Sunday, March 11, 2007

How I recovered Built-in storage that had disappeared on my PDA

Let me start by saying I have a Dell Axim X50v running Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition. This fix will not necessarily work for other devices, but hopefully I can help you figure out a similar solution.

So first, let's define the problem. Many PDAs running WM2003SE and earlier have two types of internal memory:
  1. ROM that is used for storing system files and RAM that can be used for storing and running programs. It takes power to store data in RAM, which is why you'll lose this data if your battery runs out. For this reason Windows Mobile 5.0 and Windows Mobile 6 change the way they store data.
  2. FLASH memory for extra storage. On my device, this is called "Built-in Storage," or BIS. In Windows Mobile 5.0 all programs and files are stored on BIS and loaded into RAM when you need them. It does not take power to store data in flash memory, which means that if your PDA runs out of power you will not lose any data.
I had read reports a while back that some users had their Built-in Storage disappear. It's not entirely clear what causes this. It could be possible that users had installed too many programs to their BIS, or that they had disconnected their device from their computer while it was trying to communicate with their BIS.

Yesterday, I was working on an article for Download Squad that had me installing and uninstalling a number of programs on my Axim to see how they stacked up against one another. Suddenly my device locked up, so I performed a soft reset. When the Today Screen popped back up, I noticed that many of my icons were missing. They were all for programs I'd installed to BIS. I looked for BIS with File Explorer, and couldn't find it. I checked Settings/System/Memory, and there was no Built-in Storage.

I use Spb Backup to perform a complete backup of my device every morning at 5:30. So I performed a hard reset on my device to erase all of the data. Still no BIS. I restored from my backup, and not only was there no BIS, but Spb Backup complained that it couldn't restore all of my programs because of the missing BIS.

So I turned to Google and Aximsite for help. The number one suggestion seems to be to start a hard reset, and then when the screen comes up asking if you really want to do a reset, hit cancel. I tried that, with no luck.

But then it occurred to me that I might have the solution sitting in a pile of CD-ROMs. When I bought my Axim X50v a few years back, I was enthusiastic about the possibility of upgrading it to Windows Mobile 5.0. Then reports started surfacing about how sluggish the upgraded units were, and how they wouldn't recognize memory cards, and actually had lower battery life.

My upgrade CD came in the mail, but I stuck it on my shelf. A few months ago when Dell issued an update that was meant to fix most of these problems, I upgraded my device, tried the patch, decided it wasn't worth it, and went back to using WM2003SE.

The thing is, in order to convert a Dell Axim X50 series to WM5, you need to reformat the Built-in Storage. That's because all of the system files rest in BIS, and are only loaded into RAM when you need them. Well, in order to format BIS, you need to be able to access it, right?

So I popped out my CF and SD cards, popped in my upgrade disc, and about 25 minutes later, my PDA was running Windows Mobile 5.0. This was a good sign, because the upgrade probably would have failed if my BIS was still inaccessible.

Next, I downloaded the program from Dell's support website for rolling my WM5 device back to WM2003SE. 20 minutes later my PDA was restored to its factory default settings, and my BIS was back!

I stuck my SD card back in, used File Explorer to browse over to the backup file I'd created that morning, and clicked restore. I couldn't remember if I'd scheduled Spb Backup to back up files in my BIS, but it turns out I had! When the restore was complete, my Axim X50v was as good as it had been that morning.

Like I said, this solution will obviously only work for Axim X50/X50v owners who have the Windows Mobile 5.0 upgrade CD (and don't want to permanently upgrade their devices). But if you have another PDA with any sort of upgrade CD that reformats the Built-in Storage, I'm pretty sure this is a foolproof method.

Of course, if you don't have the upgrade CD, you can always try to pick one up on eBay. But if your device is under warranty it'd probably be faster and easier just to contact Dell Customer Support and get a replacement unit. That's what I would have done if I hadn't been able to solve the problem on my own.

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