Smooth Moves: Your New PC

Background

So you've finally replaced that old Pentium 4 with one of the latest dual/quad core machines. Now you have some serious horsepower and maybe even a bright, crisp LCD display to go with it. Now what? How do you get your programs and data from your old computer to the new one with the least hassle? For those who have experienced it, getting what you need on the new computer could make a good horror movie! You want to start using your new computer but the thought of what you have to go through to get what you need on that new computer is stalling you. Is there a quick fix? Are there ways to just seamlessly migrate to the new system without having to reinstall all your software and manually copy data? Lets take a look at some options and try to make the move a little easier.

Save your boxes/packing material!

I always recommend saving all the boxes and packing materials from your new system (monitor included if you bought one). As most companies begin to cut corners in order to keep profits up while at the same time dropping the cost of products, it's an unfortunate fact that a fair percentage of "late model" electronic equipment is faulty right out of the box. Brand doesn't seem to matter much as most companies buy parts from other companies that manufacture hardware that is "streamlined for profit" a little more than for quality. This is particularly true with LCD monitors as it is relatively common to find a hot or dead pixel or two on the display. Sometimes hot/dead pixels don't cause a problem but occasionally you'll get a hot pixel that is very bright and distracting. We as consumers need to do the responsible thing and not accept such defects as "normal", else the trend will continue.

Check out your new system and make sure everything appears to be running well. Check your monitor by going to a web site that displays a dark background (preferably where most/all of the screen is black) and inspect your monitor to be sure that no small points of light exist that might distract you. Then repeat with a bright background where most/all of the screen is white and make sure there are no dark spots on the white as well. If you see any, you can repack the monitor and take it back for an exchange. Similarly, if you keep getting errors like drive read errors, lockups, the "blue screen of death" (which is less of a concern on new systems), or other things that make your new PC fail to function normally, don't hesitate to pack the PC itself back up and take it back to where you bought it as well. Just be sure to do your homework first to verify that it is an actual problem with the PC as opposed to a problem with certain software. To simplify, the software that was delivered on the PC should run without issue. If you install new software that has some problem or locks up (while the rest of the PC is fine), it may not be the computer and hence would not warrant a trip back to the store!

Most places that sell computers either have staff competent enough to fix the problem or if they don't have the staff, they'll just give you a new one. The bottom line is that you paid good money for your new system: make sure it is working properly before you kick the boxes and packing material to the curb. In fact, I make it a habit of keeping boxes and packing materials for the length of the store return policy, usually between two weeks and 30 days. After that, I usually toss them, although it isn't a bad idea to keep monitor packing/boxes for any (planned or unplanned) moves in the future.

Backups, backups, backups!

It is important that you have a full backup of both systems (old and new) before you begin the process of transferring anything from the old computer to the new computer. Use a program that is able to back up the entire system and restore it easily and back up both the old system and the new one. That way, if anything should go wrong on either system, you can at least go back to square one with nothing lost. One program that I can recommend for doing backups is Acronis. I've use Acronis on multiple systems and have always been able to recover the system even when replacing hard drives with larger ones. Even in the event of a complete hard drive failure, your "rescue CD" can be used to boot and populate a new and freshly formatted drive with exactly what you had before using the Acronis backup. Even if your new PC comes with a rescue or restore CD, I still recommend making your own backup. Don't bargain that the rescue CD will restore exactly what you had before!

Where do you store your backup? I'd recommend buying a USB hard drive from your local electronics/computer store. You can get a 320 GB USB hard drive that is powered solely from the USB port (doesn't need an AC adapter) for a little over a hundred dollars. Due to compression, you should be able to back up a full hard drive as large as about 500 GB with one of those 320 GB drives. Of course, if your hard drive isn't full or you have a smaller hard drive, you could probably back up both the old and new machines on one USB drive. Now that you've created a backup, it is safe to start the moving process.

