Desktops

How to transfer your files to a new computer

Getting a new computer? Great. Transferring your files and applications from the old to the new? Not so great. We put together this quick guide to help you make a switch with ease.

1. Back up your files before you move them. You should be doing this already, but just in case: Make sure all your files, folders, music, photos, and other items are safely backed up on an external drive, in the cloud, or on a USB flash drive. Do that before you start setting up the new computer. If you need a little help getting started, take a look at our computer backup guide.

2. Transfer your files. Both Microsoft and Apple supply utilities for transferring files from one computer to another. Winodws users can run Windows Easy Transfer. It's built into Windows 7 and later, but if you have an older version of the operating system, you can pick it up free here. If you've got a Mac, Migration Assistant is the tool you need. It's built into newer versions of Mac OS, or you can download it here. Migration Assistant will switch your files, settings, and so on to the new Mac, but it will also transfer your applications. If you’re an iTunes user, Apple provides detailed instructions on how to get your music to the new computer. Finally, if you're moving from a PC to a Mac, or vice versa, look for the appropriate editions of Easy Transfer and Migration Assistant to help you do that.

Getting ready to buy a new laptop, desktop, or Chromebook? You'll find plenty of valuable advice in Consumer Reports Buying Guides.

3. Install your applications. Windows Easy Transfer won’t move your applications to the new computer, but it will provide a list of those you should move over. Even with that list, this step could present a few challenges. First, you probably installed a lot of your older software from CDs. Many new computers—especially laptops—don’t have CD drives. If you find yourself in that situation, the simplest solution is to hook up an external CD drive (you should be able to find one for $70 or less) and install your software from there. That external drive might come in handy later for watching movies or listening to music. An alternative is to put the software CD into your old computer, copy the application to a temporary directory, copy that to a flash drive, then install it on your new computer.

If you can’t find your CD or you downloaded software directly onto your computer from the Internet, it might also be helpful to use a tool such as Magical Jelly Bean. It will look on your old computer for all the product keys for applications you’ve downloaded.

Depending on how old your software is, you’ll probably have to upgrade it so it’s compatible with your new operating system. Check with the vendor for updates. In some cases, you might want to buy the newest version of the application, especially if it includes better security and more features than older ones.

4. What about that old printer? Ports and connectors have changed in the past few years, so if you buy a new computer, you might also need a new printer. New Macs, for example, now have Thunderbolt ports instead of Firewire. You can buy an adapter, but that might slow down communications between your printer and computer. If the ports and connectors from your old printer and your new computer are compatible, you can keep your printer. But check on the manufacturer’s website to see if there are any updates for the drivers. If you’re moving from Windows XP to Windows 8.1, you might find that many manufacturers decided not to update their drivers, so your device may no longer be compatible.

5. Keep your data to yourself! Avoid ID theft and protect personal data when getting rid of an old computer. Take the hard drive out of your old computer and use it as a backup drive. If you’d rather not do that, you’ll need to thoroughly scrub the data off the hard drive. Download the data-wiping software at DBAN.org and follow the instructions to create a bootable CD that you will then use to wipe the drive clean. DBAN works on both Macs and PCs.

—Donna Tapellini

Copyright © 2005-2015 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.