Automated upgrades from XP: How does PCMover work?

Automated upgrades from XP: How does PCMover work?

Summary: Migrating an old Windows XP system to Win 7 or 8 is a pain, especially if you have many of the systems. I interviewed Dan Spear, author of PCMover, to talk about how it automates that process.

TOPICS: Windows

For years, Microsoft and just about everyone else have been yelling at you to move on from your Windows XP systems, as within a matter of days it will be past its expiration date and spoiling rapidly. But migrating a system, especially an unmanaged system, can be difficult. At this late date, what can you do that could move you off XP and on to something safe without breaking the bank and wasting a lot of your time?

The answer might be PCMover, a series of tools from Laplink for automating the process of migrating data, settings, and programs from one Windows computer to another, even from one version of Windows to another. Microsoft recently announced that they would make PCMover Express for Windows XP available for free. This version transfers data and other specified files over the Internet from the old Windows XP system to the new system running Windows 7, 8 or 8.1.

But Laplink sells many editions of PCMover, including some that migrate program installations as well. And that's the hard part of such a migration; it's the part that takes so long and where things go wrong. For a limited time, PCMover Professional for Windows XP is available for 60% off, working out to $23.99.

I spoke with Dan Spear, Distinguished Architect at Laplink Software and the author of PCMover. If you've been around as long as I have, you'll recognize some of the other software Dan has written, most famously QEMM for Quarterdeck Systems. He was also one of the developers of Desqview. Dan and I knew each other at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 80's.

PCMover has been around for many years. I used to be skeptical that it could do all it claimed it could, but evidence seems to prove otherwise. I scanned various press and user reviews and my impression is that the vast majority say that it just plain worked. Every now and then you find a user who's had problems or for whom it didn't work at all. It's impossible to say from that what the problems for those users were, but clearly it works a lot of the time.

Some things are clearly impossible for PCMover. If an application is in their list of applications that can't be migrated, or if it's an unknown 32-bit application being moved from a 32- to a 64-bit version of Windows, PCMover will unselect from the list of applications to be migrated and put up a message that it cannot be migrated. The user can still check it and force it to try, but he's been warned. The list of such applications is fairly extensive, but consists primarily of applications that are really hardware device drivers or base parts of Windows. They do have an extensive list of known 32-bit applications that they do automatically select when going from a 32 to a 64-bit version of Windows.

Migrating data is easier, but it's not a simple copy procedure. Different versions of Windows have different options for how to configure user directories. The AppData directory can be in many different locations in the user subdirectory. Speaking of users, PCMover will move all of the actual user profiles that you want.


Dan says that one of the real challenges in building PCMover was MSI, the protocol and installer format for Windows Installer. MSI is a good thing in that it facilitates management of application installation and updates, but it makes for extremely complicated installations.

With a non-MSI installation, if you don't get all the registry entries just right, there may be some minor problems in the migrated program, like settings being reset to default. Not so with MSI. It creates numerous complicated registry settings and if they go wrong, Windows Installer freaks out and says it has to reinstall the program. Getting it right means more than just reverse-engineering the Installer registry settings; it means using the extensive Installer APIs to determine proper values like registry and file locations.

The fortunate part of MSI is that once you get the implementation right, it should work for all MSI programs. When programs hack their own installers, things could be anywhere. Dan says Laplink researches app behavior by reverse-engineering uninstallers and config files. 


To my complete surprise, there is also an Enterprise version and Dan says it's popular, with universities in particular. In the main, large organizations manage Windows installations, keep data files on the network and deploy new windows installations from custom images, but there are always exceptions.

The Enterprise version allows an administrator to preset options, customize the interface, decide whether to make certain transfers or not, in policy files. The actual transfer then has little or no user interaction. Some customizations are available in the consumer versions, but it is designed to do the right thing when users just keep clicking Next in the wizard, whereas the Enterprise version is designed for customization.

If your enterprise still has multiple systems running Windows XP and you don't have the time or resources to migrate the users to Windows 7 or Windows 8, you may want to evaluate PCMover. It's time to move as fast as you can to put as much distance between you and Windows XP as possible.

Topic: Windows

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  • Or you can just get a new computer

    Re-install your programs and then do an image of the computer and not have to worry about this stuff.

    Seriously, who in their right mind would try to update directly from XP to 7? No one I know of, they all do the Vista for a second then to 7 and sometimes then to 8 route.
    • that works for you

      What you describe is beyond the abilities of most people. It also requires install media and the time to pay attention to all the installations and migrations. A tool like this is necessary for many.
  • I bought a (full price) copy of PCMover and It did not work!

