CNetX Flash Format 2.61

It's a full on, hard-hitting world that we live in. It's easy to under state just how much rough and tumble my trusty Handheld PC's can get in the course of a week. With that rough and tumble it's perhaps all too easy to become complacent over just how much of it computer hardware can take.

If you're anything like me, you wont take too many chances with the data you carry around with you. It comes with the territory that invariably purchasing a Handheld means obtaining an external storage card of some sort - from somewhere. So, you keep your H/PC databases synced every day with Outlook on your host, and jubilantly install all your applications into external storage. Saving all your data along with it. Feeling safe?

Yes? Well perhaps you shouldn't be.

Now before you all run for your clamshells, don't worry. I'm not pre-ordaining a CF Armageddon. But what perhaps the average user doesn't realise is the actual life expectancy and reliability of any given solid-state (CF, SD, MMC, Memory Stick) storage device. They are actually fairly low. Depending on the technology the life of a solid-state device can be anything from 100,000 read / write actions down to 10,000.

With this in mind, it's clear that keeping your storage cards in tip-top condition should be of paramount importance, as well as keeping an eye out for those tell-tale signs that can rapidly lead to data loss.

CNetX have just the answer. Flash Format.
Flash Format provides some crucially lacking functionality from Windows CE. Like it's name suggests, Flash Format's primary aim is to...well. Format storage devices. As any Windows CE user who has ever had a need to completely wipe a storage device will tell you. This under Windows CE is simply not possible. Unless! the disk has become corrupt.

At which point the last thing you want to be thinking about is "do I want to format away all my precious data".
Simply the Windows CE team must have lost the will to live at the point where they decided on implementing this system.

Now this is where Flash Format simply comes into it's own. For not only is it capable of correctly formatting your storage cards. (in the way that you want them to be) It is also an integrity checker. Precisely just what most users really need when CE decides it can no longer be friends with your data.

CNetX are not the highest profile developer in the Handheld PC world, which is a shame because they really have thought about their products from a users stand point. When you come to download the application you are presented with a wizard asking you to specify your device type, as well as clearly outlining what devices and processors are supported.

A very well thought about delivery system begins a promising experience

Once selected you are prompted to choose whether you wish to download the host side installer application, or download a version specifically for the device.
This is a feature worthy of pointing out. You can download the file directly onto your Handheld PC, and run it as an installable package (not a cab) right there using CNetX's installer application.
For new users, as well as users who need to access the program in a hurry this is invaluable. If you are stuck on the train when your storage card starts playing up, just whip out your cell phone. A few clicks, a 60KB download and you're home and dry.

Once installed, you may be puzzled by the absence of the application on the Start Menu. CNetX have chosen to make Flash Format available through the Control Panel rather than as a standard program. Once you know where it is, this isn't a problem.

 

Flash Format is accessed via the Control Panel

Double tapping the icon prompts Flash Format to search for storage devices

Flash Format will perform a bus scan and gather device statistics when run

Once loaded the 'Info' tab will be displayed, listing the details of your primary storage device. (the one represented in Windows CE Explorer as "Storage Card") Information displayed here is self explanatory. The "Samsung-Rev 1.15-A558" is the manufacturer id of the storage card itself and will vary between hardware.

The info tab displays basic usage information

Basic information on the card is provided as one would expect. The only entry listed here that may cause some confusion is what CNetX term "Slack Space". (I call it cluster waste). Without getting overly technical, this is a syndrome common to all storage devices where by the data storage is divided up into small clusters. Only 1 file can share 1 cluster. So if you have a 64KB cluster size on your storage device, and a 96KB file. One full 64KB cluster will be used and only 32KB of the second. Leaving 32KB empty and unusable until the file is deleted, moved or modified.
Clicking the refresh button prompts Flash Format to re-scan the storage device. Scanning is not done in real time, sensible if you consider the 10,000 read event life span of some hardware!

Advanced information and the Integrity Checker

Moving along to the 'Advanced' tab, the information becomes more technically orientated. The data provides some statistics on your current configuration. The specific details of which are beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say that if you have a need to know what they are, the info is exceptionally useful as it cannot be found elsewhere in Windows CE.
Of perhaps then most significance here is the 'Verify and Repair' button. This, as one would expects is the fixer button. By running the equivalent of Scan Disk on the selected storage device this feature allows damaged and even lost data to be recovered.

When CNetX first sent us the review license I inserted the CF card that has lived in my hp 340LX / Digital camera, unchecked since at least 1998.
Was I surprised at the results! An embarrassing number of reported errors came back, all of which Flash Format reported as fixed. I even found some data placed by Flash Format on the root of my card that I thought I had misplaced!

