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The problem: Getting everything from your old PC to the new one

How to transfer data - Part I

Data transfer methods - Part II

Moving the programs over


Hard disk to hard disk copying:
There is nothing hard or macho about the hard disk. Itís one of the most fragile parts in any computer and, unlike the RAM or the CPU, is very sensitive to shock damage. Fortunately hard disks have matured from early versions which had to be ďlockedĒ prior to doing something daring like moving the PC! Locking involved securing the reading heads so they didnít trash about damaging the sensitive data storage magnetic disks. Hard disks are a lot ďharderĒ now and, though they still need to be handled with respect, removing a hard disk from an older machine to plug it into the new one long enough to copy the data over isnít a high risk activity.  

There are some obvious limitations to this exercise particularly if one of the machines is a laptop, if thereís a SCSI drive involved, or if the new PC has tamper proof warranty seals. Letís first look at the usual abbreviations used in storage. IDE (also called ATAPI, DMA, UDMA, PATA or parallel ATA just to be  confusing) is the common or garden hard disk. SCSI (also using terms like Ultra 160, Ultra 320, LVD etc) and the newer Serial ATA (SATA) are others. As SCSI is rarely used in home PCs weíll concentrate on IDE and SATA.

IDE: The most common occurrence is fortunately the easiest to work with Ė where both source and target disks are IDE. In these cases the connectivity itself is easily achieved by removing the source PCís hard disk and plugging it into the target PC as the second drive, disabling any other IDE devices like DVD drives if there arenít enough IDE connectors Ö but a brief note on file systems is in order.

About file sytems: All hard disks have to be partitioned and formatted before use. There are two main types of partitions Ė the File Allocation Table (FAT) and NT File System (NTFS). FAT 32 Ė and itís older cousin FAT 16 Ė are found in Windows 95/98/98SE/ME and XP systems and NTFS is commonly found in Windows NT/2000/2003/XP. How the FAT differs from the NTFS is beyond the scope of this article but itís worth bearing in mind two things:

- An NTFS file system can read a FAT16 or FAT32 partition but a FAT partition cannot read an NTFS one.

- A FAT32 partition can be converted to an NTFS partition without loss of data or programs. So if Windows XP was installed on a FAT32 partition in the new PC it can be converted to NTFS to read an older NTFS hard disk. But once converted to NTFS the partition canít be converted back to FAT.

SATA: SATA is a newer technology and older PCs are unlikely to have SATA disks. However, PCs with SATA hard disks will also have IDE connectors and an old IDE hard disk should feel perfectly at home in a new PC. When working the other way and plugging a SATA hard disk into a PC that has only IDE disk/s appropriate SATA drivers for that motherboard may need to be installed on the IDE disk so it can recognise the SATA drive.

SCSI: SCSI drives canít be used in a new PC unless the PC has a SCSI controller. If it is a server grade machine it may have a SCSI controller on the motherboard and if itís not then a PCI SCSI controller salvaged from the old PC may do the trick. Note that really old SCSI controllers are ISA and wonít fit in new PCs which tend to not have any ISA slots.

A note about RAID: If either the old PC or the new one uses RAID a little familiarity with how RAID works will go a long way. You could damage a RAID array and lose all your data with a few less than judicious key strokes in the setup menu as we've described in an earlier article.

LAN: A LAN is often the number one choice for copying data over. To create a LAN both source and target PCs need to have network cards and operating systems. Unless the network is a wireless LAN the right type of network cable would also be required to connect the PCs directly to each other. Most modern PCs have a network facility integrated into the motherboard or added on via a PCI card. And almost any old network card in the source PC will suffice. Should the source PC not have one itís well worth the $10 that basic network cards cost. Customers often ask if Windows XP or some other new version of Windows can actually be configured in a network with PCs running older operating systems. The goods news is that yes, it can. Itís possible to have a 7 PC network with a mix of Windows 95, 98, 98SE, ME, NT, 2000 and XP.

Using a LAN is fast but LANs also present other benefits. LANs are easier to setup than DCCs and, in some cases, even easier than hard disk swaps. A wired LAN with a 10/100 network card at each end designed to provide 100 MB per second may give you less than 50 mbps but itís still faster than anything else except transferring data between two hard disks in the same PC. Gigabit LANs take the data transfer speed up to a theoretical 1000 mbps but do require Gigabit LAN hardware in both machines. But itís not just speed. A wireless LAN saves the inconvenience of moving the PCs close together, once created a LAN can be left in place and will provide shared internet access or some connectivity benefits for years to come, LANs are non-intrusive and do not require breaking the warranty seal on a new PC (if the PC doesnít have an internal network card an external USB to RJ45 ethernet adapter will do the job just as well), and there isnít the FAT32-not-reading-NTFS issue to worry about.

Other methods: There are some less used and some quite original ways people find to transfer data. Uploading to a website and downloading to the new hard disk involves no extra hardware. Webmasters tend to have a favourite ftp program, and thatís all the software required to upload to a web site. This method does require sufficient space on the hosting service and preferably a fast, unmetered internet connection. Does your host offer unlimited storage? This is your chance to see if they mean it. This method is, as you would expect, tediously slow compared to hard disk or LAN transfers.

USB Devices, flash memory, ZIP and Jaz are other possiblities. Zip disks are limited by size and the maximum they go up to now is 750 MB. Older Zip drives are unlikely to support capacities larger than 250 MB or, in fact, 100 MB on the really old ones. With the Zip and Jaz formats it is highly unlikely that the drives to read these media are already in the target PC. USB devices are very convenient for carrying around and fast on read and write operations. But, like Zip and CD media they donít store very much data and older PCs may not support USB 2.0. They may not even support the earlier USB 1.1. Flash memory devices need readers as well and again, older PCs are unlikely to have them. External readers are available for all these media and they are worth considering but they just donít compare to hard disk swaps and LANS for sheer speed.

Next: Transferring Programs



This article was first posted on July 20, 2004. Note the copyright notice at the bottom of the page. We do actively prosecute content thieves.






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Last updated: Jan, 2010