[IMGCAP(1)]Every once in a-while, I get the urge to put together a new PC. I’m not quite sure why that is, since most of what I do these days is word processing and testing hardware, both of which could be accomplished pretty well on a years-old PC.

Be that as it may, at least once a year I assemble something new and then have to move all of my old files and applications over to the new hardware. Years ago, Windows would let you simply do this by copying from one machine to another. But that was a pretty long time ago, and the advent of the Windows Registry put the kibosh on major transfers being quite that easy.

[IMGCAP(2)]Building a new PC every six or so months isn’t when most users will encounter the problem of a move en mass. Upgrading to a new desktop or laptop, and you’ll instantly find out what a mess a major migration can be.

You might think that copying the registry from the old system to the new one would solve the problem. In most cases, it won’t. One reason for this is that the hardware platforms of the old and new machines can be somewhat different—if you’re moving from a system that’s more than a few years old, or from one that uses an Intel CPU to one with an AMD processor (or the reverse), the problems multiply. The two systems are almost guaranteed to have some very different device drivers.

Over the years, I’ve used three products to migrate systems: Laplink PC Mover, Acronis Backup with Universal Restore and Zinstall WinWin. A fourth, Aloha Bob, was actually one of the most effective utilities for doing a complete system migration, but was purchased in 2006 by Microsoft and quietly put to death.

Laplink PC Mover Ultimate and Zinstall WinWIn work very similarly. You install the software on the new and old machines, connect them via an Ethernet patch cable or other cable (Laplink offers several cable options), and select the applications you want moved. Some applications may not be compatible with the operating system on the new PC if it has a newer version than that on the old, and you are given the option of excluding them from the migration.

Acronis True Image with Universal Restore works a bit differently. The Universal Restore lets you write a backup onto a completely different hardware configuration than that which was backed up from. Of the three, it’s also, in my opinion, the most difficult to use effectively as a migration tool. Often, you’ll have to preassemble the drivers for the new machine and have them available during the restore/migration. The documentation could be better written as well. It’s an effective tool if you’re willing to plod through the documentation, and possibly spend some time chatting with a support person, but it’s not a product I’d comfortably advise for a neophyte who just wants to have their applications and files moved to a brand new machine.

I’ve had mixed results with these three products over the years. Sometimes the move is perfect, sometimes less so. In almost all cases, I’ve had to reactivate MS Office, so if you’re going to transport everything to a new machine, make sure that you can locate the serial numbers for major applications such as those from Microsoft and Adobe.

Zinstall has a product that creates a virtual machine out of the old PC and operating system, and runs the virtual machine with all of its applications and files on the new PC. The vendor claims this avoids applications failing to run on a newer version of Windows. It seems like an interesting approach, but I haven’t tried it, and so can’t comment on how well it works or, for that matter, if it works at all.

Before you do anything else, make sure that you have a complete backup for the old system. If something goes wrong, you’ll want to be able to go back to a system you know was working before the move.

Finally, keep in mind that these three utilities are for PCs and laptops running a version of Windows. I don’t have a Mac, nor do I usually migrate the single Linux server we have in-house, so I can’t comment on either.

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