Many of us have experienced this problem at some point with our smartphones: you install a new app, change a setting or update to the latest operating system and suddenly nothing seems to work anymore.
The smartphone will sometimes ‘freeze’ or ‘hang’ during the installation process and in a best case scenario it can simply be restarted to fix the problem. In other cases, you may find that your phone doesn’t turn back on after restarting, or that data has gone missing once the restart has completed. This can be particularly frustrating if your device updates apps or its operating system automatically and something has gone wrong as a result.
If this happens, what should you do? Can you save the data stored on the device yourself or should you contact a specialist right away?
Where is data stored on a smartphone?
For an iOS-based Apple smartphone, all data is stored without exception on the device’s internal memory. Depending on the model, the iPhone has a different sized NAND flash memory chip (for example 32GB or 64GB). Alternatively, data can also be stored as backups on your computer via iTunes or in the cloud via iCloud. The same is true of Apple’s iPad tablet models.
On the other hand, Android-based smartphones have three different methods of storing data. In addition to the internal memory (which is also usually a NAND flash chip), many devices have a micro-SD card slot where a memory card can be inserted to expand the device storage capacity. As a last resort, various types of data (like your contacts/address book) can also be stored on the device’s SIM card.
Can you recover data yourself?
If your smartphone has not suffered physical or complex logical damage, you can try to solve the problem yourself, however this comes with its own risks. To read out the internal memory of an Android-based smartphone, there are some software solutions on the market which transfers the stored data mostly via USB cable to the user´s computer.
The validity of this method will depend on whether the device is recognised as a removable hard disk on your computer. In some cases it may not be, especially if data on the internal memory has been erased due to a crash or an installation abort.
If it is recognised as a removable disk or storage medium, there are some software solutions on the market that can recover the deleted data, as long as you have not waited too long and they have not been overwritten in the meantime by the operating system. In a nutshell, the longer you use the phone post-data loss the more data the device will write and the lower the chances of a recovery will be.
In some cases an image of the entire smartphone data partition is necessary for the data to be recovered. Once complete, it is then possible to transfer this to a computer running appropriate recovery software to interrogate the data store and attempt a recovery. Of course, if your data was stored on the external micro-SD card then you can simply connect it to your computer via a card reader and then target this storage using the recovery software.
Problematic iPhone recoveries
For Apple smartphone owners, the methods used for Android options are usually not available. For example, the practice of reading out data from SIM cards and micro-SD memory cards isn’t possible because iPhones do not support these locations for saving data; only the internal memory is used.
Accessing the internal memory of an iPhone is difficult for most users, although it is possible on older iPhones (up to the iPhone 4) to switch the device into maintenance mode, after which one can access the internal memory, read it out via specialist software and restore deleted data.
For all newer devices (i.e. from the iPhone 4s upwards) this method cannot be used and data recovery can only be done by professional service providers who have the necessary tools to perform a data recovery. These tools and techniques will often be proprietary and not commercially-available.
When should you contact a professional?
Regardless of what iPhone model you have, all smartphones that have suffered physical damage should always be brought to a professional data recovery service provider for a detailed assessment.
Broken casings or smartphones that do not start properly indicate serious problems that cannot or should not be resolved with do-it-yourself methods. This is particularly true with the complex NAND flash memory chips that are used in phones today, which distribute the various data across several memory modules. Data recovery attempts with defective controllers or memory chips can jeopardise your data.
In these cases, DIY recovery tools can even increase the damage and unintentionally change the already complex data structures, making even professional data recovery impossible. Make sure your chose provider has a proven track record of dealing with mobile phone recoveries and is approved by your manufacturer to carry out work, without invalidating any warranties on the device.
Have you ever lost data on your smartphone? What happened and did you get your data back? Let us know by tweeting @KrollOntrackUK