How to set up a new PC in one easy session

How to set up a new PC in one easy session

Summary: Fellow ZDNet blogger Jason Perlow recently wrote about his long weekend setting up a new PC for a friend, Over the years, I’ve done this process dozens of times for business clients, family members, friends, and neighbors. I’ve got the process down to a series of checklists, all built around some core principles. In this post, I explain how I use this opportunity to get rid of clutter, get a fresh start, and involve the PC owner in the process so they learn some valuable skills along the way. Here's a step-by-step account of how I set up a new PC.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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Fellow ZDNet blogger Jason Perlow helped a friend and colleague buy a new PC and migrate her data and settings from the old machine (Windows XP) to the new one (Windows Vista). He documents the process in The New Adventures of Christine’s Old PC.

I tip my hat to Jason for his dedication to a friend, but as someone who has been doing this for years, I shook my head at the way he turned what should be a straightforward procedure into a weekend-long geekfest, complete with the transformation of the old, slow, obsolete, spyware-ridden computer into a virtual machine on the new one. In my opinion, that’s overkill for everyone involved. (Update: Jason defends his approach in this follow-up post.)

Over the years, I’ve done this process dozens of times for business clients, family members, friends, and neighbors. I’ve got the process down to a series of checklists, all built around some core principles. First, this is a great opportunity to get rid of clutter and get a fresh start. Second, the best way to transfer data from the old machine to the new one is by physically attaching the old hard drive to the new PC. Anything else, as Jason discovered, is likely to bog down. And finally, spending time upfront figuring out what needs to be transferred and what doesn’t can save hours of time and headaches later.

SATA/IDE to USB adapter

Jason brought along a huge USB hard drive and a thumb drive. I agree that a USB flash drive can be useful for some small tasks, but I prefer to skip those intermediate transfers whenever possible. Trying to do large-scale data transfers with USB flash drives and cables can be problematic, especially on old, slow, problem-plagued machines, as Jason discovered. Why spend hours moving tens or hundreds of gigabytes of data from the old machine to a USB drive only to have to do it again with the new PC? Skip the two-step and do what I do: bring along a SATA/IDE-to-USB converter. Newegg sells Syba’s version of this device for around $20 including shipping. I own a couple and can recommend them without hesitation. An external power supply feeds the DC connector on the drive, and a two-headed adapter lets you connect any SATA or IDE drive directly to a USB port on the new PC. While the contents of the old computer are transferring to a folder on the new PC, you can tackle other tasks.

But before you do any of that, sit down in front of the old PC and talk to the client about what they want to accomplish with the new system. The steps in this phase are designed to make sure you don’t get stumped somewhere along the way with a detail you overlooked.

I start by sitting down in front of the old PC with the client. And yes, I make them do this with me, because it’s a great way for me to learn what they think is important and for them to learn that the inner workings of their computer are not a mystery. Here’s what we do:

