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Upgrading: all downhill

It’s easy to make your new system look and act just like your old one.

This year has been a great time to buy new computers. Four hundred bucks will buy you a brand new entry-level system that runs rings around the midrange, $1,000 systems of four years ago. But buying a new computer comes with a new problem: What about everything that’s on the old one?

This problem brings to mind the old joke about a janitor who loves his broom.

“I’ve used this same broom,” he says, “For 40 years now. It’s had six new handles, and two new heads, and it’s still going strong.”

The fact is, if a new PC looks and acts like the old one–only faster–the person using it thinks of it as the same computer–only better. The trick, of course, is to get the new system to look and act like the old one–only better. To do that, you need to keep all the files you use in the same folders, have the same color scheme, screensaver, and desktop wallpaper. You also need to ensure that all your Internet bookmarks or favorites are in place.

Three companies have been working on moving those settings from the old to the new. Windows XP operating systems include a feature called File and Setting Transfer Wizard that does a fair job of it. A program from Detto called IntelliMover does the same, using a two-headed USB cable as a virtual Northwest Passage for the migration. And a series of products from Miramar under the label Desktop DNA provide lots of options for migrating data, look-and-feel, and even applications from old computers to new ones.

Which one will work best for your computer upgrade? Well, I’m in favor of Miramar’s Digital DNA for a number of reasons. But each of these programs can be a good match for different scenarios. We’ll go through them one by one, starting with the basic one that Windows XP users don’t have to pay for, and saving the best for last.

The Microsoft way

Microsoft’s Files and Settings Transfer Wizard is the cheapest way to migrate everything to a new XP-based computer. It’s part of Windows XP, so you’ve already paid for it. If your old computer’s running older versions of Windows (from 95 up), you start on the new computer to create a series of floppy disks for the old computer.

Whichever computer you start with–new or old–you have to close all other programs and run the wizard. (If it’s not listed in the Start menu, click Help and Support instead and search for the wizard by name. The Help entry gives a link that launches the wizard directly). On the old computer, you’re presented with a list of settings it intends to transfer. This includes display properties, folder and taskbar options, and Internet browser and mail settings. It also migrates data from the obvious places: My Documents, your e-mail inbox folders, and anywhere that houses files with common extensions like .doc and .pdf.

So far, so good. If you’re on a network, the wizard even acts as a server on the new machine and transfers settings into place. However, for non-networked PCs, the direct connection is limited to the incredibly sluggish RS-232 serial, which can literally take hours to effect a transfer. Your other options? Removable media. Transferring just the settings off my test machines (less than 500MB of data) took five or so Zip disks. It would have taken 312 traditional floppy disks.

Unfortunately, CD-Rs aren’t really supported. The wizard won’t write to them directly, so I had to save the migration file to a folder on my hard drive. If your migration file is much larger than 600MB, you’re out of luck; it can’t be broken up onto multiple CD-R discs.

Detto IntelliMover

Detto’s IntelliMover series overcomes bottlenecks in Microsoft’s Files and Settings Transfer Wizard strategy. For around $60, it provides migration software and a high-speed parallel or two-headed USB cable that plugs into both computers.

Both shave hours off the data transfer. In half a dozen tests with the USB version, migrating hundreds of megabytes of files and settings never took more than 40 minutes with Detto’s IntelliMover Business Edition, compared to a few overnight sessions with Microsoft’s wizard and a serial cable that didn’t even finish transferring all the data.

IntelliMover BE’s also a friendlier program in many ways. Its instructions are clear, and its pick lists make you feel better informed about what you’re doing–instead of the stab-in-the-dark feeling you get from the File and Settings Transfer Wizard. Like the XP transfer wizard, IntelliMover can migrate across TCP/IP networks too. But it goes several steps further. The Microsoft wizard transfers settings for fewer programs, and it focuses, naturally enough, on Microsoft software.

Detto supports migration across several versions of more than 50 programs, including industry favorites such as GoldMine, DreamWeaver, FileMaker, and Netscape Navigator.

IntelliMover, then, is a better choice for mixed-program environments. It’s considerably better for systems that aren’t on a home or office network. Check Detto’s site for more details. But not before you check out Miramar’s Desktop DNA series.

Desktop DNA

Although most consumers haven’t heard of it, Desktop DNA was a forerunner in PC-to-PC migration. Miramar first developed it as an enterprise-level corporate application, smoothing mass corporate upgrades and speeding up the process of swapping out crucial systems. The enterprise-level program can even move programs between computers–something that’s legal at the corporate level because of site licensing, and which is often the only feasible way to get custom-built software onto a new PC.

But the power behind Desktop DNA’s enterprise edition–including the ability to generate migration scripts–is overkill for small-business and personal computer upgrades. So last year, Miramar brought out a Desktop DNA Professional edition for the rest of us. It includes a fast 1GB Ethernet crossover cable to make a direct connection between PCs with network cards, and exchange data in one-tenth the time it takes using Detto’s two-headed USB cable.

Desktop DNA Professional has some other advantages over Detto’s IntelliMover. Price is one–it retails at around $10 less, and has very favorable pricing for site licenses. Another is flexibility: It can migrate settings for 30 more programs than IntelliMover, which in turn leaves Microsoft’s wizard in the dust.

And while IntelliMover is a real-time migration tool, Desktop DNA Professional can save the files and settings (which it collectively calls DNA) to install at a later date. In this way, it bridges the gap between migration, data backup and disaster recovery, making it a program you could use every week instead of every time you change PCs. And even at today’s prices, you’re not going to be buying a new PC every week.

Moving on up

Moving on to a new computer means moving a mess of settings and files from your old system. Here’s an overview of the things you’ll move. You can do it manually, but you’ll do it faster and with less aggravation using the programs listed in this article.

Software. Most people should reinstall each application they use on their new computer. It’s the safest bet, even though some software, such as Miramar’s enterprise-level Digital DNA program, can move whole applications.

Data files. Sure, you could just copy the contents of My Documents, and get most of them. But what if you’ve also saved data to your Desktop, the root of your C: drive, or in some Program folder you don’t even know about?

E-mail. Without a data migration program, you’ll need to recreate the name, password, POP3, SMTP, and authentication settings for each of your e-mail accounts…then track down all your email boxes to copy them over. Outlook and Outlook Express store these in mystery subfolders buried deep under the Windows directory, in files with the extensions .PST, .DBX, or .MBX. These files are probably very big.

Contact info. Your Windows Address Book contains stuff you’ve saved for Outlook or Outlook Express–search for a file with the extension .wab. But other contact software may use other address books–check your software for details.

Internet shortcuts. You’ve probably spent years getting your favorite Internet sites bookmarked. Take those settings with you. Look for the Favorites folder (if you’re an Internet Explorer user) and copy its contents wholesale into the Favorites folder on your new system. The two folders may be in different locations–use the Start menu’s Search or Find setting to look for Favorites.

“Look and feel” stuff. Desktop wallpaper, screensavers, and other settings need to be set manually. The same goes for your display settings, custom icons, custom cursors, and so on.

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