You probably know the feeling: You sit down at a new computer, excited by its potential, only to realize that so much of what you really need is still stuck on your older system. Trading up to a new PC and a new operating system can be a bit like moving into a newer, bigger house; you've got to pack up and relocate every little thing you've amassed over the years, and then customize your new surroundings before it really feels like you're at home. But how are you going to transfer your address book, e-mails, data files, Internet favorites, digital music and photos, specialized applications, desktop wallpaper and screen savers, and all your other personal paraphernalia, not to mention your application and system settings?
Copying all this data manually is an option in principle, but it's hopelessly tedious and error-prone in practice. You're likely to miss files hidden in some dark corner of your hard drive—and even if you do succeed in copying all your data files, you've still solved only part of the problem. Many Microsoft Windows applications store key settings in the Registry or in profile files. If your new PC has a newer operating system or newer versions of applications, the older settings may have moved or not be applicable at all. Copying your hard-drive contents wholesale isn't an option, either, since a new operating system and new underlying hardware will require all kinds of different files that you don't want to risk overwriting.
In an ideal world, you wouldn't have to worry about any of this. You could press a few buttons and transfer everything that made your old system unique right onto your new one. While such a panacea is beyond the current state of the art, a number of system-migration tools take a big step in that direction. We've reviewed a variety of them (see http://go.pcmag.com/migration )—so now let's take a look at how you can actually put them to use to help get your new PC set up just like your old one.
What You Can Migrate
All migration tools aim to move your data files and at least some of your application settings—things like program options and preferences, toolbar positions, custom dictionaries, and so on. In order to move settings for a particular application, though, the tool must be explicitly designed to support it. Most migration tools can move settings for dozens of common applications from Microsoft, Intuit, and other major software publishers, but you should check to see if particular applications you depend on are supported. If you're a power user, you'll undoubtedly have some apps with settings that no product supports, which means you'll have to make any settings changes manually; fortunately, many programs don't have all that many crucial configuration options. Also, if you're upgrading from an older version of an application to a newer one—from Microsoft Word 98 to Word XP, for example—you'll want to see if the migration tool can handle the conversion.
A few migration tools will also attempt to move applications themselves, although many won't, citing both licensing considerations (many software licenses give you the right to install an application on only a single PC) and the difficulty of ensuring that an application that was installed on one specific hardware and software configuration will work properly on a totally different machine.
In a moment we'll take a look at how three different utilities can assist with your migration. Alohabob PC Relocator 2005 Ultra Control Edition is our Editors' Choice for application movers; Computer Associates' Desktop DNA Professional 4.7 is our Editors' Choice for settings movers. See our reviews at http://go.pcmag.com/alohabob and http://go.pcmag.com/desktopdna , respectively. (Desktop DNA was previously published by Miramar Systems, which has been acquired by CA; an updated version of the product was entering alpha testing as we finished this story.) Additionally, Windows XP comes with a free, albeit basic, migration tool, the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard (FAST). (Microsoft also provides the User State Migration Tool, or USMT, but since it's a command-line program designed for enterprise system administrators who need to migrate systems en masse, we won't explore it in depth here.)
Planning Your Migration
Before you dive into the migration, it pays to do a little bit of preparation. First, decide how you're going to transfer the data from one system to another. Your options generally include a standard network connection or shared folders, some other physical (USB, Ethernet crossover, parallel, or serial) direct connection, or removable media. Migrating across the network is the easiest solution if both the old and new PCs are already networked—but if you're going to use shared folders, start by making sure that both the old PC and new PC can access them successfully, which can take a bit of work if you're using widely divergent OS versions such as Windows XP and Windows Me.
Using a crossover cable of one kind or another is a straightforward alternative, but unless you use a high-speed technology like USB 2.0 or 100 megabits per second (or faster) Ethernet, transferring your data can take hours. Removable media like CD-Rs will work for some, but if you have large amounts of data—particularly music and digital photos—you'll need a large numbers of discs and have to do lots of swapping to complete the migration. Burning CDs can also be tricky if the OS you're migrating from doesn't natively support it. If you're lucky enough to have a DVD burner in your old system, that's a more viable option, but we're still partial to migrating via a wired connection.