  • Open the Programs window from Control Panel and take inventory of all installed software on the old PC. Decide which programs you want to install on the new machine and which ones will be replaced or completely scrapped. Make sure you verify that the old programs are compatible with the new hardware and OS and that there are no known installation or upgrade issues.
  • Create a new folder on the client’s desktop and call it NEW PC. You’ll use this folder to store drivers, program updates, and exported settings that can’t be easily copied as files from the old PC.
  • For programs that will make the leap from old PC to new, gather installation media. If installation of any program requires serial numbers or other information to complete installation or activation, write that information down in a text file and save it in the NEW PC folder. If any programs you plan to install require updates or patches, download them and save them in a subfolder of the NEW PC folder.
  • Write down login information for e-mail accounts and other online services. Save this information in a text file in the NEW PC folder.
  • If you need to use custom settings to connect to the Internet or to a local area network, write down those settings and save them in the NEW PC folder. This is most common for notebooks, where setting up a wireless connection requires that you enter a network encryption key.
  • Take inventory of external hardware (scanners, printers, MP3 players, and so on). Verify that any device you plan to connect to the new computer is compatible with the new hardware and operating system. If necessary, download the latest driver and any required support files and save them in the NEW PC folder.
  • Find all digital media (photos, music, home movies, etc.) that the client considers valuable and make a note of their location. Consolidate them in a single folder with subfolders, if possible.
  • Identify all digital music that the client has downloaded or purchased. If any of them are from the iTunes Music Store or another source that uses DRM, make sure that you know how to transfer licenses to the new PC. (For iTunes users, now is a good time to deauthorize the old computer.)
  • Open the client’s e-mail program and export the address book to a file that can be imported on the new PC. Save this in the NEW PC folder.
  • While that e-mail program is open, make a note of where e-mail messages are stored and in what format. If necessary, export the messages to a file and save that file in the NEW PC folder. (For Jason’s friend, this step wasn’t necessary, because the data was in an Outlook PST file. If she had used Outlook Express, I would recommend the procedure in this Knowledge Base article.)
  • Open the client’s preferred web browser and export all bookmarks to a file that can be imported on the new PC. Save this file in the NEW PC folder.
  • Burn the contents of the NEW PC folder to a CD or copy them to a USB flash drive. For this job, I actually prefer a CD, which can then be stuck in an envelope along with program disks and manuals in case the client needs it again later.

There. Now you can shut down the old PC, use the SATA/IDE adapter to connect its hard drive to the new PC as a USB drive, and begin selectively restoring your backed-up data and settings, taking advantage of this opportunity to clean things up thoroughly. Here’s the order in which I do things:

  • First, I remove all crapware and trial programs from the new PC. If the system came with an antivirus program and the client plans to use a different security solution, get rid of the old one first, before going even a single step further.
  • Set up the Internet/network connection and download all available Windows updates.
  • Set up the client’s e-mail on the new machine and verify that you can send and receive mail. I prefer to start with a completely clean inbox and leave the old mail in a separate PST (for Outlook users) or in an Old Mail folder for any other program.
  • Restore the e-mail address book from the old machine.
  • Reinstall the programs that you decided were worth keeping from the old machine. Be sure to install any updates or patches for each one, and then open the program and verify that you can create and save data files.
  • Set up your external hardware, using the drivers and support software you downloaded previously.

This is usually the point where I stop and do an image backup using Complete PC Backup from Vista Business or Ultimate. If this option isn’t available, I like Acronis True Image, which is available in a 15-day trial version. If the PC in question has a Seagate or Maxtor drive, you can download the free OEM version of Acronis’ software (Seagate DiscWizard or Maxtor MaxBlast 5, respectively).

Finally, I’m ready to begin moving data from the old system to the new one. You can use any of the third-party programs I listed in the previous paragraph to repartition the main drive on the new PC and then clone the old drive to the new partition. (This works best if the old PC has a relatively small hard drive and the new one has a much larger drive, which is likely to be the case with most consumers upgrading a four- or five-year-old PC.) I prefer to clone a drive rather than simply copy files, because it guarantees that every file from the old PC will be available on the new one, even obscure settings and data files buried in hidden subfolders.

Because the new PC has up-to-date antivirus software, you can scan the old drive for viruses before or after transferring data files. Then it’s a matter of identifying the user’s documents, digital pictures, and music, and putting everything in the right place.

And we’re done. Disconnect the old drive and put it back in the old PC. I usually leave the old system around for a week or two until the client is confident that the new system is working properly. Once it has passed muster, I return and wipe the old system clean, restoring the original operating system and getting it ready to pass along to someone who can use it.

That’s how I do it. This rarely takes more than a few hours, and when I’m done the client has usually learned some important skills along the way, making it more likely that they’ll be able to steer clear of trouble in the future.

So, what tricks do you use to make this chore faster and easier?

Topic: Hardware

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107 comments
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  • I'm a PC...

