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Articles: To Clone or Transfer

After years of entrenching your digital life inside your computer, moving to a new system is not always easy. You can choose to make a clean break, opting to move files by using CD-Rs or an external hard drive and then reinstalling all their applications. For the digital packrat this is often a good thing to do, especially since hard drives can clutter up worse than the average teen-ager's bedroom.

However, if you want to transplant your current system and all its settings to your brand new Mac, then you have only two good options. You can erase the new hard drive and clone (make an "exact" copy of) your old hard drive onto it. Or, you can use Apple's new "Migration Assistant." There are pros and cons to both.

Cloning, for the longest time, has been my favorite solution. Two good tools are available to do this in OS X: Disk Utility and Carbon Copy Cloner v2.3. The latter was just recently rewritten for 10.4 Tiger, and should be on your hard drive in the Utilities folder. As good as Disk Utility is, Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) is better at copying your data over exactly. CCC can be downloaded for free at .

The reason you need any application to copy your old hard drive to a new hard drive is that many files are hidden. To see some for yourself, go to the finder's "Go" menu. Mouse down to "Go to Folder..." and in the text box type "/usr" without the quote marks. Glick on GO and you will see the contents of a hidden folder, one of many. Close that window because you don't want to change anything in there. Within a hard drive are other operating system components that need to be "blessed" in order for a computer to boot off it. These components need to be rewritten by an application in the new location in order for a computer to see them, and not just copied.

The drawback to cloning is that you must have an operating system on your old computer that can boot your new one. If you have kept up to date with your operating system then you are most likely going to be OK. However, if you have OS 10.2 and you are buying a new computer that came with OS 10.4, then you might not be able to boot the computer after you clone. In some cases you may have the latest OS version but the computer has a special, more advanced version. This is often the case after a computer is just released. It will have extra features that were not included in the OS release because the computer was made after the OS version was written. There is a way around this but it involves reinstalling the OS off the new computers restore disc after you have cloned. This sometimes breaks the things you want to save in the first place by cloning.

In addition cloning requires you to completely erase your new hard drive. Any extras or iLife upgrades will be gone from the new system and need to be reinstalled after cloning. Most of these factors would, and should, discourage a user making a jump in OS revisions. Instead, Apple's Migration Assistant may suit your needs better.

Apple's Migration Assistant originally appeared only on new computers with OS 10.3 Panther, but the feature became a standard part of 10.4 Tiger and is built into the OS now. Before creating a new user account on a fresh install of OS 10.4 you are asked if you want to transfer information from your old computer. Selecting "yes" here launches Migration Assistant and it will ask you what you want to bring over. Selecting everything will deliver something close to a cloned system with an added advantage: you're now using the OS that came with your new Mac. Your information and settings are integrated into a clean version of the OS. This clean OS may end up solving some problems if you had any. However, files you want are sometimes not moved over with Migration Assistant, and that is often why people like to clone instead.

The good news is that you do not have to choose only one. You can use Apple's Migration Assistant first and see if it did what you wanted. If it failed to get everything you needed, then format the drive and clone. The beauty is that your old data is not getting changed in either process. Just wait until you have your old digital life in its new home before reformatting that old computer, up to that point you have options.

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