By Jason Snell
November 29, 2016 1:00 PM PT
What’s the best way to migrate?
Warning: This story has not been updated in several years and may contain out-of-date information.
I have spent an awful lot of time migrating my data to various Macs over the years. (If you want to review a product, you need to use it, and that means bringing over enough of your stuff to do that.) Recently with the release of the new MacBook Pro models, I got to do two more data migrations, which led to a string of conversations on Twitter about the “right way” to move from one Mac to another.
Truth is, there’s no one right way to migrate. I’ve tried them all, and they all have their issues. Let’s walk through the options and consider their strengths and weaknesses.
Clone your old Mac hard drive
This is a classic. In this scenario, you connect your new Mac to your old Mac via Target mode (hold down T at boot to engage Target mode, then—using the right cables and adapters if you have them!—connect one to the other via either Thunderbolt or USB) and then use a utility like Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper to copy every byte of data from the old computer to the new one.
The advantages of this approach are clear: This is a straight-up brain transplant. The new computer is basically the old computer, every single file of it.
But there are complications. Brand-new Mac models often come with special builds of macOS that are device specific. Eventually a software update will come out that puts all Macs on an even footing again, but if you’re buying a brand-new Mac, it won’t necessarily be able to run the OS version you’re copying from your old Mac.
Apple has also moved beyond the concept of a single disk partition containing all your Mac data. There’s been an invisible Recovery partition on Macs for some time now, and the Touch Bar apparently complicates matters further.
Migrate files at first boot
The first time you boot a new Mac, it launches a version of the Migration Assistant utility, which allows you copy files to your new Mac from a few different locations, including another Mac, a Time Machine backup, or a Windows PC.
At first boot, your new Mac is essentially formless—it’s got the system software installed, but there are no user accounts. It’s ripe for a migration.
The simplest way to migrate is via a Time Machine backup, if you’ve got one. Plug in your Time Machine drive (or connect via the network, if it’s a remote drive, but it’ll be a lot slower!), choose a snapshot to use (ideally the backup you just completed before starting up your new Mac!) and begin the migration. You can choose to copy apps, documents, and settings from the Time Machine backup.
You can also choose to migrate directly from your other Mac. The transfer itself is pretty much the same, but you’ll need to find a way to connect the two Macs—a cable directly attached with the old Mac in Target mode is the best approach—and your old Mac will be inoperable in the meantime.
This is the official, Apple-supported method of migrating files, and it’s usually pretty solid. Your files come over, but the new Mac keeps its own system software in place. You can choose a less complete data transfer if you don’t want to bring over everything.
Unfortunately, I haven’t found Migration Assistant to be as reliable as it should be. In migrating to the 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar from my MacBook Air, I encountered an unexplained failure. That was it—the migration failed, Migration Assistant couldn’t explain why, and I was left to pick up the pieces.
Migrate files later with Migration Assistant
You can always launch Migration Assistant later—it’s an app in the Utilities folder. When it runs, it quits out of all other apps so that they won’t mess up your data during migration. You can migrate from a Time Machine backup or another Mac, same as on boot.
Unfortunately, this approach does add complications. Since you’re already up and running on the new Mac, that means you’ve created a new user account. If a user on your old Mac shares that account name—this happens to me all the time, since I use the same account name on all my Macs—you can’t transfer that user without changing its account name. I still haven’t learned my lesson, and frequently find myself creating another new user, logging in to that account, deleting the previous user, and then using Migration Assistant to move over my regular user account from my old Mac.
This approach has the advantage of being available at any time, but if you get the chance to start fresh by migrating at first boot, I think it’s preferable.
Just use iCloud
This is a new one. If you’re using macOS Sierra’s iCloud Desktop and Documents syncing, most of your files will come along for the ride when you log into a new Mac with your iCloud credentials.
It’s sort of true, but… first, you’ll need to re-download all your files from iCloud, which will take much longer than copying those files from a device that’s within a few feet of you. iCloud also doesn’t migrate apps or settings, so you’ll need to reinstall apps (either from the Mac App Store or from third-party app sellers) and either tweak your settings or dig around in your preferences folder to find the app settings you want to move.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Apple’s long game is to also sync app preferences across iCloud, and maybe even keep track of what apps you’ve got installed and automatically restore those from the Mac App Store, but all the pieces aren’t here yet. If you mostly use stock Apple apps and haven’t really messed with the default settings of those apps, this approach will probably work just fine.
Nothing. Or almost nothing.
A popular approach among some friends of mine (like Casey Liss) is to simply “start fresh” every time they move to a new Mac.
This approach can take two forms. In one, you load all your key files up on an external drive and then just copy them over by hand. In the other, you add stuff as you need it. Every time you need an app, install it. If you keep your key files on Dropbox, install that and get access to the files you need. If you need to transfer over some key files, do that—but no more.
There’s a lot to be said for this approach, in terms of letting you get rid of what you don’t need and keep only what you do. But personally, I like my migration experience to be as short as possible. I’d rather move house once, in a big truck, rather than shuttle boxes back and forth as needed for several weeks. Your mileage may vary, but I want to get to the part where my new Mac feels like home as quickly as possible.
So what do I do?
These days I’m mostly relying on Migration Assistant, sometimes via a Time Machine backup and sometimes via direct transfer. Unfortunately, my recent bad experiences with Migration Assistant have got me wondering if I’d be better off with a different approach.
If I only moved Macs once every few years, I think I might approach things as Casey Liss does, and start fresh—but then immediately attempt to install all of my key apps and copy over all of my key files via the network or an external drive. It seems like the right thing to do, but it takes a lot of time.
That’s why the appeal of Migration Assistant is strong. There is nothing better—when it works—than clicking a button, walking away, and returning a while later to discover a brand-new Mac with all your old stuff in its right place. If you can migrate from a Time Machine drive fresh from your old Mac, just as you’re booting your new Mac for the first time, that’s probably the first thing you should try. With any luck, it’ll be the last thing you’ll need to try, too.
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