Easy TransferIf you’re like me, when it comes time to upgrade Windows or the hardware inside a computer, you do things the old fashioned way: you manually copy all the user’s desktop, settings, and data onto a backup drive, and then restore it all after the upgrade.

Recently I have discovered a much, much easier and faster way to do the same thing. It’s called Windows Easy Transfer, and it’s present in Vista, Windows 7, and you can even install it on an old XP box. Best of all, it comes with Windows.

While it won’t transfer programs themselves from the old machine onto the new, it will save you a lot of time and frustration. Since Microsoft isn’t very big on explaining how it all works, I decided to share my recent experiences to illustrate just how handy it is.

Now, back in the days of XP, there was only the XP backup utility. It was pretty basic – and by the that, what I mean is that it sucked. Enter Windows Vista. Vista came with Windows Easy Transfer (WET). WET allows you to automagically back up all the user’s files, folders, settings, and just about everything else except installed programs themselves. Windows 7 comes with a more refined and very easy to use version of Vista’s WET. In 7, a monkey with half a brain could use WET.

You can choose to copy settings from one computer to another over an ethernet or WiFi network, via USB “Easy Transfer” cable, or you can back up all the data to disk. I recently used the “network transfer” option. Here’s how it works:

  1. Run WET on the old computer. Pick your backup option. If you choose network, it will give you a short secret code.
  2. Run WET on the new computer. Pick the network option, and then enter the secret code from the old computer. This will enable remote viewing of the old computer’s files and directories. By default, WET copies all files in the Users/Document and Settings directory, as well as any other directories and files on the old machine’s drives that were not part of a default Windows installation.
  3. After verifying that all the folders you want are selected, fire it up and then go take a break. To transfer 32GB of data and settings, it took me about 1.5 hours, during which time I got others things done. That’s it!

Now, there are a few catches:

  • WET will not transfer programs themselves. It will give you a lovely little report at the end of the transfer telling you what programs need to be reinstalled on the new machine. There was something called Windows Easy Transfer Companion that MS was going to release after purchasing another company, but alas, it seems to have been killed off for reasons which are a total mystery to me.
  • While it detected Mozilla Firefox, it did NOT detect Thunderbird’s profile folders. I had to manually select that particular folder. After the transfer, I ended up with a couple of duplicated Thunderbird config files (since I had reinstalled Tbird before the transfer), with the restored ones renamed as “profile(1).ini”. I just deleted the “profile.ini” and renamed the “(1)” version to “profile.ini”. Problem solved, and Thunderbird fired up with all e-mail, settings, add-ons, etc. For more info on Firefox’s and Thunderbird’s profiles and how to transfer them, see my post The Easy Way to Transfer Account Settings in Mozilla Thunderbird and Firefox.
  • You can transfer files and settings from XP to Vista or 7, from Vista to Vista or 7, and from 7 to 7. Since Windows XP doesn’t have WET, you’ll need to install it from your Vista or 7 DVD. Pop the new install DVD into your old XP machine, and run: D:\support\migwiz\migsetup.exe
    That will install WET onto your XP box so you can use it to transfer data to your new Vista/7 install.
  • It ain’t perfect. For example, if you have a desktop background wallpaper in your Firefox profile directory, it will transfer the file, but it may not set it as the background image again once everything is restored. Fear not, the file is there – you just have to change the background image again manually and navigate to where the image file is stored on your new machine. It should be in the same place as on the old machine.

So, while it certainly isn’t the greatest and most flexible tool, it works for the most part. And, if you’re used to manually backing up hundreds of directories and files, it can cut down your workload considerably. Just make sure to carefully select all the files and folders you want to transfer, since WET will no doubt miss a few of them by default.

There is one other handy little use for Windows East Transfer: if you are switching from a 32-bit to 64-bit version of windows, you will not be able to do an “upgrade install”. You will be forced to do a clean install even with upgrade media. Fortunately, WET can save you here as well. Use WET to back up all your data, run the “upgrade” clean install of the 64-bit OS, and then use WET again on the new install to restore the backup you made previously. Voila! Everything will be restored without any headaches.

Well, okay – with far fewer headaches!

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