Update your new PC with the latest software

Your new PC probably came with Windows Vista installed, but even if it has the latest service pack from Microsoft, it likely needs some updates. Assuming that you've already gone through the setup process and your new PC can connect with the internet, click "Start", "Control Panel", "System Maintenance", "Windows Update" and then choose "Check for Updates" in the upper left of the window. Windows will likely find one or more updates. Click "Install" and wait for the system to install the update(s); this can take a few minutes up to a half hour or so. While an update is in progress, there should be a small "Installing Updates" icon on the lower right of your screen on the task bar. You can click on that icon to see progress. If you are asked to reboot/restart, go ahead and restart and then once your new system restarts, go through the above process again and check for updates one more time. Sometimes it takes two rounds to get all the updates because some of the latest updates can't be installed until the first batch is installed. Once you do this, your new system should be updated to the latest software and should be ready to use. Don't be surprised, however, if another update or two need to be installed in the next day or so since not all updates are available at all times.

A quick look at software/data moving programs

You may be tempted to bite on software that claims to be able to move all your data and programs from your old computer to the new one via a cable or network. While I believe that you might be safe moving just the data and not the programs, data can be moved using the backup that you made (from your old computer above) just using Windows Explorer if you are comfortable with the folder structure and where things should go. As to being able to move software, settings, desktop backgrounds, and icons, my advice is to stay away from software that claims it can do that! Since I had already backed up my system, I figured I'd give one of the more "touted" programs a try. I tried a solution called PCMover to move not only my data, but my programs as well. Results were abysmal! It did complete the move and the new machine did "look" like the old one on the display, but it had fouled up the operating system to the point that it was not recoverable. Not even Windows Explorer worked properly. It took me an entire day fooling with PCMover and trying everything down to manually trying to move only one software package while disabling the steps that try to move your Windows directory and system files (yes, it actually tries to do that) and still I was nowhere at the end of the day. Thankfully, Acronis saved me and I was able to restore everything to "out of the box" state in just a few minutes every time I wanted to go back to a clean slate. To be fair, I was moving from a Vista 32 system to a Vista 64 system but their web site advertises that PCMover can do that and I was sure to install the proper versions on the two systems. It may work better when going from and to the exact same operating system but I'd still be leery of using any software that claims to be able to move all your software and data to a new computer. There are just too many variables involved and in all likelihood you'll just end up degrading the performance of your new PC at beast, or rendering it nearly brain dead at worst.

In the end, it took me far less time to just dust off all my old software and reinstall each one manually. Not only did it take less time, but my system actually worked properly after the transfer rather than being "lobotomized" by the PCMover software always moving files and settings that were inappropriate for the new system. So my recommendation here, unfortunately, is to take the time to do it right! You have a clean new machine with no problems: don't make dozens of horrendous problems by trying to automatically move all the garbage that has collected on your old machine, drivers that don't match, and the like. Take the time to manually reinstall your software properly and you can then restore your data only from the backup you made from your old machine: just plug in the USB drive that you used for the backup and browse your Acronis backup of the old PC and tell the new system which files you would like from the old system (My Documents, My Pictures, other file folders, etc.).

New computer is ready to go: do another backup!

Once you get your new computer set up and ready to go, before you breathe a sigh of relief and pat yourself on the back for a job well done in the migration, do another backup with Acronis! You did a lot of work getting from that old computer to the new one, so a backup at this point ensures that you aren't brought to your knees again with a hardware failure. Again, new hardware does fail from time to time. It isn't unheard of for a brand new computer to lose a hard drive just a week after you bought it. Is it likely? No, but it does happen on occasion. If that happened and you have your Acronis backup, you can simply get a new hard drive, restore the backup, and you're back in business with only the time it takes for Acronis to restore the data on the new hard drive (normally an hour or less).

Planning for the future

Knowing that there is no quick fix for transferring your programs and data from an old PC to a new one, there are some things you can do to make your next PC upgrade much less painful:

  1. First, be diligent about filing all your software and associated serial numbers or unlock keys. If your software is in hard copy (CD or other media), store the CD and any serial numbers associated with that CD together so they will not get lost. For software that you purchased online or that was delivered via download, be sure to put a copy of the install program and the email showing your registration information in a specific folder where you can find it. For example, if you download a file called q09-107.exe to install Qimage v2009.107 and you get an email giving you your unlock key, save that q09-107.exe file along with a copy of the email (paste into notepad and save if you like). Save the unlock information as a text file in the same folder as the install file: call it something like "password.txt" so you know that it contains your unlock information. I would suggest making a folder called "Installs" and then creating a new subfolder for each program you install. Each time you install a program, create a new subfolder under "Installs", naming the folder by the program name and save a copy of the installation file (like q09-107.exe) and add a password.txt file in the same folder that contains information on how to register/unlock that software. Be sure to keep the install program and the password.txt file showing how to register that software together in the same folder! Doing this allows you to always go back to the version you bought and ensures you can unlock that version and make it a full registered version without having to download a later version from a web site and risk having to pay upgrade fees: unlike Qimage, most software does not offer free lifetime upgrades. If you do this regularly, you may be surprised how easy it is to get your old software working on your new computer.

