Tested: Stellar Phoenix Macintosh Data Recovery

There are a variety of file recovery utilities for the Mac these days, some of which target specific media and file types, and others that are for more general uses. One of these that I have mentioned in the past is Stellar Phoenix's Data Recovery for the Mac. Recently I decided to run the program through some basic tests to put it through its paces and see if it performs as expected. The overall verdict is not as stellar as I would have liked.

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
9 min read

There are a variety of file recovery utilities for the Mac these days, some of which target specific media and file types, and others that are for more general uses. One I have mentioned in the past is Stellar Phoenix's Data Recovery for the Mac. Recently I decided to run the program through some basic tests to see if it performs as expected. The overall verdict is the program is not as stellar as I would have liked.

What is Stellar Phoenix Data Recovery for Mac?

Stellar Phoenix Macintosh Data Recovery ($99) is a simple utility that offers file recovery options for drives and iPods, and provides several routines by which to do so:

Stellar Phoenix Interfaces
The interface is Mac-like but cannot be resized (click for larger view).

  1. Quick Recovery: A fast scan that looks for files still referenced by the drive's index (mainly recently deleted files) that is useful for recovering a file you inadvertently deleted.

  2. Deleted File Recovery: A more in-depth scan for deleted files, which searches through the volume sector-by-sector for patterns of lost files and present them for recovery.

  3. Formatted Media: This routine attempts to locate files on a drive the index and directory of which do not contain any information about potential file locations on the disk.

  4. Search Lost and Deleted Volumes: This option locates lost or unmountable partitions and tries to recover them.

The interface for Stellar Phoenix is simple and Mac-like, but has a big drawback in that it cannot be resized despite having an active "Zoom" button and a resizing tab. These options basically do not work; the window stays relatively small in size, which causes file name lists to be truncated, requiring a decent amount of scrolling if the list is large. Nevertheless, for data recovery these details do not matter too much as long as files can be recovered.

Testing setup

The idea for testing this program was to go as simple as possible and use some nonstandard but commonly used storage options as the testing media. I used a 2GB USB Flash drive and a 10GB iPod 3G running in "Disk Mode" that were attached to my PowerMac G5 running OS X 10.5.8.

I initially formatted the drives by zeroing out all data on them, and then partitioned and formatted them to FAT and HFS+ (the most common formats used in OS X) and copied a single file to the drives (in this case I used a small 36KB PDF manual for my ToastMaster waffle iron).

To simulate data-loss for each supported recovery option in Stellar Phoenix, I then did one of the following:

  1. Moved the file to the trash and emptied it

  2. Formatted the volume using Disk Utility

  3. Removed the partition containing the file (if possible) using disk utility

Though these scenarios do not directly mimic the corruption some people may see, I figured this was as basic of a set of data-loss scenarios as one could get.

Basic scanning

When you launch Stellar Phoenix, you are presented with the four basic scan routines. When one is selected, the program will list the available volumes on which you can run the recovery routines. With my Flash drive and iPod ready, I tackled them one-by-one, and, unfortunately, the frustrations began almost immediately.

  1. File Recovery

    The advanced scan will go block-by-block through the drive for file patterns (click for larger view).

    For the flash drive, a simple delete was not recoverable with the Quick Recovery, so I ran the advanced "Deleted File Recovery" scan and after churning through every unused block on the drive, the program unexpectedly quit (no error report; it just shut down). I relaunched it and tried again, and though successful in completing the scan, it could not recover the PDF file, and instead claimed no files were found.

    The file recovery options in Stellar Phoenix showed better results with the iPod; however, they were inconsistent. On one attempt I was able to recover the file just fine using the Quick Recover routine, but upon reformatting the iPod and trying again with the same conditions, the program did not find the file with the Quick Recovery. I was able to locate the file when performing the more advanced "Deleted File Recovery" option, but when I saved the file to my desktop or any other location it could not be opened by any program.

    Stellar Phoenix found the deleted file on the FAT-formatted iPod, but could not recover the checked file upon clicking the Recover button (click for larger view).

    Unfortunately, I could not test the flash drive when formatted as a FAT volume, since the program would not recognize it as an available volume in the drive list; however, it did recognize the iPod when formatted as FAT, and upon scanning did find the lost PDF file.

    When I tried to recover this file and save it to my desktop, the program would not save it to my selected destination. Upon eventually saving, the recovery process briefly showed a progress bar and a recovery folder called "Root" appeared on my Desktop, but it was empty. Regardless of where I chose to save the file, the program just created an empty folder called "Root".

    I was not able to recover my file using these routines on any of my drives.

  2. Formatted Media Recovery

    I next decided to test the program's capability to recover files that were on formatted volumes. Instead of merely deleting the file, I used Disk Utility to reformat the volume (without erasing free space).

    I first tried this on my flash drive, but again did not get the results I wanted. The PDF file was located, but it was only 8KB and not the full 36KB of its original size. When I tried to recover it, the file did not save to the destination folder and instead just created an empty folder at the specified save location, similar to my previous experience with the "File Recovery" routines.

