Memory failure: what to do if a memory card breaks

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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.