    But I seem to be missing a very handy application known as Migration Assistant on another OS platform. With this software I don't need to remove the drive from the old computer and applications and data are transferred seamlessly. It's too bad my creators haven't provided something to make this easier for ordinary people.
    Mac Hosehead
    • I've used Migration Assistant...

      ... Migration Assistant has it's own set of problems too, and honestly... it takes about the same amount of time as the stuff that Ed explains above. Just a different way of doing the same thing, but takes just as long.

      Crash Different!
      cfischer83@...
      • It takes more time if you include...

        Digging into a dusty computer to remove a hard drive, putting it into a USB interface and then putting it all back (something I've done plenty of times). I'm not saying it's trivial just it could be made easier for PC's. How about a start up procedure to make the old computer look like a big USB drive? (maybe need something in between)
        Mac Hosehead
        • If you're smart about it...

          ... you'll have a backups on an external hard drive anyway, and if you do it the way MS has been telling everybody since the beginning (i.e. save everything in your users folder) then you should be able to just plug that in, start copy/pasting the one folder while you install new apps, updates and drivers. I've done it 5 times recently and it went just as fast as the M.A. on OS X.
          cfischer83@...
        • Typical.

          I don't know how long it takes to extract a simple HD from the serpentine proprietary innards of a Mac, but if you have a clue you can often get one out of a PC in just a few minutes. Thumb screws on the side panel helps of course, but none the less, its not going to be a significant increase in time unless you own a Mac apparently.
          Cayble
          • Why do you assume I just work on Macs?

            Most cases are easy to get into but some seem designed to frustrate. Some are so caked with dust inside you feel you should be using a filter mask. I think the overall point was that ease of transfer should be a design consideration for all OS's.
            Mac Hosehead
        • Yes, more time,..

          but I can go shopping, eat dinner or do all sorts of
          other useful or fun things while the program does
          all that stuff automagically.

          The fix to all such rigamarole is to get a Mac and
          be done with it. If you have the misfortune of
          actually needing Windows for something, just
          install your stuff in a Virtual Machine.

          When you take a new Mac out of the box you need
          only one piece of equipment to completely transfer
          all or a subset of your old Mac data to the new
          one. You are asked if you already have an older
          Mac you want to transfer data from. That piece of
          equipment is a firewire cable used to connect the
          Macs to each other. After the new Mac recognizes
          the old one, all data, settings, passwords,
          bookmarks etc. transferred. After that is done,
          anything NOT wanted is easily trashed. Macs,
          unlike PCs don't NEED uninstall programs. Just
          drag unwanted data, including PROGRAMS into the
          trash. The Windows registry is STILl the biggest
          headache ever created in any operating system.
          arminw
          • "The Windows registry is STILl [sic] the biggest headache ever created..."

            [b]Amen to that![/b]
            sqr(cos(180))
          • Not anymore, it isn't

            A lot of the problems with the registry (excepting that STUPID one with that gear?????.drv making CD/DVD's disappear) has been fixed in Windows Vista and Windows 7.

            In fact, the biggest 'headache' for me in the registry is Microsoft Office and it's problems uninstalling if it's registry entries get damaged or deleted by accident. Then, it's a PAIN going through and deleting EVERY SINGLE MENTION OF OFFICE ONE BY ONE..... I was moved to TEARS the last time I had to do that, and couldn't reinstall the thing on Windows 7 (which I am running now!).
            Lerianis
    • You must be a ....

      ... a Mac hosehead if you didn't know that Vista has a migration assistant called Windows Easy Transfer. You don't need to remove the drive with it either. You might want to do a little more research before you spout off and show just how ignorant you are about the subject.
      ShadeTree
      • You are indeed correct...

        I have not had the pleasure of using the suggested software. Just how easy is it? Can an ordinary user accomplish the task without trepidation? Mr. Bott didn't seem to mention it. I use Migration Assistant often, application+data is transferred, and it's usually no worries. The worst you might run into is an application that needs upgrading.
        Mac Hosehead
        • If this were about Macs...

