article after losing your data might want to skip ahead. Backing up in advance, though, can save you a lot of headaches by protecting you from accidental or malicious data loss and giving you something to roll back to if you make a mistake and the work gets saved.
Take a look at our article on backup and storage strategy for tips on mitigating the problems of data loss. It is a situation where prevention is better than the cure. Data recovery can be expensive and slow, so backup is a cost-effective form of insurance.
We’ve looked at the best online backup services before. If you have a lot of photos on your card, photo management software can handle backup for you. There are also many good online backup options for mobile.
If a card is unreadable, Windows disk management may let you assign it a drive letter or reformat it, but that risks further data loss.
Windows also has the built-in Chkdsk tool to fix file errors.To use it, open a command prompt by pressing the Windows key and “R” at the same time, then typing “cmd” into the run window that pops up. If you don’t know your card’s drive letter, check in file explorer. If your drive letter is “E,” type “chkdsk /f E:” next. If it’s not, replace E with whatever your drive letter is.
If chkdsk works, you’re good. It doesn’t always do the job, though, so you might want to look for another solution. Specialized recovery software is more user-friendly and may succeed where Chkdsk fails.
Data Recovery Software
Specialized data recovery software offers a wider range of options and features than Chkdsk. It isn’t cheap, though, and data recovery is not an area in which you can expect software to work every time, but, if your data is valuable to you, using it can be more than worth the cost.
There are many data recovery tools to help you, for general use and SD cards. Read our best data recovery software article for a roundup of what’s available.
Many recovery tools give you the option to do a quick scan or a deep scan. The quick scan can be as short as a few seconds, but deep scans can take hours or, in some cases, days. Be prepared to wait a while when starting the process.
The length of time varies depending on the size and type of the card, the speed of the card reader and its connection to your computer, as well as the capability of your computer’s processor.
If you have different types of USB port available we would advise using the fastest you have when running a deep scan. The later the version, the more bandwidth it will have available.
When you pick a data recovery tool, be sure to choose one that allows SD card recovery. Though it’s a common feature, it’s not universal. We’re going to look in detail at how to perform SD data recovery using our favorite program, Stellar Data Recovery.
Other options include Prosoft Engineering Data Rescue and EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard, though the latter has attracted quite a few negative comments, despite faring well in our EaseUS review. CleverFiles Disk Drill is a good option for Mac users.
Recovering an SD Card Using Stellar
Now, let’s look at recovery in more detail using Stellar.
Download and setup is a breeze and the app wastes no time in presenting you with its “what to recover” screen on start-up. You can select all data or target particular types of document.
You then need to select the location on the next screen. Windows doesn’t specify that our SD card is one, instead referring to it as a “Local Disk.” If you’re unsure which drive letter your card uses look in file explorer. The icon should make it clear which of your connected device is the SD card.
In the bottom left, there’s a toggle control that lets you choose a deep scan. It will go through your card with a fine-tooth comb, but take much longer to complete, especially on large cards.
The advanced settings icon at the top has powerful features hidden among its tabs. You can add custom headers for new file types, either manually or by letting Stellar analyze sample files. The file types can be narrowed further to speed up scanning.
You can resume an incomplete scan, which is handy if you urgently need to use your PC while in the middle of a large recovery task.
Now that we’ve selected our card, we see a clear display on the “what to recover” screen letting us know how progress is going. It shows what has been found and how far we’ve gone through the process. In our testing, a quick scan of 500GB took six minutes, while a deep scan took two hours and 20 minutes, but your results may vary.
After the scan is done, we can see the results. We saw the files we “accidentally” deleted for testing, plus a few older ones we didn’t know about. The first letter of the filename is missing for many files. Filenames are commonly lost or changed when files are recovered, so it might take some hunting to find what’s what.
Hopefully, you have recovered your data at this point, or, at least, some of it.
Stellar Free Version
There is a limited free version of Stellar, but we had problems with it. The standard version costs $99 and has a 30-day money-back guarantee.
The first time you use Stellar, you’ll have to register. Annoyingly, it waits until after its scan, but before recovery, to make you do so. We tried testing the standard version first, then switched to the free one after hitting the registration screen.
The free edition incorrectly told us that we were over its 1GB recovery limit after finding 247MB of files, none of which had so far been recovered.
Fortunately, those were just test files, but if it had been an emergency, we’d have been miffed. Though Stellar is a good service when you pay for it, we recommend treating its free offering with healthy skepticism.
We found that the paid version was good in our full Stellar review, but there were a few unhappy comments. Some concerned its customer support, but we think this kind of software is never going to work perfectly on every card, so it deserves to be given leeway.
Data recovery can be traumatizing, but, should the worst happen to your holiday photos, there are plenty of things you can try before accepting defeat.
There are free options to try in Windows, as well as specialized software that offers a more in-depth, user-friendly experience. Stellar is our pick of the bunch, despite our gripes with its rationing of its so-called free version.
Data recovery software is an excellent tool to have in your software arsenal, but it isn’t perfect. Backup is the best option, provided you do it in time.
If you’ve tried Stellar, or any other data recovery software, let us know how it worked in the comments below. Feel free to tell us if we missed anything in our guide that could help other readers, too. Thanks for reading.