Moving from an old computer to a new PC can be as arduous as moving to a new house -- aside from a lower risk of injury.
Unfortunately, Windows offers no one-click method to gather all your files from their diverse locations for transport to a new machine. Doing this by hand risks leaving out important data -- many important settings in Windows hide in an invisible directory. The best option for many people is to use a program that automates this otherwise painstaking process.
Windows XP includes one such utility: Microsoft's Files and Settings Transfer Wizard (from the Start menu, select All Programs, then Accessories, then System Tools). If your old machine runs a pre-XP version of Windows, you can run this program from the new computer's XP CD (if included with that computer) or copy it to a disk to run on the old PC.
To use Files and Settings Transfer, first connect the two computers with a slow "null modem" serial cable or a crossover Ethernet cable (budget $10 to $20 for either item), then run the program on both machines. It will automatically copy basic preferences such as your desktop wallpaper, Internet options and a variety of common files, including e-mail archives.
In a test, this process successfully transported data from an old Windows 95 machine in about 40 minutes via serial cable. If you use many non-Microsoft applications, however, you may find that Files and Settings Transfer requires too much configuration before it can corral all of their data. It also can't move any programs.
Detto Technologies' IntelliMover (Win 95 or newer, $50, www.detto.com) allows you to pick what to transfer in a pleasantly laid-out graphical interface; you can select files by type or location. In our tests, it has worked reliably and smoothly (among some thoughtful touches, it backs up your new PC's Outlook Express contacts before overwriting them with the old PC's data).
Detto includes parallel and much faster USB cables in the box. Like the Microsoft utility, IntelliMover won't take along your old software.
Eisenworld's AlohaBob PC Relocator Ultra Control (Win 95 or newer, $70, www.eisenworld.com) costs a bit more, but the earlier versions we've tried earned that expense for their ease and speed. The program will analyze the old PC's files and settings, sorting them by what it thinks should be copied, what might be copied and what shouldn't be touched.
You can then let AlohaBob transfer that data -- via parallel, USB or crossover Ethernet cables, of which USB is included -- or switch to its advanced mode for more exact control. If the two PCs aren't in the same room, AlohaBob also allows you to copy files to CD or other removable media.
AlohaBob can even transfer individual programs, but we would think twice about using that. Just uninstalling a program can be chancy in Windows; transplanting one is even harder. And AlohaBob can't move some applications at all, such as antivirus utilities. It's safer to reinstall your software from the original discs or downloads.
Fortunately, AlohaBob -- unlike its competitors -- offers an undo option to reverse its changes.
What if you're moving from a PC to a Mac? Apple recommends another Detto program called Move2Mac (Win 95 or newer, $50), which will gather your files and some settings and copy them over to the right folders on a Mac (via an included USB cable). It will convert such basic Internet data as mail archives to Mac formats, but it doesn't translate other documents -- that's work you may need to do yourself. But it did its job quickly, hauling over about 300 megabytes of data to a new Power Mac in about seven minutes.
A migration from an old Mac to a new Mac is simplest of all. If the old Mac runs Mac OS X and includes a FireWire port, the Setup Assistant program on new Macs will copy all your stuff -- documents, settings and even programs -- automatically.
If the old Mac lacks OS X or a FireWire port, Apple provides clear directions for an alternate procedure at its Web site. Visit www.apple.com/support and search for "moving to a new Mac."