Moving to a New Mac

The 24-in. iMac that I’ve owned for four years is now retired. In its place, I’ve got a brand new, 27-in. iMac with a speedy i5 processor and a capacious hard drive. I’ve actually had this new machine since just after Thanksgiving. I didn’t set it up until this past weekend, partly due to my hectic work and family schedules and partly due to the fact that I was dreading the setup process.

In the past, it’s been my habit to take the route of many conscientious geeks, opting to build each new system from scratch. That’s always meant manually installing every application and every utility, re-creating every preference or setting from scratch. Very time consuming, yes, but it always gave me peace of mind that my new system was truly a fresh start, free of the cruft that had accreted in my previous system.

Migration Patterns

As Mac OS X has gotten more sophisticated though, I’ve become less convinced that such laborious rigor is necessary. For less critical systems, my limited experience with Apple’s Migration Assistant, which automates the process of setting up a new Mac based on the data and settings of an old Mac, had always been positive.

I posed the question on Quora: What’s the best way to migrate data from an old Mac to a new Mac?: The answers were not conclusive, but there were plenty of replies suggesting that Migration Assistant was a reliable method. So over the weekend that’s what I did, attaching an external Time Machine backup volume to the new iMac as the source from which Migration Assistant copied its files.

The results, so far, have been terrific — everything in its right place, as it were. Of course, there were some settings that had to be tweaked: the new iMac inherited the exact same network name as my old one, which I didn’t want, for example. Annoyingly, Adobe Creative Suite demanded that it be uninstalled and then reinstalled before I could register it (but then such petulance is to be expected from that company). But on the whole I was back up and running with remarkable efficiency. I was even able to re-use that Time Machine backup volume so that it’s now backing up the new iMac while still retaining older copies of files going back many months, which is fantastic.

I’ve only been using the system for a few days, so these results are hardly definitive. And naturally I can’t be sure whether this system is as fully optimized as it would be had I gone the manual route. I suspect that it’s very difficult to know for sure whether one method or the other is more effective, though. It worked for me, for now, but I’m very curious to hear if other people have had different experiences.

  1. I just updated four Macs to 500GB hard drives using this method.—though first I had to install OSX on the blank drives. Everything is exactly the same as before except on that on one of the Macs their AOL mail stopped adding a quote of the day to each message.

  2. I’ve gone from Mac to Mac over the last few years via Migration Assistant. Only on the last one did I have any real problems – a general slowness beset everything after a month or two and I wasn’t convinced that the new machine was performing as it should. A quick reinstall of the OS (not a clean install, but an option that moved old preferences and other cruft into a ‘Previous System Folder) from the supplied Install DVD worked wonders. For anyone concerned about multiple migrations, I’d fully recommend it, and the overhead to get back up and running from that was really minimal, as almost everything was left in it’s place.

  3. I just upgraded from a 24″ white Intel iMac to the 27″ i5 as well. Having our first child this year, our digital photo library grew crazy fast with our new DSLR, so an internal hard drive with 250GB was actually getting small. Especially with the 8 years of work on there.

    I debated the transfer as well, and found Setup Assistant on the new iMac handled things quite well with Migration Assistant moving my user account over, along with files. I manually reinstalled apps and deactivated iTunes and Adobe CS4, then purged Adobe CS4 and used Adobe’s CS Cleaner before the migration.

    Things are running crazy smooth, files are where I expect them, and iPhoto works much better with the new iMac’s video card. It’s suspected that iPhoto ’11 was having freeze problems on 24″ iMac due to old NVIDIA graphics card.

  4. If you’re just upgrading the hard drive, SuperDuper should work. It creates a bootable backup on an external drive, which can be copied to the new drive.

  5. I just got that same imac. Moved everything over with time machine. Only problem I had was a weird dropbox glitch that was fixed with a restart.

    It was awesome. I was DREADING setting up my new computer.

  6. I agree with your assessment of Migration Assistant, it’s a great tool. At some point in life – and after buying a couple of Mac’s – I find that the allure of spending a whole day just to install everything from scratch and look for all the serial numbers is not there. I love the simplicity of letting it do its magic and it’s consistently reliable.

  7. I have had exactly the same experience as Keith Mason, and many others here. I am on my 4th desktop migration and maybe the 6th (I lost count) laptop. I think maybe more, as I believe that the desktop came from OS9 at some point, which had a different migration assistant, but still had one if memory serves.

    Only once did I have an issue (took like 10 minutes to load my account when restarting) and a restore-in-place type procedure worked fine without wiping.

    Also, many second or external drives, and no issue just popping them out and plugging into the new machines.

    Short version: OSX is not Windows. And not just a dig, I have been playing with some nerdy (e.g. waterproof) windows tablets lately, and they are twitchy as hell about everything. Clean build those whenever you can.

  8. I’ve used a Time Machine backup to migrate to a new MacBook Pro. It worked quite well. The only con I found was the fact that the backup inaccurately estimated how long it would take to restore from backup by several hours. It wasn’t a big deal, just something to watch out for.

  9. Migration Assistant? Why not simply clone the drive to your new Mac? There is software that will do this for free: SuperDuper! and Carbon Copy Cloner. I have moved my system through 4 Macs in recent years, no settings got lost in the way.

    This is one of my favourite OSX’ features: you can clone the drive and boot it on any Intel Mac, internally or via USB/FW.

  10. Rafal: Migration Assistant is free and integrated seamlessly into the out-of-the-box experience of a new Mac. SuperDuper is not (even though it’s terrific). That’s why.

  11. OK, I’m glad it worked for you, I just remember reading stories of mismatched settings after using Migration Assistant. Similar to restoring from Time Machine, some minor settings are not stored there.

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