Moving Bytes

Transferring data can be trying, but you can ease the pain

By Larry Armstrong

Whether it's to a new office or to a new home, moving is never fun. The same is true of moving to a new computer. When you buy a computer, you probably are looking for something you can be comfortable with, but with a little more power and more storage than your current machine. You may get that, but too often it comes with the maddening experience of old programs that aren't working quite right anymore, records you can't find, and the haunting feeling that you left something crucial behind.

There are three ways to transfer your old files and software programs to a new computer. You can do it manually, digging up the original disks for programs like Microsoft (MSFT ) Office and Intuit's (INTU ) QuickBooks, installing them on the new computer, and then painstakingly transferring your own data for each program by writing the files to CDs or DVDs. Or you can do it yourself in a somewhat automated fashion, using "migration"software designed to transport your stuff from the old computer to the new. Or you can hire a techie to take care of the whole mess.

I've always done it the first way, and believe me, it takes days to complete. But hiring someone to help can get costly. Best Buy (BBY )'s Geek Squad, for example, will come to your office and set up a new computer for $129; reinstall programs from your disks for $29 each; and transfer your data at a cost of $229 for the first nine gigabytes. Want your private files removed so you can donate your old computer to a local school? That's $159 more.

So I decided to take a look at migration programs. I started with Windows Easy Transfer, which comes free with Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system. But after trying twice to replicate my Dell (DELL ) Latitude D600 laptop, which runs Windows XP, on a new Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) Compaq 6510 running Vista Business, I gave up. I got two error messages. The migration failed.

Windows Easy Transfer wasn't so simple, but Laplink PCmover from Avanquest was far more successful. PCmover is the market leader, and the only migration program on the market that can move software programs as well as data from your old computer to your new one. The software costs $60 and comes with a special USB cable, which speeds up the transfer. You also can download a copy of PCmover for $50; in that case you transfer your programs and data using writable disks or an external hard drive or, if you're network-savvy, over a local network. It works on only one pair of computers, so if you're upgrading all your employees' computers, you'll need multiple licenses. A five-pack of licenses costs $190.

Following the instructions in PCmover's quick start guide, I turned off screen savers, firewalls, and antivirus software that can interfere with the process. The program won't write over software that was preinstalled on the new machine. So I needed to remove the free-trial versions before I could transfer the software I had already bought and paid for.

After everything was set up, the actual move took more than five hours. A few programs, such as Microsoft Office 2003, required activation, essentially convincing Microsoft that you're moving your legal copy of its software from one computer to another. All of my Firefox browser settings and Outlook e-mail contacts survived the move, and so far I haven't found an application that doesn't work the way it should. Unquestionably, it was the easiest move I've ever made.

Larry Armstrong writes about personal technology for BusinessWeek SmallBiz.

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