Walt Mossberg

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Personal Technology

Good Ways to Pack Up And Move Your Files Into a New Computer

OK, so you’ve got a new computer, and now you’re facing the hassle of how to migrate all your stuff — programs, files, settings — from the old machine to the new one. How can you do it in the quickest, simplest manner? Here are three common scenarios and how to handle them.

Windows XP to Windows Vista: Microsoft has built a decent migration utility into the new Vista version of Windows. It’s called Windows Easy Transfer. It allows you to migrate folders and files, email accounts and messages, settings and favorites.

Windows Easy Transfer can be used to manage a migration over a network, via burned CDs or DVDs, or with external hard disks. But I tested it only with the simplest approach, the one Microsoft recommends: a special cable called an Easy Transfer cable. The best known of these is made by Belkin. It costs $40, and is available in electronics stores and from www.belkin.com/easytransfercable/. It works only if your old computer is running the very latest version of Windows XP, called SP2.

Walt discusses simple methods for moving files from an old computer to a new one.

In my test, I first installed the software for the Belkin cable on my old Windows XP machine (Vista can handle it out of the box). I then plugged in the cable and used Windows Easy Transfer on both machines, following the instructions as I went along. The process was simple and quick. It transferred over 11,000 files totaling 10.9 gigabytes — documents, music, pictures, videos and more — in about 40 minutes. The files and settings were placed in a new user identity on the Vista PC.

Windows Easy Transfer even lets you select which items to move — and which to skip, if you want. But there are some downsides. Windows Easy Transfer doesn’t move programs, so you will have to reinstall these manually. Microsoft is testing a program that will move programs, called Windows Easy Transfer Companion. You can download it at Microsoft.com/downloads.

Also, I got a blue-screen crash shortly after the transfer completed, but the computer worked after a restart.

I also tested another program that can use the Belkin cable (or a similar cable sold by its publisher), PCMover by Laplink Software. It costs $50, or $60 with the cable, but has the advantage of moving programs, as well as files and settings. In my tests, it worked fine, transferring roughly 23 gigabytes of programs and files in about three hours. It also set up a new user identity on the Vista PC for the transferred material.

However, PCMover can only move all of your stuff. It doesn’t allow you to choose which items to move.

Worse, one of the transferred programs wouldn’t work on the Vista computer because it lacked some underlying components. Moving programs this way is a hit-or-miss proposition, because of the hideously complicated manner in which Windows stores programs on the hard disk and because some Windows programs won’t “activate,” or run, on a PC other than the one on which they were first installed.

Another alternative is a retractable cable called The Tornado, which costs $60 at www.thetornado.com. The beauty of this product is that it requires no software installation; the software is built in and just appears when you plug in the cable. The downside is that the software is entirely manual. You have to select, then drag and drop, folders and files between two windows representing the two computers.

In my tests, it worked fine, but was tedious. And unless you’re a techie, you wouldn’t be able to use it easily to transfer settings and programs, because you wouldn’t know where to find all of the files needed.

Windows XP to Macintosh: If you bought a new Apple Macintosh, instead of a Vista PC, the process of moving your files is even easier. No cable is needed. When you buy a Mac in an Apple retail store, Apple will transfer your pictures, music, movies and other documents from your Windows PC to your new Mac free of charge. If you bought the Mac elsewhere, including Apple’s online store, an Apple retail store will perform the data transfer for $75.

If you plan to run Windows on your Mac using the $80 Parallels software, from Parallels, the company will soon release the final version of a utility called Transporter. This program can transfer all the contents of a real Windows PC into the Windows environment on a Mac. But it works only over a network, and the files it moves won’t be easily accessible by Mac programs. Details are at www.parallels.com/products/desktop/transporter/.

I haven’t tested either of these procedures.

Macintosh to Macintosh: For years, all new Macs have come with an excellent built-in migration utility that, in my experience, is simple, quick and comprehensive. It works via a Firewire cable available for as little as $4 at electronics stores. It moves all types of files, settings and even programs, and lets you choose which types to move. I have used this process multiple times in recent years. It has never failed me, and typically has required two-to-five hours.

Whatever computer you buy, migration is now easier than ever, if not perfect.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com. See video versions of my reviews at wsj.com/mossbergvideo.