Old files, new Mac

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You finally did it—you got a new Mac to replace your aging one. Congratulations! But before you sell your old machine on eBay, you need to take care of business. The older Mac contains a whole bunch of data that you’d like to keep. So how do you transfer it from the old Mac to the new? The answer depends on how much of the contents you want and how much time you’d like to spend.

Use Apple’s Migration Assistant

For starters, you can use the software that Apple provides for these transfer tasks. Originally called Setup Assistant, Migration Assistant is included on all Macs that shipped with Mac OS X 10.3.4 or later. It launches by default the first time you start the new machine. However, you can launch it again at any time; it’s located in the /Applications/Utilities folder.

This easy-to-use utility walks you through transferring your files, including the necessary step of using Target Disk Mode to mount the older computer’s hard drive on your new machine. You decide how much data to move. You don’t erase the contents of your new drive. Instead, Migration Assistant selectively deletes files on your new computer and replaces them with the transferred versions.

You can choose to transfer just your Home folder, all your user accounts, or most of the files and folders at the root level of your drive (including the Library and Applications folders, but not the System folder).

Migration Assistant copies only files newer than the ones already on your drive. So you don’t have to worry about accidentally replacing iMovie HD with an older version, for example. It also offers an option for transferring existing networking and sharing settings, so you don’t have to re-create them.

Be aware that if you use Migration Assistant after you’ve created an account on your new Mac, and transfer over an account that has the same name, the utility will disable the new account and move it to the /Users/Deleted Users folder.

The Upside Migration Assistant is the most user-friendly way to transfer a lot of data from one Mac to another. It replaces files selectively, so you don’t erase your new drive—and the new version of the OS that’s on it—in the process of bringing over old data. There’s also little chance of unintentionally deleting critical files.

The Downside Many settings don’t transfer to the new Mac, including those for printers, iSync, Bluetooth, Energy Saver, Software Update, and your .Mac iDisk. Of course, re-creating these settings is usually not a big deal. In most cases, you can boot from your old Mac to see what they were.

You may have problems getting Migration Assistant to work if the firmware on your older Mac isn’t up-to-date. Firmware is machine-specific software on the Mac’s logic board. You can modify it only with a firmware updater. To make your firmware current, download and run your Mac model’s latest updater from Apple’s Web site. (If your firmware is already current, the updater will tell you so.)

Clone Your Old Mac

In this scenario, you erase and replace the contents of your new Mac’s hard drive. You can’t do this simply by copying files via the Finder. For one thing, doing so won’t copy OS X’s essential invisible files. For another, it won’t correctly transfer file permissions. The upshot? Your Mac won’t start.

The solution is to use backup software designed for this task. The easiest-to-use and most feature-packed programs don’t come from Apple. Instead, choose a third-party alternative, such as Shirt Pocket’s $20 SuperDuper (   ) or Bombich Software’s free Carbon Copy Cloner (   ; [at press time, it had not been updated for Tiger]). Use one of these utilities to clone an exact copy of your old drive onto the new. After you’re done, either program can serve as a general backup utility.

You can also use Disk Utility (/Applications/Utilities) to clone the older Mac’s hard drive, although some people report problems booting from the destination volume after a transfer. Mount your old computer on the new one’s desktop using Target Disk Mode, launch Disk Utility, and select your old Mac in the column on the left. Click on the Restore tab. From the list of mounted drives, drag the old Mac’s startup volume to the Source field and the new Mac’s startup volume to the Destination field. Select the Erase Destination option and click on Restore.

The Upside When you clone a drive, you can be 100 percent certain that every single file on your old Mac has made it onto your new one. And if all goes well, permissions and passwords will work as before. Your new machine will be exactly the same as your old one, just faster and better. This is especially reassuring if you’re a power user who has customized or added files in the Library folder, or the Library folder within the System folder.

The Downside Success depends on the quality of the software you use and whether you follow the directions correctly. Make a mistake or trip over a bug in the software, and you could wind up with a drive that doesn’t boot or a bunch of lost data.

Also, this method works best if your old and new Macs are running the same version of OS X, and if you don’t have any essential computer-specific files that the transfer would erase. If your old Mac is running Panther and your new Mac is running Tiger, don’t clone your old Mac without upgrading it first.

And this method will erase any of your new Mac’s bonus software, such as the latest version of Apple’s iLife and your trusty Nanosaur 2. You can reinstall these items, but this is another hassle.

Transfer Select Files by Hand

Your final option is to transfer just essential documents and applications, using the Finder. Start up your new Mac and create a user account. Connect the two computers via Target Disk Mode. Then transfer the files you want from your old Home directory. Transfer more-current applications, or apps you don’t have on your new Mac, from your old Applications folder.

I recommend that you also transfer the Library folder that’s in your old Home folder. Don’t use it to replace the new one—store it separately. You can retrieve and transfer files, such as your Safari bookmarks file, from that location later. (It’s the Bookmarks.plist file located in / your user folder / Library/Safari.)

The Upside There’s almost no chance that you’ll unintentionally transfer or delete something this way, because you maintain complete control. You don’t change any system software, so you’ll also have the least likelihood of encountering problems when you restart your new Mac.

The Downside You have to decide exactly what to transfer, and this method doesn’t automatically transfer any settings, so you’ll have to reset everything yourself (or transfer the files that store the settings). More than with the other methods, you’ll find that you have to reinstall various applications, especially those that require a serial number for installation.

Moving Up, Moving On

If you’re deciding whether to get a new Mac, don’t let the prospect of transferring your data hold you back. Apple’s Migration Assistant makes moving easier than ever before. And with any of the methods described here, you can reliably and quickly transfer all the stuff you want to save.

[ Contributing Editor Ted Landau is the author of the forthcoming Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition (Peachpit Press). He also writes monthly columns for MacFixIt and the Mac Observer.]

Apple’s Migration Assistant provides an easy way to move files from an old Mac to a new one. It walks you through the process from start to finish.
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