The checker is fully automated requiring just a few seconds

It is important to note that data recovery in this style is exceptionally difficult. While Flash Format did an excellent job at fixing errors. Some of the recovered data was restored as a CHK file. This means that the core information was recovered from the file. However Flash Format could not ascertain what the actual file name originally was. This is a situation found in ANY FAT recovery tool on ANY platform.
CNetX have provided Flash Format users with a possible was to prevent this, which can be found as an option on the next tab.

Formatting, Flash Formats name sake; a well needed feature in CE

The 'Format' tab. Formatting is a sure way to alleviate most errors from a storage card. (Except for hardware errors caused by life expectancy constraints) The format process wipes the records of files from a storage device; attempts to reconstruct damaged data areas and forces the retesting of areas marked as "unusable".
If you are noticing lots of errors with your storage card, or Windows CE has prompted you to format the card because "It is an invalid format" then after running a Verify and Repair and backing up all your data. You may find giving the card a once over on the Format tab solves the problem.

The options here afford you some commonly used features. Such as the Microsoft Standard "My Documents" folder being created after formatting.
The 'Restore Attachments' option can be used if you have specified that Pocket Outlook's Inbox should store large email attachments on external storage.
'Digital Camera support' will establish some of the most common digital stills camera setting and folder hierarchy's. The aim here is that if you share the card with a digital camera. Upon insertion into the camera you wont be asked to format the card.

Verify after format it self-explanatory, however not enabled by default. I recommend that you enable this option when you format a card. It only adds a few seconds to the format time and is well worth the peace of mind.

The 'File System' and 'Cluster Size' options are technical. Unless you specifically know what you are doing, and understand the consequences of changing these options you should leave these at their recommended values. (Marked with a *)
FAT12, FAT16 and FAT32 are available file system options, depending on the storage hardware.

Lastly, as mentioned above, CNetX have provided a possible solution to my 'unknown file' problem. This comes in the form of the 'Backup FAT' option.
You have to format the card to use Backup FAT, you can't simply enable it.
What Backup FAT does is provide a third 'layer' on the storage card, a pure backup of the first layer. So should something happen to the original copy, the information of the file names, file types, file sizes and so on can be recovered, along with any damaged data found in the second layer.
How much of your storage card this extra data takes up it directly proportional to the size of the storage device and the cluster size. If you feel you carry information with you that requires this extra safeguard, then the loss of a fractional percentage of your storage card and marginally slower write performance may be a suitable trade off.
If you use your CF card for playing Pocket Doom... or listening to mp3's then it probably isn't.

Flash Format does monitor for changes in state of any storage device. On each of the three main tabs a drop box has been on each, providing access to secondary or even additional storage adapters. The monitoring of this list is performed in real-time. So by ejecting a ATA Flash storage card from your device the entry will disappear and if applicable display a different storage device. Upon inserting a new card, again the list is updated and details on the new device are made available in milliseconds.

Flash Format boasts an impressive array of supported storage devices including:

  • ATA Flash
  • Compact Flash (CF)
  • Secure Digital (SD)
  • Multimedia Cards (MMC)
  • SmartMedia Cards
  • Sony Memory Stick
  • PCMCIA RAM Cards
  • MicroDrives
  • Others including SCSI hosted drives (untested by CNetX)

A good level of documentation is provided to aid the non-technical user around the program, however some of the technical terms used are not explained at the level of a non-technical user - or at all. This shouldn't pose a problem for most new users who likely wont wish to know anyway.

CNetXs technical support team are helpful, knowledgeable and open about their product. We here at HPC:Factor like to test technical support as a matter of course during our reviews process. Our unassociated, technical request was picked up first thing Monday (European time) and we had a reply first thing Tuesday (UK time). Our request surrounding the use of Adaptec SCSI controllers was highly specialised, and while admitting they hadn't tested using a similar setup. Were helpful in explaining the checks undergone by Flash Format and Windows CE itself to ensure compatibility and what to look out for.
All in all an experience that cannot be faulted.

CNetX Flash Format is available for $11.95 (£6.70 GBP, €9.60 EUD, ¥1340 JPY est.) and a 14 day unrestricted trial is also available. The safeguards that Flash Format offers, combined with some very useful features that are sorely lacking in Windows CE itself make the price worth while. Even if you never need to use the data recovery system I would still recommend that users have Flash Format in their software library.

... and if you do have to use it. It'll have paid for itself 10 times over.


System Requirements:

Windows CE 2.11 and HPC2000
SH3, SH4, StrongArm, MIPS, XScale

Rating  
Cost: 5 Star Rating: Exceptional
Usability: 4 Star Rating: Recommended
Built-In helps: 3 Star Rating: Average
Customer Service: 5 Star Rating: Exceptional
Overall: 4 Star Rating: Recommended

Flash Format can be found at the following URL.
http://www.cnetx.com/

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Chris Tilley
Editor-in-Chief