If you're using one of the slower transfer methods, it might be worthwhile to clean out unneeded data that's lurking on your old machine. Consider deleting large e-mail attachments, old digital photos, or other space-consuming files if you no longer need them.
Next, make a list of all the users who have accounts on your old machine, if it's set up for multiple users. Migration will go most smoothly if you create identical individual user accounts on the new machine. If you're using a settings mover rather than a full application mover, install your programs on the target PC before you begin the migration.
Take a minute to make sure that both the old system and the new system are ready for the transfer. It is a good idea to visit Windows Update ( www.windowsupdate.com ) to ensure that your systems have all the latest security fixes and patches. Update your antivirus software and run a complete scan of both machines, to prevent transferring an undetected infection from your old system to the new one. We recommend running an antispyware program too. Once you've completed scanning, though, you may want to shut these programs' real-time scan engines off temporarily, as well as your software firewalls—migration-tools vendors say they can sometimes interfere with the migration process. Disconnect both machines from the Internet before you do this, to avoid attacks during the transfer process! Shut down applications and unneeded tray items and make sure that, if you're using a laptop, you're connected to AC power. You don't want your battery to run out in the middle of a move.
Using FAST Migration
The Windows Files and Settings Transfer Wizard doesn't transfer applications, and it's a vanilla product with few options and no undo feature or detailed reporting capabilities. But since it's included with Windows XP, it's worth knowing about.
You can launch the Windows Files and Settings Transfer Wizard in two ways. One is to insert the Windows XP CD-ROM, select Perform Additional Tasks, and select Transfer Files and Settings. Or, on a machine with Windows XP installed, go to Start | All Programs | Accessories | System Tools, where you'll find FAST listed. FAST will offer to make a disc you can put into the old PC, in case it's not running Windows XP and thus doesn't already have the program to support the other end of the transfer.
FAST really is a simple wizard—you just click through a few short panes, optionally add settings, directories, or file types beyond the default, and let it do its work. If you want more detailed control over the migration, one of the following two third-party products might serve you better.
Using Alohabob Pc Relocator
Alohabob PC Relocator 2005 Ultra Control Edition is unusual in that it does transfer many applications. Install it on both your old and new PC, and it will walk you through a few simple setup steps on each. If your machines are networked, beginning the migration can be as simple as browsing for the source machine from the target machine, selecting the Automatic transfer mode, reviewing and accepting its suggestions, and proceeding with the migration. Should you want more control over the transfer process, you can choose Standard or Expert Selectivity modes, which will let you pick specific files, folders, and settings to migrate, and also give you estimates of the likelihood that each individual application on your system will be transferred successfully. In Expert mode, you can even redirect applications to new locations if you want to organize your new disk differently.
We generally recommend attempting to transfer everything Alohabob supports. If you encounter a problem, you can use PC Relocator's undo feature to roll back the changes and perform another migration with finer control over what you move.
Using Desktop Dna
Computer Associates' Desktop DNA, which moves settings and configurations but not entire applications, lets you perform either a real-time or a deferred migration. As with FAST and Alohabob, real-time migrations are straightforward—you simply run the software on both PCs and direct the newer machine to contact the old one.
Desktop DNA's deferred-migration option provides a convenient alternative if you don't want to have both systems running simultaneously. It creates an executable file on your old system that you can copy to the new system at any time and by any mechanism. Running the executable on the new system performs the migration whenever you're ready. Desktop DNA lets you choose settings for a typical migration or tweak exactly what it will transfer, and it includes an undo feature.
After Using the Migration Tools
Once you've completed the migration, check your new PC to make sure the migration worked as expected. No migration program is perfect, and you'll likely find a few gaps in coverage during the first few days you use your new machine. Still, with the help of these tools you should be able to move to your new PC and feel nearly at home within just a few hours.