    On 2012 I bought a new W7 laptop. I decided to buy PC Mover to transfer everything from my old W7 machine to the new one. Unfortunately the transfer process was slow and painful. At the end of the PCMover process the target PC was completely unstable and had to reformat it and reinstall, also almost none of my programs worked. I have been on the IT industry for 16 years, I know how to deal with this kind of stuff, that's why I purchased a copy to avoid the very expensive time consuming process of migrating to a new machine. The PCMover software was just a "nice try" nothing else. At the end It was a much more expensive attemp. License cost + transfer setup + transfer time + reformat + reinstall + retransfer all the files. This situation is not Laplink's fault, it's Microsoft's poorly designed Windows, where application install mess with the OS layer, installing things inside the Windows directory and the Windows registry instead of use their own container folder with they own settings.
  • Reinstall?

    All my XP programs are legit.
    However, some I've bought the download version, I don't have the install files nor the keys.
    My fault.
    I'll keep running XP until it falls apart, I suppose?
    • You can use XP for a few nore years

      Xp definately will not suddenly fall appart, have a lot of XP machines which automatic updates is off from installation until now without any problems. As long as you have a good anti virus and the users practice save browsing you can use it until the hardware die.
      • Well, almost - it also assumes...

        there will not be a need to work with any of the newer programs, data structures, interface standards, etc. At some point it will become easier to change than try to adapt the old machine with limited speed, memory, & interoperability.
        Sadly, my Aunt has no concept of this, nor does she care to - and she will not be at all happy when she will have to change if whe wants to use the same methods to stay in tough with family & friends. THAT is the point the financial wizards in Redmond just can't seem to grasp, and just might end up tipping the scale a bit more towards the Cupertino crowd.
  • PCMover is only good for moving a few machines

    Once you're talking about enterprises and universities, it's better just setup a reference PC, capture it as an image, and then deploy it with Windows deployment service (WDS, come with Windows Server) with Microsoft Deployment Tool (free).
    Enterprise can also use System Center Configuration Manager if they have the money/license.
  • Yet another tool that costs more money..

    Geez.. when will we learn, if i am still on Xp and didn't want to upgrade because i had too much software i'd just go to Linux instead.
    • MidnightDistortions: "Yet another tool that costs more money.."

      "Microsoft recently announced that they would make PCMover Express for Windows XP available for free."

      And it's not even midnight ...
      Rabid Howler Monkey
  • PC Mover has worked MANY Times for me!

    I have upgraded over 40 Windows machines operating systems through the years with PC Mover and have had almost no problems. You have to remember that some programs written for 16 bit machines will NOT work on a 64 bit operating system. If you HAVE to have the old programs, then use something like VMware. You do have to follow their directions to the letter. You can move programs between machines. move them on the same machine (FOLLOW directions and don't blast your old operating system by formatting!) or from a USB connected hard drive to the new system. Yes, they offer some extra programs, but they are not necessary for the move. In any event, I strongly recommend using CCLEANER and Bleachbit before any move to clean out the crud.
  • PC Mover issues

    A few years ago I used PC Mover to go from 32bit Vista to 64bit Win7. For the most part it seemed to work, including transferring applications and their settings. However within a few months, I started running into problems. The biggest problem was in uninstalling applications. PC Mover correctly put 32bit programs into the Program Files (86) folder on the 64bit system, but did not update the uninstall entries with the new file location.

    While I would hope Laplink addressed this issue in later versions, my advice is to not move from a 32bit XP platform to a 64bit Win8 platform. Painful and time consuming as it might be, you are probably better off doing a fresh application installation and customization.
    Jim Johnson
  • What about those of us who can't afford a new computer?

    I read the response that said, "Just get a new computer." How far fetched is that when you can't afford a new one?

    If I am installing a new custom OS on my Android I just make sure that I've done a backup, not just to my external drive, but to the cloud as well. Then when I'm through,, I'll just reinstall my software.

    Can't they create something like this on the PC to migrate from XP to Win 7?
    Robert Christopulos
  • Commercial Software is Junk

    Sadly I have to state that after using Linux for a year now, most commercial (paid for) software is junk and woefully inadequate. In other words, if it runs on a Windows system (the biggest piece of junk and offender) you're getting ripped off big time. It's a racket that should be put a stop to beginning with M$. Software is the ONLY commodity in the world that gets away with this. If you bought a car and needed "3rd party parts" (much as in W8) to get your brakes to work or to prevent accidents (aka virus) you'd be pretty pissed.