Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The joy(?) of moving to a new Mac

Migration Assistant, and cat.

One of my favorite episodes of Upgrade is from early in the show’s run, when we spent time critiquing the experience of buying and setting up a new iPhone. I keep coming back to something we said in that episode: Buying a new Apple product should be a day of joy and excitement. (Apple might even call it a “magical experience,” though I wouldn’t.) If you’re paying hundreds of dollars for a new gadget, one you might only buy every two or three years, you really should end the day feeling like a kid on Christmas morning—not someone waiting at the dentist’s office.

To Apple’s credit, the iPhone upgrade experience has improved a whole lot in the last five years. I’ve transferred data to all four of my review iPhone models in the last few weeks and it was smooth sailing. I know that people like to talk about doing a “clean install” and leaving the past behind, as if it was some sort of juice cleanse, but I’m not sure that ever made sense and I really don’t think it makes sense now. Make it easy on yourself. Use Apple’s migration tools to get up and running quickly.

I was thinking about all this recently because I’ve had the occasion to set up four new Macs from scratch over the last week: the three new M1 Macs, provided by Apple for review, and a new M1 MacBook Air that I bought myself. Every time I review a new Mac I do an initial set-up, of course, but I don’t usually use Migration Assistant, because it’s not necessary for the short time I spent with most review Macs before I ship them back to Apple.

But this new MacBook Air, the one I bought, is the official replacement for my early 2014 MacBook Air, the one I bought with me when I left IDG and set out on my own in 2014. And so I did a complete migration, for the first time in a year or two.

But before I get to Migration Assistant, let me first praise some other aspects of the new Mac buying process. First, Apple has completely changed its startup options process for M1 Macs, so you can stop trying to remember when you hold down Option and when you hold down Command-R, and so on. You just press the power button to start up, and keep it held down until it tells you that it’s starting up the options screen. From there, you can wipe the drive, run Disk Utility, choose a different startup disk, reinstall macOS, and even enter a file-sharing mode that replaces Target Disk Mode. When I’m setting up a new Mac or leaving an old one, I am invariably required to visit one of these special startup screens—and going forward, that process will be a lot simpler.

I also want to praise the setup process on macOS Big Sur. Apple has been tinkering with this process for a while, and it’s a delicate line to walk—you want to make sure that the users are set up for the long run, but you also don’t want to force them to spend so much time clicking options that they lose that joyful feeling. This year Apple added a panel highlighting all sorts of accessibility options, which is excellent.

And then there’s Migration Assistant. I’ve been using it for ages, and I’ve got the ancient preference files to prove it. This year, I chose to migrate via a Thunderbolt 2-to-Thunderbolt 3 cable, attached to my old MacBook Air running in Target Disk Mode. Something bad happened during my first migration attempt, and the old Air locked up. I had to restart it, and the Migration Assistant process “completed” with almost nothing actually migrated.

In the past, a failed migration was a real eye-rolling result, especially if you prefer every one of your Mac accounts to have the same user name. It means you need to create a new temporary administrator account, log into it, delete your failed migration account, and then begin a new migration from your old device to the correct user name. I began to prepare myself to do that dance again, but Migration Assistant detected that I was migrating an account of the same name and offered to do the right thing—delete the user account I was currently using, and replace it with the migrated one.

I’m not sure if this was a new option this year or if it’s been kicking around for a little while, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it. It did the trick. I was up and running on my new MacBook Air pretty soon after.

And this brings me back to why I recommend that people use Migration Assistant. Yes, you’ll end up with some decade-old preference files on your disk that are meant for apps that no longer run on macOS. (They don’t take up much space. Relax.) But to me, there was real joy in starting up that brand-new M1 MacBook Air and seeing… my Mac, right down to the desktop wallpaper. Yes, it’s a different processor architecture (and a retina display!), but it’s also unmistakably the MacBook Air I know and love. That’s how it should be.

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