Stellar Phoenix Mac Photo Recovery works, when it works

Stellar Phoenix's latest "Photo Recovery" program for OS X is at version 4.0, so I decided to see how this version performs in detecting and recovering media files.

Topher Kessler MacFixIt Editor
Topher, an avid Mac user for the past 15 years, has been a contributing author to MacFixIt since the spring of 2008. One of his passions is troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware at home and in the workplace.
Topher Kessler
7 min read

Recently Stellar Phoenix released a new version of its Mac Photo Recovery software (version 4.0), which is a $39 file recovery utility tailored toward identifying deleted and lost media files on disks, including a number of image, video, and audio formats. The program supports recovering files from both local disks as well as from a variety of cameras. In the past I was unimpressed with the lackluster performance of Stellar Phoenix's "Data Recovery" suite for OS X, but found that after using Photo Recovery that despite a few limitations it, for the most part, appeared to do its job.

Stellar claims that Mac Photo Recovery will identify a number of image formats, including JPEG, TIFF, PNG, GIF, BMP, JP2, INDD, PSD, MOS, PSP, and PCT, so to test the software I decided on setting up a simple and straightforward recovery routine for it. In my past look at Stellar's Data Recovery software I wrote a single PDF file to an empty drive and deleted it to see if Stellar's software could recover it. I decided to do a similar approach with this latest test of Stellar's Photo Recovery package, and attached a USB drive in which I attempted a recovery of four basic image formats (JPEG, JPEG-2000, TIFF, and PNG), which I prepared by taking a standard JPEG file and converting it to these formats using by Apple's Preview application. In addition I converted the image to a PDF format, which, while neither in itself an image format nor one that Stellar's program claims to identify, I threw in anyway to see if it would be recognized during scans.

Stellar Phoenix Window
The program did not detect any files on the freshly formatted and zeroed volume. Screenshot by Topher Kessler

With the test files prepared, I then fully erased a USB drive with Disk Utility, writing zeros to the surface to ensure no files could be detected by the software. After doing this I ran the software and scanned the drive for files to ensure none was detected, and confirmed the software could not recover any files from the empty filesystem.

I then copied the files to the drive and scanned the populated filesystem to see if the program would detect the files. Because files on the filesystem show the same stored data patterns as those that have been deleted, I expected the program would detect them since scanning is done block-by-block instead of by interacting with the disk's index and directory files--as long as the data is there, then the program should detect it. This is where the program seemed to show its limits, and upon scanning the drive found that of the file files (of which four were supported by the program), only two were detected (JPEG and JPEG-2000).

Scan Window
The program only showed two of the four file types being available for recovery. Screenshot by Topher Kessler

Despite only showing two files as being on the drive, I went ahead and deleted all the files and scanned again followed by performing a format of the filesystem (this time not doing any zeroing of data) and scanning a second time. Both of these scans showed the same results, and only presented the JPEG and JPEG-2000 image types.

Recovery of these files was straightforward, and upon saving them to a secondary hard drive, the byte counts for each matched the originals and they displayed properly in numerous programs, indicating the recovery of them was a full success. Sometimes recovery programs may only recover part of a file, or include junk data that makes the byte counts mismatch and result in them not loading correctly, but that did not appear to happen here. Granted I did not extensively test this aspect of the program, so while this recovery was successful, it is always good to keep in mind that success of recovery may depend on your specific drive's setup. This setup is relatively clean, but others may have already suffered from data overwriting or media corruption and damage.

Repeated attempts at recovery with this test setup were all consistent, with the program detecting the JPEG and JPEG-2000 files and recovering them properly when instructed to do so.

Stellar Window
A scan of a larger drive showed numerous file types being detected, including those that were previously undetected. Screenshot by Topher Kessler

I was a bit perplexed over why the program would not identify some of the other supported file formats that it claims to support, so to see whether or not the program could in fact detect these file types I scanned another drive containing a large number of different file formats. After scanning for a while, Stellar's recovery program started listing a number of file formats, including the TIFF and PNG file formats that it previously did not locate in my test setup. This was a relief to see; however, in addition to now showing these files the program also categorized others such as PNG1, PNG2, TIFF1, TIFF2, and PNG3. When investigating these files, they all appeared to be either PNG or TIFF files, but it was clear that while Stellar's program detected them as such, it somehow found differences between them.

This indicates the program is actively scanning file formats and is comparing them to known file types, and then is classifying them based on its findings so you can better manage them during recovery attempts. The program identifying these files as being different may have to do with nuances and variances in the respective file formats, and it is good to see the program makes an effort to include them instead of dismissing them.

Beyond the program's performance are a few observations about its interface. The interface is rather basic and appears to have been thrown together without much effort. Some window elements are a touch misaligned, making it appear like a crude port of a program instead of a well-designed tool for OS X. Nevertheless, this detail is merely a superficial observation, and as long as a program works then they shouldn't matter much at all.

One interface improvement that Stellar could implement is to have the interface be resizeable. Currently the program's window and its various elements are fixed in size, which is fine for managing small numbers of files but if you need to scroll through large lists then the window's relatively small size can make this task a bit tedious.

Stellar Window
The program does have options to specify file types to scan for, but does not have the ability to train for new ones or variances of existing ones. Screenshot by Topher Kessler

Beside interface details, the program does lack a couple of features that I think are exceptionally useful to have in a recovery tool. The first is the ability to train the program to identify new file types or variants to existing file types, which can be done by scanning healthy files on a filesystem and building a library of common aspects to the file types that can help identify them during a scan. While the program's "Advanced Scan" option does have the ability to select specific file types to detect during the scan, it does not have an option to train the program on new ones or variances of existing ones. With this type of feature it might have been possible to detect the missing TIFF and PNG files in my test setup.

The second missing feature is not so much a full feature, but rather the option for restricting recovery to nonsource volumes. When recovering files, the program will by default allow you to save files to the volume where they originated, which may result in overwriting other files on the disk that have not yet been recovered (especially when recovering files that contain a large amount of data). By being careful you can manually save to an alternate volume and avoid this problem, but it would be nice to have this restriction as an option in the program.

Despite these drawbacks, Stellar's program does provide an option to first create a device-level image of your source volume to recover from, which is a great option to have. By doing this you can essentially create a block-by-block clone of the drive in a transferrable format that can then be scanned for any files to recover, without any additional tampering of the source drive. Most good quality recovery programs will have this type of option available, and it is good to see that Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery does include this.

The overall verdict of the software is that despite some interface drawbacks and the (perhaps expected) inability to detect 100 percent of lost files, that the program is definitely capable of locating and fully recovering a number of files (doing so perfectly when properly detected) and has the potential to be quite useful. No data recovery program can guarantee to fully recover all files, and though it would be nice to have some features such as file type training, the program does well for what it does and will likely allow you to recover at least some of your lost files. However, if you are looking into a recovery program for your files, be sure that the program supports the type of files you are looking to recover. While Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery and other programs can detect a number of common formats, other formats (especially the myriad raw file formats) may not be so easily detectable, especially without a way to train the program on them.

Questions? Comments? Have a fix? Post them below or e-mail us!
Be sure to check us out on Twitter and the CNET Mac forums.