[Update 08/08/18: Windows Migration Upgrade Spotted in macOS Mojave Beta]
The anticipation of buying a new Mac is sometimes tempered by the realization that at some point, you’re going to have to move the data from your old Mac or PC to its new home on your new Mac.
Luckily for us Mac users, the Mac includes the Migration Assistant, an easy-to-use app that, with a bit of help from you, can move all the important data from your old Mac or Windows PC to that sparkling new Mac you just bought. It can perform this task using one of a number of ways to make the connection between old and new:
- Via wired or wireless network
- A FireWire or Thunderbolt cable between the two computers
- From a Time Machine backup (Related: Time Machine – What It Is, How It Works, How to Use It)
- From a startup drive that can be mounted on your new Mac
That should be enough choices to enable you to make a connection to transfer the information. To help you choose between the options, here’s a bit more detail.
Network Connection: Your new Mac, as well as the Mac or PC that contains the data you wish to transfer, must be on the same local network. The Migration Assistant only scans the local network, and won’t look beyond it for hosts to use as the source of the transfer.
The network connection method is probably the easiest to use, especially when you consider that your new Mac can automatically discover the network and make the appropriate connections needed. The only tip here is if your network requires a password, as most Wi-Fi networks do, be sure to have it handy when you first turn your new Mac on.
Thunderbolt and FireWire: The Mac has long supported a special means of connecting two Macs together, known as Target Disk Mode. When a Mac is booted up in Target Disk Mode (hold down the T key when you start your Mac), the OS isn’t loaded; instead, the Mac makes its startup drive available to the connected computer just as if it were an external drive.
Originally, Target Disk Mode made use of the FireWire ports that were common on older Macs. While FireWire is still supported, Thunderbolt, which offers a much faster connection, is a better choice for newer Macs.
In order for Target Disk Mode to operate, both computers need a set of FireWire ports or a set of Thunderbolt ports. It’s possible to use an adapter to connect a Mac with Thunderbolt ports to a Mac with FireWire ports, although for the cost of the adapter and the drop in connection speed, you’re probably better off just using the network method.
Time Machine: You can use your Time Machine backup as the source for copying data with the Migration Assistant. All that’s needed is the ability to connect the Time Machine drive to the new Mac. If your Time Machine drive is located in an external drive, this should be a simple process. You can also use a Time Capsule connected via the network.
External Drive: We already mentioned that the Migration Assistant can use a Time Machine backup drive when it’s connected to the new Mac, but it can also use any startup drive that’s connected to the new Mac.
This is especially handy for anyone who bought a new Mac because their old one had failed in some way; perhaps unable to boot. As long as the startup drive is in good shape, you could move the drive to an external enclosure and migrate the data from there.
If you need an empty external enclosure, you’ll find a wide selection of OWC External Enclosures available.
Preparing Your Old Mac
There are a few preliminary tasks to perform that will make using Migration Assistant easier and quicker. Start by making sure the Mac OS installed on the old Mac is up to date. You don’ t need to jump to an entirely new version of the Mac OS, but if you’re using OS X Mavericks, for example, make sure you’ve updated to the last version of Mavericks. You can update using the Mac App Store or download updates directly from the Apple support site.
If your old Mac is running a version of Mac OS that predates OS X Snow Leopard, you’ll need to first upgrade to Snow Leopard. You can purchase a DVD with OS X Snow Leopard from the Apple website.
If you use any third-party apps, check the developer’s web site and make sure the app is current, and that it’s compatible with the version of the Mac OS installed on your new Mac.
You may want to consider slimming down the data on the old Mac. Migration Assistant will move the bulk of the data over to your new Mac, but if you have an old app or three you no longer use, or that won’t be supported on your new Mac, you may want to consider removing them so as to speed up the data transfer.
Get Ready, Get Set, Go…
The Migration Assistant can take a while, so if a MacBook is involved in the data transfer, make sure it’s powered from a wall outlet and not the battery. No need to drain your Mac’s battery and force it into sleep during the data transfer.
The Migration Assistant is automatically available as an option when you first start up your new Mac. But don’t worry if you’ve already whizzed past the migration option. That’s the tack I usually take, because I want to make sure the new Mac is set up and working before I move my old data over. It also gives me the chance to create a pristine backup of the new Mac, so I can always return to the fresh-out-of-the-box state, should I need to.
The rest of this guide is going to assume you’re manually starting up the Migration Assistant, but if you’re picking this up from the Setup Assistant’s offer to run the Migration Assistant, you really won’t notice much difference.
Start by launching the Migration Assistant on your new Mac, located at /Applications/Utilities/.
The Migration Assistant will warn you that it needs to be the sole app running, and that it will quit all other apps on your Mac. Save any open documents, and then click the Continue button when ready.
Supply your administrator password at the prompt, and then click OK.
The Migration Assistant will ask how you wish to transfer your information. Your choices are:
- From a Mac, Time Machine backup, or startup disk
- From a Windows PC
- To another Mac
In this guide, we’re going to assume you’re transferring from your old Mac, so choose the first option. If you’re using Target Disk Mode, make sure you’ve booted the old Mac while holding down the T key. If you’re using Time Machine or an external drive, make sure they’re powered on and connected to your Mac. When ready, click Continue.
The Migration Assistant will start searching for other devices that it can transfer data from. While it’s busy searching, let’s jump over to your old Mac.
Migration Assistant On an Old Mac
Launch the Migration Assistant on your old Mac. You’ll find it at /Applications/Utilities/.
Run through the same steps as above, until you get to the transfer choices.
Select To Another Mac, and then click Continue.
Return to your new Mac.
Migration Assistant On a New Mac
After a minute or so, your old Mac should appear as a choice for the source of migrating data. Select the old Mac from the list (more than likely, your old Mac will be the only item listed), and then click Continue.
The Migration Assistant will display a verification code. Go to the older Mac and make sure the same verification code is displayed. If so, click the Continue button on the old Mac.
If it’s not displayed, go back and make sure you selected the correct Mac to transfer information from.
At this point, the two Macs will start the preliminary transfer operation. The old Mac will send a list of users and the type of data they have stored on the old Mac.
On the new Mac, you should see the Migration Assistant displaying a number of items that can be transferred. They should include:
- Each user account
- Other files and folders
- Computer and Network settings
You can place a checkmark next to the items you wish to have transferred. Some items have a disclosure triangle that allows you to select from subcategories of items to transfer. For instance, if you look in the user folder items, you’ll find that you can transfer the trash from your old Mac, something I choose not to do.
You may notice a yellow warning flag saying that some conflicts were detected. This usually occurs when one or more user accounts on the old Mac have the same name as a user account on the new Mac.
In older versions of Migration Assistant, you need to halt the process and correct the problem by renaming or deleting user accounts on the Macs.
Thankfully, the newer version of Migration Assistant can fix this issue for you. Go ahead and make your selections about which data will be copied over, then click the Continue button.
If there are any conflicts, a sheet will drop down, displaying ways to eliminate the conflicts. The solutions are either to delete the existing user account on the new Mac and replace it with the old one, or to keep both and give the old user account a new name. Make your choice and click Continue.
Finish Up the Transfer
The transfer will start. Be aware the Migration Assistant can take a long time, depending on the connection method and the size of the data that’s being transferred.
When the Migration Assistant has completed the transfer, your Mac will log off all users and present the normal login screen.
For more tricks and guides for macOS Mojave, High Sierra or earlier, check out our Tech Tips section.