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We get lots of questions from readers, but one that never gets quite the right answer is what to do about memory cards that are on the way out. So what do you do if an SD card is failing, and what happens if you accidentally break one?

The topic of memory recovery is one of those things we get asked about generally when it’s already unfortunately too late. It usually occurs when someone trie to take images off a card, and either finds nothing waiting for them, or accidentally chips the card when trying to take the card out of a device, likely a camera, a tablet, or a computer.

But memory recovery is one of those sticky subjects that rarely offers the right answer, because while you can often salvage a hard drive, memory is a little more complicated.

When memory cards fail, the information isn’t necessarily easy to find, and in many cases, can phase in and out of being readable, with the files there one minute and gone the next. This can make the recovery of information difficult, because when a card is failing, it is unreliable.

Technically, your files are still there, so that’s positive, but the degradation of the memory can make it hard to see, and the index that categorises all the files on your card may be corrupt, making it very difficult to get the information you need.

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How it happens

Memory is a complicated thing, and while it might seem like a card is just a bit of plastic that holds images and movies, it is far more complicated than that, with millions of transistors sitting inside, a processor to tell the card where it should be storing things, and then how these bits are treated and made.

And there are several factors that make up a card, determining if the card you bought it good enough to last a week, a month, a year, or longer.

In fact, there are four basic questions tech people like this writer have for anyone that asks us to take a peek at their memory and tell them what is wrong. They are:

  • What brand of memory card did you use?
  • What size was it?
  • How old is the card?
  • Where did you buy the card?

Each of these questions can give you an indication into what has gone wrong, and while they won’t necessarily help you recover the files, they’re useful to know to help you in the future, and possibly a professional if you end up paying for one to look at your files.

For starters, the brand is important. Almost every brand has a different way of fabricating the memory needed to make the memory, and there’s more to a memory card than just a block of storage, because there’s a small processor thrown in, too.

As such, the big names, brands like SanDisk, Lexar, Kingston, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Corsair, PNY, and PQI are likely the names you want to take a look at first, because they’re already established players in the memory market and have a fair degree of experience making storage products in the first place.

Smaller names can pop up here and there, but unless reviewers (like GadgetGuy) have said good things, tread carefully, as these can often be cheap, but cheap for a reason, and when it comes to storing your precious memories, cheap and nasty is the last thing you’re going to want.

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Cheap memory often has a name you don’t know, and hardware that probably can’t be trusted long term.

Next is the size, and this is vitally important because larger sizes generally denote delays for people making backups.

If you have a 16GB card or higher, it’s likely you won’t back it up for a longer period, assuming you’ve got time because the storage isn’t full yet. Unfortunately, if a memory card begins to fail and you’re trying to track down a specific group of files, this can make it harder to find said files because you’re sorting through everything.

As such, it’s good to backup often, making sure it’s not just your memory card that has the files, but something else altogether, such as a cloud backup service, a smartphone, a tablet, or a computer.

The age of the card is another factor, and notes such as when you bought it and how many files have been transferred on it can degrade the technology over time.

Finally, the question of where you bought the card is hugely important, and it comes back to the brand.

Unfortunately, there are people out there that have no problem with ripping you off and taking that hard earned money of yours, and these same con artists will happily sell you a fake SanDisk or Lexar just as easily as they’d sell you a fake something else.

Online sellers such as eBay tend to be the worst hit when it comes to finding fake memory cards, so we’d suggest buying memory from an electronics store you trust, because fake memory isn’t just misrepresentative of the brand, but also reliant on an unknown brand’s hardware.

That means instead of buying SanDisk or Lexar, you might be buying something sold alongside milk in a convenience store from a name you’ve never heard of, only there’s a SanDisk or Lexar sticker on the front.

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Once those four questions are answered, data experts can begin to take a hard look as to what’s going on with storage.

If you’re using authentic true blue storage, it could be a lot of factors at play, such as excess use, humidity, and just regular old wear and tear, because that happens, too. If that’s the case, you should be able to run some software to help you find your photos and files, and we’ll detail that shortly.

However, if your storage is cheap, fake, and just made from something not very nice, you’ll certainly have a harder time of it, and even data experts — the expensive kind — will probably have problems working with your memory to get anything back.

But let’s try all the same.

