Mac 911: Good backup habits making migrating to a new Mac easier

To go forward, you must back up. This is an old rubric and bad joke about the importance of keeping regularly updated copies on hand of your personal and work documents and, ideally, your entire drive. Backing up is often an important stage in migrating to a new machine as well. This week, I cover my recommended methods.

Jim Kay writes:

I'm planing on purchasing the new MacBook in April, but I am wondering what the best way is to move all my files, settings, pictures, and music over to the new Mac from my current Mac

You can take a few different approaches, and over decades of owning Macs and using various backup software and media (including cloud storage), I have some strong opinions.


If your current setup works exactly as you like, cloning your drive would provide you both with a complete backup of your old system, a way to test a migration, and the least fuss in migrating.

This method requires an external drive, however, so it adds expense. However, because I recommend that you constantly back up your files with Time Machine or other software, you should already have one or use this opportunity to get one.

For long-term archival purposes, get a drive that's three times the amount of data you expect to store on your Mac's volumes. A 2-terabyte (TB) external drive with USB 2 and 3.0 and FireWire 800 interfaces can be had for under $200. (While it lacks FireWire, The Wirecutter's current 2TB pick is only $92. We live in a glorious time.)

Make sure you've installed all OS X updates, so you're not missing files needed to boot a new Mac. Then use SuperDuper (free for basic cloning; $27.95 for advanced features) or Carbon Copy Cloner ($19.99, 30-day free trial) to create an exact duplicate of your Mac's drive. Read the documentation of the app you choose on how to make a perfect copy, which may involve restarting or quitting some active software.

After cloning, unmount the drive, shut down the old computer, mount the drive on the new one, and set it as the boot volume from the Startup Disk preference pane. Restart the new computer. If the cloned drive boots the new computer fine, you're essentially done.

On your old computer, make sure when you restart it that it doesn't automatically retrieve email or engage in a host of other activities by holding down the Shift key after pressing the power button. Keep holding it down until you see the Desktop icons appear, and this prevents OS X from starting software you set to run at launch.

Now you've got a full, cloned backup on your transfer drive, and a new computer with all the same data.


An alert reader will note that Jim didn't ask about cloning or his applications. If you're just trying to move all your documents and settings, Apple's Migration Assistant is a simpler path to take. People report varying success with the assistant, but the odds seem much higher these days of having no problem at all.

With Migration Assistant, you can select from among a few categories of items to transfer, including settings and applications. The assistant can work either over a network, via Thunderbolt or FireWire, or from a Time Machine backup.

Reader Larry asked whether one could selectively retrieve files while performing a migration. And Bonnie Beiseker asked if she had to pick what to back up.

In both cases with Time Machine, the answer is no: Time Machine was designed around completeness and simplicity, which means everything is backed up and also archived, with a history of file changes recorded to allow different versions to be retrieved over time.

If you want to be able to choose files to backup and restore, you need to pick a third-party program, like Backblaze or CrashPlan. I have had my bacon saved by such software many times when an external drive has gone bad, or I've deleted a folder accidentally.

Additional, third-party software paired with cloud services can let you retrieve files or entire backups even if your local drives have all bitten the dust, something not currently supported with Time Machine. But Apple has built all those new data centers.

Choose what to copy

If you're looking just to transfer documents of all kinds and not settings and applications, using an networked-mounted volume to copy items over can be the simplest. I've chosen this route a number of times when setting up a secondary computer.

This method typically can't copy all applications, though some will survive the voyage, and requires that you root out preferences and other files if you're trying to bring those along.

Bonus question: migrating an older Mac

Pat White writes about being stymied with a migration:

I'm trying to transfer files from a 2006 MacBook Pro, running Snow Leopard 10.6.8, to a new Mac mini running Yosemite. I've followed all the instructions, but the Migration Assistant on Yosemite keeps telling me to upgrade the 10.6.8 MacBook software. The problem is 10.6.8 is the highest as the MacBook can process.

Something's awry here, Pat. The late 2006 MacBook Pro can handle OS X 10.7, so long as you have 2GB of RAM installed, but you shouldn't need it. Apple's migration support details note, "Migration Assistant in Mavericks and Yosemite can transfer information from other computers that have OS X Snow Leopard v10.6.8 or later installed."

So something is not quite right. It may be that you need to try another method of migrating: If you're using Wi-Fi or ethernet, try FireWire You might also make a Time Machine backup of your MacBook Pro and then attach that drive to the new Mac mini.

Ask Mac 911

You can email things that perplex you or need solving to, tweet them at me (if brief) @glennf, or call 206-337-5833 and leave a voicemail message. (We'll be experimenting with some audio in the future, and may put your question "on the air.")


Glenn Fleishman

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