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How Flash Drives Fail

Flash devices such as memory cards (CF, SD, XD, etc) and USB flash drives are very robust but they do fail. Drives fail 90 percent of the time because of corruption in the lookup tables which convert logical addresses (what your computer sees) to physical addresses (what the controller sees). The remaining 10% is split between controller failures, power surges, and worn or broken solder joints.
NAND memory has many quarks.

  • Each block is only good for a finite number of writes after which bit errors occur, for example the word “flash” may become “slash”.
  • Data can be read in pages (2K bytes) but must be written in blocks (128K bytes).
  • Before a write can occur the block must be erased, if power is lost before a write completes the sector remains erased.

Lookup Tables

Each word (two bytes) contains the block number which holds that sectors data. For example 0x001A is the block number for sector 0, 0x0419 is the block number for sector 1, etc. If the block numbers are incorrect the controller won’t know where the actual data is stored. In this example some of the block numbers are incorrect because of bit errors caused by an aging NAND chip. Some controllers may automatically detect the error and prevent further writes. In this case the user may get an error message asking them to format the drive.

In this example the flash drive was unplugged before a write operation on the lookup table completed leaving the table filled with 0xFFFF from the erase cycle. The user may be prompted to insert removable media, the drive may be displayed as 0MB in size, if the drive is listed it may be shown as an unknown device.

We are able to recover data your data by removing the NAND memory chip and reading it externally. Visit our USB Flash Drive Recovery page for more information.

Aging NAND Memory

As NAND memory ages bits inside a block can become stuck, newer high density MLC chips are plagued by this problem. To combat this controller manufactures use ECC (Error Correcting Code) to fix a limited number of bit errors. Once the number of correctable bits per sector is exceeded flash drives may act strangely for example frequent file system corruption may occur or the drive will stop working. In these cases I’ll often see color shift in pictures, half the image will be normal and the other half will be a different tint. This is because part of the image was stored in a good block while the other part was in a bad block with sticky bits.

Weak Solder Joints

Wear and tear on the drive can cause solder joints on the NAND memory chip or controller to weaken. If the drive is recognized the total capacity will only be a few megabytes. If you connect the drive while applying LIGHT PRESSURE to the controller and NAND memory you may be able to retrieve the data. Remember, weak solder joints account for LESS THAN 10% of failures. DON’T APPLY MORE PRESSURE if this doesn’t work, you may damage the NAND memory chip if you press too hard.

If you can’t retrieve your data with this method you will need to send the drive to a data recovery shop that specializes in retrieving data from logically damaged USB flash drives.

Hacked USB Flash Drives

Some unbranded or counterfeit flash drives are hacked to display the wrong drive size using the manufactures mass production tool and then sold as larger capacity drives. For example a flash drive with a 4GB NAND chip will report itself as 8GB drive. These drives often work until the user starts to fill the drive with data after which it becomes unreadable. These fake flash drives are usually sourced from china and sold on eBay. If your data is NOT important you can download the mass production tool for the drives controller and reformat the drive using the correct capacity.

Broken USB Connector

If the USB connector was broken off the USB Flash drive you can recover the data by attaching a temporary USB connector to the flash drive. This procedure requires special equipment so unless you’re familiar with soldering don’t try it as you’ll probably damage the drive, experience makes it look easy.

  1. Apply solder flux to the area.
  2. Remove the remains of the old connector and prep the area for soldering. This can include using a XACTO knife to scrape off the solder mask from any torn pads to expose the copper traces below (not applicable in this case).
  3. Find a donor USB connector and attach a wire to each of the four pins.
  4. Solder the wires to the corresponding pads/traces on the flash drive.

Bad Surface Mounts

Leaving a flash drive plugged constantly in may cause premature failure of the surface mounts which regulate voltage to the flash drive’s components. Often the resistance or capacitance values of a surface mount will fall out of spec and not produce the correct voltage. This often represents itself as a dead flash drive (no led, not acknowledge by the computer) or overheating.

Data Recovery

YOUR DATA IS RECOVERABLE, the NAND memory chip must be removed and read with an external reader, then the lookup table is reconstructed to retrieve your data. There are NO software programs that can repair logical damage to the lookup tables. Only a data recovery professional specializing in USB flash drive recovery is capable of doing this. USB Flash Drive Data Recovery firms often charge between $450 and $3000 to retrieve data from flash drives, we have the same tools and charge a fraction of the price, visit our USB Flash Drive Recovery page for more information.