Everyone loses files, even on a Mac. Sooner or later, you'll delete a file by mistake, then empty the OS X Trash – and then realise that you needed that deleted file after all. Anyone who uses a computer heavily can also find a file has been lost to a software glitch, disk crash or some other disaster. Stellar Phoenix Mac Data Recovery is one of a small number of OS X apps designed to claw back deleted or otherwise lost files from your hard disk, or from the flash card in your camera.
Apps like this can't perform miracles, and the file you want to recover may be gone forever. Depending on circumstances, however, this app (or one like it) may be able to bring your data back to life after it seemed to be gone forever – a lot like the phoenix the app is named after, the legendary bird that dies and returns to life from its own ashes.
Stellar Phoenix Mac Data Recovery sports an elegant, efficient interface that may help calm you down when you're desperate to recover data. The opening screen has a big Recover Data button and two smaller buttons labelled Create Image and Resume Recovery. I'll get back to those smaller buttons in a moment, since you'll probably start with Recover Data. After clicking that button the user is presented with options to recover photos, deleted files, whole partitions that got deleted by mistake or through a software glitch, or files on an iPod, CD, or DVD.
All these options work in essentially the same way – they scan a disk for data that has the characteristics ("signature") of a known file type like a PNG image or an MP3 audio file. When I told the app to search my 500GB hard disk for deleted files, it took an hour to scan unused parts of the disk, and eventually displayed a tree-structured list of hundreds of files that might be recoverable.
The tree-structured list wasn't structured to match the directory structure of the disk, but rather it was arranged according to file types, so that all image files were displayed in a branch of the tree labelled Graphics & Photos, and all documents were displayed in a branch labelled Documents. Stellar Phoenix outclassed a rival app, Prosoft's Data Rescue 3, by using OS X's built-in QuickLook feature to display the contents of the files it listed; Data Rescue 3 used its own less-powerful built-in previewer.
In Stellar Phoenix, I was able to select a file in the list of recoverable files and simply click on a QuickLook menu. If QuickLook displayed the whole file, then it was worth recovering. If, as happened often, QuickLook only showed a tiny fraction of the original document, that meant that the file couldn't really be recovered, even though Stellar Phoenix listed it among files that might be salvageable.
Unfortunately, I couldn't simply scroll down the list of files to preview each, rather I had to select and click on each one in turn, a procedure that quickly becomes tiring – but at least I got an accurate, reliable indication of whether the recovered file would be complete. As with other apps of this type, however, the app usually has no way to guess the original file name, so you may need to preview dozens of arbitrarily-named PNG files before you find the one you want to recover.
When I had selected the files I wanted to save, I clicked on the Recover button and Stellar Phoenix saved the files to a USB drive that I had plugged into the system. It rightly refused to save files to the same disk from which I was trying to recover them, because this would have risked overwriting some other file that I might want to recover.
So what about those other two buttons on the main menu, Create Image and Resume Recovery? You use Create Image when a drive is physically failing and you want to capture everything on it to some other location so that you can recover individual files later on – even after the original drive may have failed completely.
Resume Recovery is the button to use when you've already begun a recovery operation but had to stop in the middle to restart your computer or for any other reason. As long as you used the app's option to save the data it uses for recovering files, then you can do this and when you come back to the recovery process, you don't have to wait an hour or more while the app rescans the drive.
Not quite Stellar
Everything about these basic operations worked well on the whole, but I found one strange glitch. The app includes a feature that lets you add a new "file signature" to the program's built-in list of file types. I tried to use this feature to add the format used by the WordPerfect word processor to the list of file types. As the program requested, I dragged ten existing WordPerfect files into a file signature window, and the program told me that it had successfully added the signature to its list of types. But when I looked at the list of file signatures recognised by the program, the new type wasn't there. I was puzzled by this, so I tried it again, with exactly the same result. In contrast, Data Rescue 3's version of this same feature worked perfectly.
Compared to Data Rescue 3, Stellar Phoenix offers a more useful previewer, which made it easier for me to tell in advance whether my files would be recoverable. But in all other ways, Data Rescue 3 offered a comparable feature set and a generally smoother experience. Fortunately, with both apps, you can download the program in a trial version, run it to see whether it can actually recover your files – you can use the preview feature to determine whether the file you want can be brought back to life – and then pay for it so that it can perform the actual recovery.
If I had to choose one data recovery tool for the Mac, on balance I’d go with Data Rescue 3, which is fast and slick. However, Stellar Phoenix's use of the QuickLook previewer instead of a more limited built-in previewer is very handy, and may prove enough of a boon to lure you over to the Stellar package. My advice is to download both trial versions and let each one scan for deleted files on your disk, and see which app feels more at home on your system. Really, you’re not likely to go wrong with either of these pieces of software, as both do their job well.