          ...then that would be a good solution. But we're talking about Windows.

          I've used Windows Easy Transfer before. For some situations, it works well, but it does not transfer apps, only data and settings. On a system like this one, with multiple problems, I think the clean aproach I outline is greatly preferred.

          See also:

          http://blogs.zdnet.com/Bott/?p=497
          Ed Bott
          • The point I was trying to make is:

            MS should make this easier for PC's. The link to your previous post seems to validate this. I do agree that importing problems from the old PC is not desirable.
            Mac Hosehead
          • MS can't make it easier.

            They'd end up sued. Windows is to open to be able to migrate every application, and they dare not support just a hand-picked few.
            beoz
    • Transfered how? Between 2 computers?

      then it's nice to have 2 full systems, monitor and all, ready at hand.
      AllKnowingAllSeeing
      • Please excuse my lack of comprehension,

        I'm not sure of the point you are making but I think I agree.
        Mac Hosehead
  • Not so easy!

    It's not that easy if you consider everything you may need to do to migrate. Here are some examples:

    What about settings for those applications that do not allow the settings to be exported? Office 2007 is an example. Somehow previous office version has this feature, but now Microsoft wants to tie this feature to the Vista. Except that this new Vista feature won't pick up existing settings from Win XP!

    What about 20 thousand problems you encounter in the process. I setup Vista Ultimate, only to learn that my partition manager applications won't work. And the new partition manager that came with Vista won't do the job (won't reduce Vista partition to less than 250GB on a 500GB hard-drive). It took me three weeks of Internet searching to figure this one alone! Another one: Migrating Outlook PST file from old machine to the new one was another head-ache. Took me 8 tries before I could connect to Hotmail via Outlook.

    Maybe IT experts like you have solutions handy. Even though I am very computer saavy, software developers simply won't make things right and so keep on updating their stuff every few months, but that's a different story in itself. My previous PC was 7 years old, and even though it was running XP, guess how much things have changed since then.

    This then brings to the next problem. So much changes in seven years, that it is no longer a simple question of which software applications need to be moved and which don't. There are new applications to be FOUND to replace old ones that do not work well on the new system, OR, do not satisfy the new requirements you may have (maybe that's why you upgraded your PC to begin with). The anti-virus I used to have used to be so good but sucks now. I needed to find a good replacement. It took two weekends just to figure that one out! Talk about applications, OS itself needs figuring out. How about figuring whether you want to install 64-bit Vista or 32-bit Vista. You need to spend countless hours figuring out whether drivers for 64-bit are available for your specific hardware, since if they are, 64-bit would be a better choice (if you do not agree, it will just exemplify my statement that there's a lot of time needed to figure this stuff out).

    In the software world, there's load of stuff (read junk) that has been created. And people who create this stuff have lost the big-picture since 90% of the time they are just fixing problems they created to begin with. Just for example, all-famous tabbed browsing and Google Chrome enhancements to the same fix what Taskbar on Windows should have been like to begin with. It Taskbar were as friendly as tab bar is, who would need tabbed browsing and then all that followed!

    The end-result, maybe 8 hour of time to migrate, but 80 hours to figure things out!

    I did not add anything related to the hardware for the new PC since that would take it off-topic slightly. There are similar stories there as well though.

    **My opinion does not necessarily reflect that of my employer**
    alokgovil
    • Hotmail via Outlook

      Hello!

      How could you connect to Hotmail via Outlook?

      Do you have a paid Hotmail account?

      Thanks!
      5044036d@...
      • Outlook now supports Hotmail natively

        I do not have any paid Hotmail account. You could access hotmail without paid account. Download a separate plugin from Microsoft called Outlook Connector. Search for it and you'll find it.
        alokgovil
  • RE: How to set up a new PC in one easy session

    Too long to reads for, i want <a href="http://www.video-to-flash.com/knowledge_base/">some video guide</a> for that ,who can post some url for me ? thanks in advance!
    jietjiang