How to set up a new PC in one easy session

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.

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?