  2. Store your data in a place where you can find it! This step seems simple, but sometimes it takes some thought. Don't just accept the default and save files on your hard drive wherever your computer wants to put them without really realizing where the files actually reside. If you run a small business named XYZ Inc for example, create a folder on your hard drive (under "Documents" is fine) and call that folder XYZ. Then store all files related to your business such as spreadsheets, documents, graphics, logos, web pages, taxes, etc. in subfolders under the "XYZ" folder. That way when you go to move your data, you can simply select/drag your XYZ folder from your old computer over to the new one if both computers are on a network. If not on a network, create an XYZ folder on your USB portable drive and copy it there, transferring it later to the new PC. Here again, a little organization goes a long way!

  3. The third step in organizing your computer is to put everything you actually need/use on your desktop. If you have an icon for every program you use on a daily basis, it'll be easy to put the two computers side by side and install one program at a time, checking off the icons (in your mind, not on your screen) ;-) as you put them on the new computer. In the end, your new computer will have all the icons you need when you are done. For the stuff that you rarely use or stuff you know that you can download again at any time off the internet (like free tools that you know still exist on the web and you won't have to pay again to get working).

Keep your old PC for a while

Similar to how you kept your boxes and packing material just in case, keep your old PC around for at least a month, preferably longer if possible. If you followed the advice here and created a full backup of your old PC, at least you have the data from the old PC but cases may arise where you actually need to turn on your old computer to get some information. As an example, what if you used a certain software package on your old computer that you forgot to move to the new computer or (more likely) may not even run on the new computer because it isn't compatible with your new operating system? It could be a quarterly tax return program that is not supported under Vista and is no longer made/supported, for example. Now almost three months have past since you got your new computer and only now do you realize that you need to do another quarterly return and you are in a time crunch and can't access that old data because the program only runs on the old computer. With periodic tasks like this, you may actually not realize you need it until the old computer has been given to Good Will or kicked to the curb. By then it is too late. So keep the old computer around for a while just in case.

Mind your data on the OLD computer

Where is your old computer going? Are you keeping it? Is it in a secure place? Are you donating it, giving it away, or selling it? Keep in mind that you may have sensitive data on that old computer that you don't want to be seen by others. Even if you think you don't, you might. Don't store any sensitive/private info on your computer? Are you sure? How many times have you told FireFox, IE, or Netscape to remember a password when you went to your bank's web site to do online banking? How many times have you clicked "Remember Me" when logging into an online forum and is the password you used the same as your password for your online banking? For your home alarm system? Your ATM pin? Think about it. We do things like this all the time but whenever we do, that information (your passwords) are store in "cookies" and other files on your computer that in the right hands, can easily be read, deciphered, and used to steal your money, your identity, or worse. Before giving away that computer, be sure to wipe the data on that computer with a program specifically designed to wipe data (not just delete it) from your hard drive. Try Googling "wipe data" and you'll have more options than you can imagine.

Summary

Getting a new computer is an exciting adventure. It is, however, an adventure that should not be cut short by quick fixes and "sloppy" data moving. Your old computer is probably filled with bandaids, poorly performing drivers and utilities, unneeded data and temporary files, and all sorts of digital garbage. Your new machine is shiny and clean. Let's keep it that way by manually installing only the software you actually need/use and not just blindly trying to move programs/data. My recommendation is to stay away from software that is designed to move programs and data automatically to the new computer in order to make the new computer "look just like" the old one. Those utilities come with a heavy price: one that can potentially turn your new computer experience into a nightmare. Hopefully the tips in this article will take a little sting out of the computer upgrade process if not this time, at least in the future! And most of all, enjoy your new PC!

-- Mike Chaney