Migrating to a new computer is often a bittersweet affair, in which the joy of a shiny new machine is tainted by the knowledge you have to move all your data or start over from scratch. Settings, files, contacts and browser favorites are common choices when trying to transfer data to a new computer, especially if you've amassed a hefty amount of any of them. To make the transition smoother, you can use Microsoft's Easy Transfer utility to move all your files and settings, or manually back them up using an external hard drive.
The tools you'll need for transferring your files depends on the method you intend to use. Generally though, you'll need a external USB hard drive and/or a Windows Easy Transfer cable. The hard drive can be used for manual backup, or to store information that can't be moved by Easy Transfer. The Easy Transfer cable is a USB cable designed specifically for computer-to-computer file and settings transfers -- a standard USB cable won't work with Windows' Easy Transfer utility.
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Windows Easy Transfer
Windows Easy Transfer is a program designed by Microsoft to make moving to your new computer as hassle-free as possible. The program comes pre-installed on all Windows 7 and 8 machines, but has to be downloaded for computers running XP or Vista (link in Resources). The Easy Transfer tool can transfer most of your data, including the full contents of your Documents, Music, Pictures and Shared Documents folders, email settings, messages and contact lists, program settings, user accounts and settings, Internet connection settings and Internet Explorer favorites, pictures, video and music. It can also transfer DRM-protected music and video, although the licenses to use these files won't transfer. You'll need to reauthorize your new computer with the store from which you bought the music and videos. Easy Transfer also doesn't transfer programs themselves, so you'll need to re-install them. Both versions of Windows must also be bit-compatible, i.e. either both must be 32-bit or both 64-bit.
How to Use Easy Transfer
If you're using a Windows XP or Vista computer, you'll need to download Easy Transfer. Download the 32-bit version of Easy Transfer if you're running 32-bit Windows, or the 64-bit version if you're running 64-bit Windows. Make sure the version of Windows you're transferring to matches the same bit configuration -- while you can transfer files and settings from 32-bit Windows Vista to 32-bit Windows 8, you can't transfer them from a 32-bit version of Windows to a 64-bit version or vice versa. Easy Transfer is useful to XP users only if you're moving to and from a Windows XP computer -- if you're migrating to a computer running Vista or later, you'll need to manually back up your files using an external hard drive.
Once you start Easy Transfer, it gives you three options for transferring data: using the Easy Transfer cable, connecting to the other computer via your local network or using an external hard drive. Using the cable ensures a direct transfer and is the fastest option, while using your network requires no additional equipment but does require both computers to be on the network and to have sharing activated. Using an external hard drive is the easiest option if your new computer is in another location, since you can carry the drive with you. It also helps you create a backup copy, in case something happens to your new computer, and you need to restore the settings from your old one.
While Easy Transfer covers Internet Explorer favorites, third-party browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome have their own tools for migrating favorites. Firefox users can create a Firefox Sync account, which can be used to sync favorites between devices. You can also create a backup file that you can save to an external hard drive and then import into Firefox on your new computer. Chrome users can do much the same thing using their Google account, so long as they have Chrome open on both computers. Chrome also features a similar export feature, although Chrome exports favorites to HTML, which can be used to import your favorites into other browsers.
If you're transferring from Windows XP to a newer version, you can manually back up your favorites by opening Windows Explorer and going to the following folder, replacing "
C:\Documents and Settings<Username>\Favorites
Copy the "Favorites" folder onto an external hard drive and paste it into the following folder on the new computer:
You'll be prompted to merge it with the existing "Favorites" folder; select "Yes" and your old favorites will now be available on your new computer.
Manual File Transfer
For cases in which Easy Transfer isn't an option, you'll have to back up and move your files manually. An external hard drive with sufficient capacity will be a must for this option, especially if you've stored a lot of data on your old computer. To soften the blow to both your hard drive and to the time it'll take to transfer data to your new computer, you can easily compress your data into a series of ZIP archives, which should reduce their overall size. From XP on, Windows operating systems feature the ability to compress files and folders into ZIP files without a third-party utility. If you want to use higher compression for lower file sizes, you can also use programs like 7Zip or WinRAR to compress your files into 7Z or RAR archives.
Whether you can use Easy Transfer or not, you'll need to re-install all programs that don't come pre-loaded on your new computer. Easy Transfer and manual backups can move program profiles and even the files themselves, but you still have to re-install them to rebuild the Windows Registry with the appropriate information. Using manual backup, you can move the installer programs over, but you'll still have to run them in order to access all your old programs. You'll also need to install all the updates to bring your software back up to date. When you are rebuilding your computer, give priority to security software like anti-virus and your firewall software -- new computers are relatively unprotected out of the box and susceptible to infection.
Malicious software attached to your files and folders will also be transferred whether you use Easy Transfer or manually transfer your data. To prevent your new computer from being infected from these lingering threats, run thorough scans of your old computer using up-to-date anti-virus and anti-malware software before you start the transfer process.