Transferring data from your old to new computer

A new computer usually comes with the promise of faster processing, not to mention more memory, and enhanced graphics – but it also presents a unique opportunity to start over in terms of your own sense of organisation (or disorganisation, as the case may be). Transferring your computer's contents from one machine to another is a fairly simple process, especially when the new and old systems are on the same platform (Windows to Windows, Mac to Mac, for example). Moving between platforms can be simple too. You'll almost always find instructions or wizards for walking you through the process.

But before you start to transfer everything, think about whether you really need it all. Setting up a brand new machine marks an ideal moment to ditch old files by archiving them, thus cleaning up your files and folder structures.

1. Archive what you don't need

Old computers typically have old files on them that you don't necessarily want to delete forever, but you probably won't need to access any time soon. Consider archiving them instead of putting them on your new machine. Seeing as you've got that clean slate of a new computer, why not keep it clean, or as clean as possible? I recommend archiving files older than three years, and in many cases, anything older than six months, but it very much depends on what kind of files you have and how you use them.

Whether you choose to compress (Zip, Stuffit, etc.) your files first is up to you. Compressing them saves space, but also adds a few extra steps during the archiving process, during the spot-checking process (when you'll open a few files to test that they copied correctly), and in the future when you need to access your data.

Here are a few options for where to store your data if you are going to archive it.

Discs. Just the week before last, at the start of the new year, I archived a bunch of work files (everything from 2011 and 2012) and burned them to a disc. The disc sits within arm's reach, and I've already had to pop it into my machine twice to grab a few miscellaneous files, but that's why I have it. I trust discs and they're relatively inexpensive. I like the fact that I can label them with a permanent marker and keep them in a case, where I know they won't get scratched. I also appreciate the fact that as soon as I burn files to a disc, I can check that they copied properly by dropping the disc into another computer and spot-checking by opening a few files at random.

The downside to using discs is that not all devices have optical disc drives any more, such as Ultrabooks. Also, they're physical media that you need to store somewhere and protect. And if you need to offload files that are rather large, such as videos, discs aren't a great option.

USB storage devices. Rather than use discs, you can archive old files to USB-connected storage devices, which can be small USB sticks or a big old external hard drive. USB storage devices come with many of the same benefits as discs: Testing that the files copied properly is simple and quick, they're pretty trustworthy, and you can keep them within arm's reach. Plus, as long as they're in your possession, no one else can get data from them.

Online storage. If keeping physical media isn't your thing, an online storage service will work just fine for archiving your data. There are plenty of options here, such as Google Drive and SkyDrive. Do note that file-syncing services aren't exactly the same as straight online backup and storage solutions. If you "sync" files from your old computer to a file-syncing program and then delete them from the machine, they will also be deleted from the online service. On the other hand, if you upload files to a file-syncing program via the web app, the service will store a copy of them. (Yes, it's rather confusing).

2. Before you migrate, backup!

Once those older files have been archived, you can start to migrate the rest of your files, programs, and settings to a new machine, right?

Wrong.

Before you do anything else: Backup, backup, backup. And while you're at it, backup!

Heaven forbid anything goes awry during migration, but if it does, you will be very thankful you backed up all your data.

3. Migrating

Built-in method. As I've already mentioned, new computers typically include some kind of instructions or a wizard that will walk you through the migration process. In Windows, it's called Easy Transfer. In Mac, you'll find the Migration Assistant. This is the method I would personally use whenever possible.

Depending on what kind of system you're starting on and moving to, you may need to install programs again, which is usually the worst part of migrating. With more and more services in the cloud, though, even this process is getting easier, because your program settings and other info can be stored in a separate location, and you can simply download the data onto the new machine.

A neat little website called Ninite helps you install dozens of downloadable programs from the web – like browsers, iTunes, Skype, Flash, and Shockwave – in one shot.

Networked solution. Another way to transfer files from one computer to another is to use your home network and enable the "sharing" option in both computers' settings. Then you can simply copy files from one location to the other. You can share files between PCs and Macs pretty easily with this solution, although it can take a while depending on how much data you have.

Cable. Another option is to buy an "easy transfer" USB cable (which you can pick up for around £15 or so). Using this, you can physically connect two machines and swap data from one to the other pretty quickly and simply.

Migration software. As you might expect, you can buy specially designed software to handle your migration in one fell swoop, or just very specific elements of a migration. Laplink PCmover for Windows is one such product which retails at £28 for the Home version.

Keep it clean

Also try to keep your new machine organised and tidy by using sensible folder structures and file naming conventions, and by periodically archiving those old files that you most likely don't need to access any more. All this will help that "new computer" feeling last a little bit longer.