Upgrading a Windows PC is hard. As I noted in a recent column, only a relatively small number of computer owners will be able to upgrade to Windows 7 in a way that leaves all of their programs intact. Buying an new computer instead doesn't really improve things; you still have to find and reinstall all of your applications.
PCmover from Laplink can greatly ease the pain. It's not perfect (plan on some fiddling to get everything working right after using it either for an "in-place" upgrade or to set up a new PC). But it is a huge improvement over Microsoft's (MSFT) built-in option, Windows Easy Transfer, which moves files and settings but not programs.
Window users can only envy Mac owners, since Apple (AAPL) sets the gold standard for ease of upgrading. Unlike the limited Easy Transfer, Mac's Migration Assistant is a dream. You run it when you get a new Mac and it finds the old Mac on your network, transfers all its programs to the new machine, and moves your preferences and data. For a variety of technical reasons, Windows programs are much harder to transfer, and Microsoft has never offered much help.
Maybe Laplink succeeded at this task because the company has been making file-transfer programs since the earliest days of laptops. PCmover comes in three versions: a $20 edition that will help you upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 on an existing computer; a $40 version called PCmover Home that can handle either an upgrade or a transfer to a new computer (the right choice for most people); and a $60 Professional edition offering more control over what is moved, especially on computers used in a corporate setting.
I tried PCmover under a variety of scenarios, including upgrading a computer from XP to Windows 7, transferring applications and files from an XP computer to a new Windows 7 PC, and upgrading from 32-bit Vista to 64-bit Windows 7. (See my recent column on Win 7 upgrades, for more on 32-bit vs. 64-bit.) Each of these setups ran into glitches of one sort or another, but in every case PCmover made the process easier.
When upgrading an existing computer, PCmover stores the information it will transfer on the built-in hard drive or an external drive. When setting up a new computer, the easiest method is to link your new and old machines with a special USB cable ($40, but included with the Pro version).
Some applications, especially antivirus programs, are designed to run on a specific version of your operating system and cannot be moved. Other applications will take a bit of fussing on the new computer. For example, PCmover transferred Microsoft Office, both the 2003 and 2007 versions, under all the scenarios so that mail accounts in Outlook and preferences in other programs showed up on the new or upgraded systems. But I had to find and reenter a 25-character installation key to activate Office. A word to creative types: Adobe's professional programs, such as Photoshop, should be deactivated on the old computer before moving or upgrading, or you may have trouble getting them to work on the new system.
It's a bit of a mystery why Microsoft hasn't done more to make migration to a new version of Windows easier. After all, it makes money on Windows only when you buy a new computer or upgrade from an older version. It's equally surprising that computer makers haven't stepped up to the plate, since making it easier to transfer your stuff to a new system might just make people more willing to buy computers. When you're spending $120 for a Windows upgrade or several hundred dollars or more for a new computer, you shouldn't have to pay extra for a tool to set it up. But grousing aside, I'm glad PCmover is around to make the chore easier.