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How to tell if you have a monolithic flash drive

A monolithic flash drive with the solder removed

A monolithic flash drive with the solder mask removed

Unlike regular flash drives that can be disassembled and recovered monolithic flash drives are an “All-In-One” microchip. OEM’s like PNY, Kingston and Verbatim use monolithic flash drives because they’re less expensive and allow for greater design flexibility. Some OEM’s like PNY have even moved their entire product lines to monolithics.

Internally monolithic flash drives use the same components as a traditional flash drives and are just as reliable however if the drive is bent the flash memory chip storing your data may be fatally damaged. Since monolithic flash drives can’t be disassembled it makes them challenging and costly to recover.

Thin traces (wires) on a monolithic flash drive.

Thin traces (wires) on a monolithic flash drive.

To access the memory chip inside the drive we need to tap the traces (tiny wires) under the black soldermask. Absolute precision is needed because the traces are as thin or thinner than a human hair. Shorting out or damaging one of these traces could be fatal to the recovery. After contact is made to the traces we need to figure out which trace goes to which pin on the memory chip, like putting numbers in order from 1 to 20 but without seeing the numbers directly. Once we figure out the pin numbers we can read the memory chip and proceed as if it were a regular flash drive.

Knowing what to look for when purchasing a flash drive can save you thousands should you ever need to have your data recovered. Luckily its easy to spot monolithic flash drives if you know what to look for.


[two_third] [dropcap]1[/dropcap]Some manufacturers will put a monolithic chip inside the USB connector and use a plastic case known for their brand. One giveaway is a metal lip in front of the USB connector that is used to keep the chip in place like on this PNY Attache flash drive. Some OEM’s like PNY transitioned from traditional flash drives to monolithic drives for all their product lines while others alternate between traditional and monolithic depending on the production cycle.

Traditional flash drives like this Lexar flash drive have a USB connector that is attached to a circuit board which doesn’t have a lip. These flash drives typically use standard NAND flash memory chips which are easier to recover because the pin-out is known. Monolithic drives have unknown pinouts and use wires thinner than a human hair requiring special tools and expertise to recover.

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PNY Attache

Monolithic PNY Attache disguised as a regular flash drive

Lexar Jump Drive

Lexar Jump Drive

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PNY Micro Sleek Attaché with monolithic flash memory. The folded metal lip on the USB connector holds the monolithic chip.

PNY Micro Sleek Attaché

A slim flash drive with the monolithic chip on a plastic slider. The plastic slider has no support so if bumped it WILL break the monolithic chip

A slim flash drive HP flash drive

A monolithic flash drive encased in a metal case shaped as a key.

A monolithic flash drive encased in a metal shell shaped as a key.

[/one_third] [two_third_last] [dropcap]2[/dropcap]Keychain flash drives or flash drives with unique cases are a dead giveaway that the drive is monolithic. Since monolithic chips can fit inside a USB connector OEM’s can get creative in their case design. For example the PNY Micro Sleek Attaché uses a monolithic chip to get its “Micro” title and hides the monolithic chip inside the USB connector. You can also tell it’s monolithic by the metal lip in front of the connector holding the chip in place.

This HP flash drive is a slim slider. The monolithic chip is held in place by a plastic slider. Since there is no metal support for the chip if it’s bumped the chip will easily crack in two which may damage the NAND chip making recovery impossible. You can tell it’s a monolithic drive because of the slim dimensions.

The next case is a key shaped USB flash drive. The LaCie iamakey made this design famous and spawned many imitators. The monolithic chip is encased in a shell shaped like a key, the head of the key is weighted and the monolithic chip is in the blade. You can tell it’s monolithic by the custom thin shape
[/two_third_last] [two_third] [dropcap]3[/dropcap] While not a flash drive I felt it was important to mention all MicroSD and some SD cards are monolithic. On MicroSD cards the memory chip is the entire size of the card so any crack is fatal. On SD cards the monolithic chip is located at the front of the card (ie: gold contacts). If the top half of a monolithic SD card is damaged it may not be recoverable because the memory chip might be cracked. With the exception of a few manufactures that only use monolithic SD chips (eg: SanDisk) its difficult to tell if an SD card is monolithic without opening the case.

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MicroSD Card