What you can do

It’s not necessarily all doom and gloom, and luckily, software comes to the rescue, with solutions available for Windows and Mac users to help with finding your files if your card isn’t doing too well.

Over on the PC side, you’ll probably want to start with Convar’s PC Inspector and Piriform’s Recuva, with both providing free solutions to deep scan the directory structure of the failing memory and looking for files.

Mac users get a free solution, too, found in CGSecurity’s PhotoRec, which will do the same, but if neither of these apps help you find the files you’re looking for, you might want to check out a demo of something paid, and simply search “photo recovery software” on Google.

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Beyond the software, there are data retrieval experts that you can pay to take a look at your hardware and see what they can find.

That being said, be aware that visiting a data specialist is generally not considered a cheap affair, and that even if you find nothing — if they find nothing — you’ll still likely have to pay them for their time and work, even if you didn’t quite get what you were after.

Our advice is to try the software solutions first. If that comes up with nothing, unless you have money to throw around, and the memories are must have and you cannot live without them, it just might be a hard lesson that is endured.

Broken cards

If your card can’t be salvaged, it’s likely the card is on its last legs and is failing, but if you’ve broken your card — chipped an edge off, for instance — all hope is pretty much lost.

While you shouldn’t open a memory card up, if you do, you’ll find a few things inside, with several bits of plastic, some silicon, and little bits of light metal connecting things.

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In a way, the inside of a memory card looks a lot like a computer, with a block of memory, a small computer chip, and some silicon to connect this all up, making it all talk and linking it up to the metal connectors on the back of the card, which allow the memory card to send and receive data and power to and from whichever device it happens to be plugged into.

But if you break one of these sections, you may as well give up trying to recover anything.

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For example, if you were to chip the plastic where the jumpers are, it is theoretically possible for a forensic data retrieval expert to re-solder parts together, but it’s unlikely, and it is practically impossible for anyone else to put the card into a card reader and expect it to be read.

Essentially, the connections need to be intact for this to work, and if you damage them, like a split credit card not working, the connection cannot be made.

Worse, if you chip the corner where the memory is, you’ll find the card won’t properly activate, and could even crash your computer if you try to load it, with the system running into an endless loop where the card can’t load anything.

With a chunk of memory taken out, thousands upon thousands of tiny little transistors have had their pathway cut, and so the information you have stored here cannot be reached and pretty much doesn’t exist.

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“Inside a microSD card, there’s controller and flash memory,” said a representative of Kingston, one of the manufacturers of memory cards and USB drives. “If the controller [and] flash memory remains intact, it’s possible to retrieve the data inside, but it depends on how badly it was damaged.”

Unfortunately, damaged memory can be a relatively common occurrence, popping up usually when people try to put a memory card into a slot the wrong way, or accidentally brush a body part — say an arm or leg — against the card, snapping it slightly.

Often, we see these issues come out of impatience, so whether you’re inserting a memory card or removing one, do so with care. Memory cards of all types — Compact Flash (CF), Secure Digital (SD), microSD, and so on — generally only go in one way, and if it doesn’t feel right or slants to one edge, there’s a good chance you’re going to force it, breaking it on the way through.

Instead, pull the card out gently so as not to ruin the card or the slot, and then try again differently, because the last thing you’d want is to break the card, the device, or both.

This card is broken, so don't even assume you can fix it. It's not worth thinking about.

This card is broken, so don’t even assume you can fix it. It’s not worth thinking about.

Thinking long-term

Regardless of how your card has failed — failing memory or broken card — anyone who has ever had a memory card die on them generally comes from the experience learning from it.

Those learnings often translate into more consistent and proactive backups, with more frequent transfers from a camera or memory card to a tablet or laptop if you’re on holiday, and more likelihood that you’ll backup to external drive at other times, because storage of all types can fail, though hard drives can be easier to explore if they’re failing than memory cards.

That being said, if you’re using memory consistently in things like cameras or smartphones, a safe practice is to replace the card every year or two, dependent on how much use it gets.

Another safe way of working is to buy a good card before you go on holiday, knowing full well that the card you’re using is new and fresh for the trip ahead.

From there, it’s just a matter of making sure you’re good to your card, gentle with the memory so nothing traumatic happens, with frequent backups to a smartphone, tablet, or computer.