Automated upgrades from XP: How does PCMover work?

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.
Written by Larry Seltzer, Contributor

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.

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