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Compact Flash Recovery

Image of CF and PCMCIA adapterCompact Flash media are a wonderful innovation for cameras and portable computers. The first large storage device I ever owned was a 40MB hard disk for my Atari STFM - it seemed a bargain at 400 and it only cost me another 20 to design and build a 12V/5V power supply for it !

Nowadays we think nothing of buying a CF or SD/MMC/etc. with similar storage for a little over 10. They've really made digital photography and portable data storage economical.

However, we all know that these devices can break down - especially in digital cameras. The problem usually occurs when writing a photo image to the CF disk, just as the batteries fail. It can also happen in pocket computers but, as these tend to use alkaline or Li-ion cells, the power fall-off is less severe, so it's less likely.

I recently had a 64MB Fuji CF fail in my digital camera. Sometimes when this occurs, it's just a matter of reformatting the card in the camera, but on this occasion 3 red Xs and a 'card unreadable' error confirmed the worst.

My fallback is to put the card in my netBook and reformat it on that, but it also reported that there was no media present.

As a last resort I tried reformatting the card using a USB card rewriter on my PC and was surprised to see that it appeared to work perfectly - I could read and write files using my PC easily.

Nevertheless, the card was still completely unreadable in both the camera and netBook.

I decided to buy a replacement card along with a PCMCIA adapter for it, but resolved to see if it was possible to recover the original.

When I received the PCMCIA card, I looked to see what an old P90 laptop made of the faulty card.

Intriguingly, the Win98 laptop recognised the drive and installed an IDE driver for it, but it didn't mount the drive and assign a letter to it.

The DOS utility 'FDISK' seemed to offer a possible solution. Normally you would only run this from a DOS startup but the drive was unrecognised in DOS mode so I had to run it in a DOS window instead.

Being very careful to ensure that I had selected the correct drive (and wasn't about to wipe the laptop hard disk!), I quickly discovered that the CF drive was not currently a recognised partition. I set it to 'Primary DOS Partition' and exited FDISK.

I probably could have formatted it there and then in the laptop PC, but I wanted to see if this made a difference to the camera and netBook. Thankfully, both of them now recognised the card as 'unformatted' and I reformatted it on the netBook.

It now works perfectly again in any device.

I hope this article might give other people inspiration to try a few other recovery possibilities.

There are a couple of things I think are worth investigating:
  • is this procedure possible using a USB card rewriter as well as a PCMCIA-CF adapter?
  • is there an FDISK equivalent that can be used from within Windows XP?
  • are there any utilities that can repair the partition information directly?

If you have any further solutions, please let me know and I'll add them here.

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Sunday, 15 February 2004