    I next tried running this routine on the iPod. The program finished its scan, but this time seemed to run into trouble, because it started displaying a number of items that were not on the drive. What appeared in the list of found items was a full OS X installation, complete with applications like Automator, Calculator, and Drive Genius (which I have installed on the boot drive of this computer). I assumed I must have selected the wrong drive, so I relaunched the program and ran the routine again, but with the same results.

    Since there may have been an error with the drive or how it was mounted, I decided to reformat the iPod, set it up identically, and try this routine again, and this time (and also on subsequent attempts) Stellar Phoenix did not show my boot drive contents. However, it also was unable to recover the deleted PDF file. Whenever the "Formatted Media" routine was run, the program would show drive structure files and other hidden files, but no deleted or missing files.

    Perhaps the use of this scan routine is something other than file recovery, but the documentation leads one to believe it is to be used for recovering files from formatted partitions, and it did not do that. I was not able to recover my file using this routine.

    The Lost Volume routine would not list any external drive as being available for scanning (click for larger view).

  3. Lost Volume Recovery

    Next I decided to give the lost volume recovery routine a try. I partitioned the iPod into two HFS+ volumes, and then copied the PDF manual to the first partition. I then went to Disk Utility and removed the volume containing the PDF file so it was left as empty space.

    On launching Stellar Phoenix to see what could be recovered, I found the program could not run this routine on any external volumes. No flash drives or Firewire hard drives showed up in the device list to run the recovery routine on, which is a disappointment because external drives are most susceptible to corruption from being moved around, constantly mounted and unmounted, and being improperly disconnected from the computer.

    Yet again I could not recover my file.

Alternate scan modes

The program does have a few other scanning options I decided to try, including an iPod recovery feature, a media recovery feature for finding music, videos, and photos, and a drive-imaging feature.

  1. iPod Recovery

    To test the iPod recovery routine, I used iTunes to set up my iPod 3G as an iPod instead of an external disk, and then copied a single music file to it ("Highway to Hell" by AC/DC). I then erased the music from the iPod using iTunes, launched Stellar Phoenix, and went to the iPod Recovery section.

    The program would not recognize my iPod in the drive list when running the iPod Recovery routine (click for larger view).

    The options in this section are the same as those for standard volume recovery (Quick Recovery, Deleted File Recovery, and Formatted Media recovery); however, the program was not able to recognize my 3G iPod. Selecting any of the scan options started a device scan and then displayed an empty list, even though the iPod was connected to my Mac and recognized in the Finder and iTunes.

    This was the case even when I disconnected and reconnected the iPod, and refreshed the drive list in Stellar Phoenix. Despite this, Stellar Phoenix was able to see the iPod when I ran standard disk recovery routines as I mentioned previously. I find it bizarre the program could recognize it as an external disk but not as an iPod device.

  2. Music/Video/Photo Recovery

    This was a useful subfeature of each scan method, but only useful for situations where the scan routines worked. The program would scan the drive as usual, and then categorize the files by type, allowing you to more easily find files if you know what type they are. In addition, the program has a file previewer, allowing you to quickly see (or hear) the file contents before recovering the file. This was a useful feature to have when files were able to be located.

  3. Disk Image Recovery

    Another useful feature in Stellar Phoenix Macintosh Data Recovery is its capability to create a sector-by-sector disk image of a volume or device before running any recovery routines. This allows you to then either recover data from the image (recommended) or from the drive itself, but keep in mind that you will need to store the image on a drive other than the one being recovered, and have enough free space on that drive to do so. When the image creation is complete, you will then be prompted for the option to recover from the image instead of the drive itself.

    Creating and scanning an image proved to finally be successful (click for larger view).

    By the time I got to this option, I was not expecting much from the program; however, this ended up being the one redeeming feature. Though I experienced nothing more than failure with all other scanning options, when I created a disk image and scanned it, the program was finally successful. I was able to image every drive scenario I had previously tested, and was able to scan the resulting image for files to recover. They were located, and I could preview them in the program without any problems. I was also able to recover them to my internal hard drive without crashing or corrupting the recovered file.

Final thoughts

I cannot claim I had a very positive experience with this product. There are some features of the program that are convenient, such as categorizing found files by type so you can more easily locate them, but, the recovery options are not very robust and I ran into numerous errors including crashes, the incapability to locate deleted files on a fairly simple setup, and the incapability to recover files when they were found. In addition, the program was not able to identify my iPod in its iPod Recovery routine.

Keep in mind that though my experiences with this program were not the best, there are some reviews of this software that praise it. I do not deny it has potential, but, from what I have seen, it definitely has some limitations and room for improvement.

I did use some older and non-standard hardware for these tests, and maybe the program was not built to handle external drives, but there is no mention of hardware limitations in the software's documentation and I would expect it to be able to access these volumes. Nevertheless, these test results are limited to the hardware I used, and the features that did not work for me might show different results when used in other setups.

Despite the negative initial experiences, I was able to finally recover files with Stellar Phoenix when creating an image of the drive. This is the preferred method of running data recovery, because it works with a copy instead of the drive itself, but it does require you to have adequate storage for the image file on another available volume.

Overall, when it finally worked the program worked well, so if you have a copy of this software available to you I would still recommend this utility as an option for people to consider, but it should not be your only data recovery option by any means. However, if you do not currently own a data recovery utility, then I suggest for now you look elsewhere for a more robust option.

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