Buying a New Computer? How to Save and Transfer Your Files


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Oohh, shiny new computer. Fancy. Fun! But then comes the hard part -- how do I get all my important stuff from the old machine over to the new one?

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The last thing you want is to suddenly realize you no longer have that important something from the outdated computer you just gave to your nephew or donated to charity. When purchasing a new computer, the key is having a plan for migrating your important files, photos, songs and videos before you unplug the old machine and start up the new one.

Evaluating Your Data

If you've had your computer for a few years, by now it is surely loaded with all kinds of things: old resumes, tax returns, vacation pictures, videos from your cousin, Internet bookmarks, MP3s and who knows what else. Does it all need to come with you?

Remember, we're not talking about moving over the software. Any programs you want to use on a new computer should be freshly reinstalled to ensure it's configured properly for that machine.

As for files like documents, photos, songs and videos, sometimes the easiest thing to do is simply copy everything from the old computer to the new one, since it probably has a bigger hard drive than your current machine. But a little "cleaning out the attic" couldn't hurt, either. So first, take a look at what's on the computer and decide if it all needs to make the move. If not, kick it to the recycling bin.

Get a Move On

Perhaps the simplest way to copy files from an old computer to a new one is to burn them to a CD. If you're not moving very much, or if what you're moving consists of relatively small files like Word documents, everything may fit on a disc or two. (Each one holds around 650-900 MB.) Then all you have to do is copy the contents from the CD over to your new computer.

This method is quick, relatively easy and has the added benefit of leaving you with a semi-permanent copy of your files on a type of media you can store safely and expect to last at least a decade. That is, a CD won't crash like a hard drive could.

External Hard Drive

External hard drives store much more data than a CD-ROM, and they are becoming incredibly affordable -- today you can find a portable drive holding up to 1 terabyte of data for as little as $75. (A terabyte equals 1,000 gigabytes -- which is to say, it's an enormous amount of space. The entire Library of Congress is 160 terabytes.)

These hard drives are easy to set up, usually connecting to a computer with a USB cable. And transferring files to a hard drive is very fast, much quicker than burning a CD.

The potential downside is that any hard drive could crash and lose data. These drives' portability can be a convenience, but also presents a risk if the drive is lost, stolen, dropped or submerged in your Big Gulp. But if all you need to do is transfer a few gigabytes of data from point A to point B, it's a pretty quick solution.

Use a Home Network

Sometimes it's nice to have a little period of overlap during which you keep your old computer while getting the new one up and running. If you have room in your office for two computers, having both available and connected through a home network could give you the best of both worlds.

With the latest Windows and Mac operating systems, setting up a home network no longer requires a PhD in computer science. If you have a wireless network in your home, transferring files from one computer to another is a snap -- just drag and drop.

The disadvantage to this solution is that it requires additional hardware, in the form of a router. Also, it doesn't leave you with a backup of your old files, which would be the case if you'd copied them over with a CD or hard drive.

Up in the Clouds

Finally, there are a variety of online storage services that can help with this process. These services store your files in the "cloud," a metaphor that basically means your stuff is available from any Internet connection -- a computer, mobile phone or other portable device such as an iPad.

These services take the guesswork out of backing up a computer, by automatically figuring out which files have changed and backing them up on their own. When moving from one computer to another, you'd first upload everything from the old computer to the cloud, then download it from the cloud to the new computer.

As noted, this solution allows you access to your files not just from your new computer but from anywhere there's an Internet connection -- your office, school, library, or on the go with a mobile device.

The other advantage is security. Most reputable online storage companies, such as SugarSync, use "geo-redundancy" to ensure your data is kept safe -- which means they have multiple data centers, so if there's a problem at one location your files would not be lost. This would provide a layer of protection above and beyond storing files on a CD or hard drive.

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