How-to: Quickly transferring your choice of data from an old Mac to a new one

Not long ago I purchased an older Macintosh computer for use as a desktop machine. I depend on a MacBook Pro for my everyday use, but there are times when I need a second computer, running concurrently with the MBP, for research. I needed to find a relatively fast and easy way to transfer certain files and folders from my workhorse machine to my recently-obtained older one.

I already have two Mac desktops–an iMac Indigo model from early 2001, which has a slower processor (500MHz); and a 2002 iMac G4 (Flat Panel) (the cool looking flatscreen-monitor-on-a-stalk machine known as Sunflower), which has a not-much-faster 800MHz processor.

Let me take a few moments to try and explain why one might have so many computers.

It’s a sad fact of personal computers that a sort of unplanned obsolescence takes place. Moore’s Law–which is really not a law but more of an observation–states that processor speed will double roughly every two years. Since everyone wants the newest and best available and not yesterday’s models, and computer manufacturers don’t design a way to add fasters processors or allow most circuit board components to be upgradeable, these older computers have much in common with the rusted and decaying hulks of metal, glass and plastic that are the abandoned automobiles one often sees in vacant lots grown up with weeds.

The difference is that these computers still function. While older cars possess moving parts that eventually give way and wear out, ending their operational use, computers nearly always still function much the same as new. While the reason for this is obviously that computers have very few moving parts, there is another more important element.

To continue the automobile analogy: it would be as if every other year cars were made to go twice as fast. While this is an interesting idea in itself, further imagine that as this was taking place, both the maximum and minimum speed limits on highways were increased, to coincide with the release of the newer, faster automobiles. This would likely mean changes in the way these roads were built as well, to accommodate the advanced vehicles.

Therefore, a car that was several years old and had a top speed of 70 mph, for instance, would soon be legally unable to even get on the highway once the minimum speed limit was increased to 75.

So it is with personal computers. While all parts might still function as originally intended, software that was once less complex and smaller in data size soon increases in both complexity and relative size to meet the heftier demands of the newer and more powerful machines.

Imagine that you get a raise at work and go out and buy new furniture. Well, the new furniture is bigger and has more pieces that the old, so now you have to move to a new home because you need the extra space. The furniture is that new software that you want to or have to run…your aging computer is your old home.

Simply put–older machines can’t effectively run newer more advanced software as well. They become sluggish and are generally unresponsive–if they are even capable of running it at all.

Sadly, my most recently acquired Mac will eventually fall by the side of the road as well…but for now, it works well and does what I want.

It’s a PowerMac G4 FW800, and the first machine to have a Firewire (FW) 800 port, which allows data transfer of about 800 megabits per second (Mbit/s)–actually 786.432 Mbit/s. This is almost twice as fast as USB 2.0 (at 480 Mbit/s), which up until recently was the data transfer most often used by Windows-based computers.

I tend to be attracted to computers that hold some kind of milestone or signpost in history. The Mirror Drive Door Macs (of which this is one) were only around a short time, but were among the fastest and most powerful of all computers for that span.

Another plus is it is one of the first of the older models that will run OS X 10.5 Leopard, the last OS available for PPC processors (Apple switched to Intel in 2006). I’ve always been fond of this version of the Mac’s operating system.

I wanted to transfer my personal settings, files and folders from the MacBook Pro to this machine. Apple has created an application to do just that, called Migration Assistant.

Migration Assistant’s opening window (click to enlarge). Credit: Apple Inc.

One of the very good reasons to utilize Migration Assistant is that it allows the use of Firewire to transfer data from machine to machine. This Mac has USB 1.1, which is okay for most things…but it has a top speed for data transfer of 12 Mbit/s, and if I used that to transfer the data it would be a long and arduous process…and depending on how much data I have, it could take somewhere on the magnitude of days to complete.

One of the problems with Migration Assistant is that it doesn’t allow you to select individual files or folders. The app’s twin, Setup Assistant–which appears when you first install a new OS or start up a brand new Mac–is great for the initial transfer of information, and works quite well. But it won’t allow you to choose individual files and folders either. Maybe you have an external hard drive filled with hundreds of gigabytes of pictures and family videos. If you wanted to transfer only certain data from that drive, neither Assistant could help you.

Another problem is that Migration Assistant isn’t designed to try and transfer data from a newer OS to an older machine–you’ll get the “There is no version of OS X on this machine” message on the older computer (“this machine” meaning the one with the newer OS).

So, if you’re trying to accomplish what I am–in either or both examples–there has to be another way.

Fortunately, there is. The trick is to allow the app to make the Firewire connection for you…then just transfer the information yourself. If it sounds complicated, it’s not. It’s actually not much harder than copying and pasting from one to the other.

The first thing you’ll want to do is disable FileVault, if you use it. FileVault is a way to keep your Mac’s data more safe and secure, should it fall into the wrong hands. It encrypts that dataconverts it to a special type of code–that makes it extremely difficult for anyone that doesn’t know the code to translate it. Chances are, if you have this you already know about it. It’s a special option and is something that you could not turn on accidentally. If you have questions or need assistance in turning it off or learning more about it, you can find instructions here for OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, or here for 10.7 Lion and 10.8 Mountain Lion.

Next you’ll want to start Migration Assistant on the Destination Mac–the one that will be receiving the information. It’s found in the Applications folder>Utilities subfolder. (Full instructions for using the app can be found here.)

Follow the step by step directions found on the display. Briefly, this is what you’ll do (I would advise reading the instructions found at the above link if you are unfamiliar with the procedure). Click the Continue button on the Destination Mac after each step:

  • Connect the appropriate Firewire cable to both machines (either FW400 or 800–the cables aren’t interchangeable).
  • Set the Source Mac up in Target Disk mode. This essentially involves making it into a giant hard drive.You do this by restarting it and holding down the “T” key as soon as the screen goes black. Continue to hold down the “T” key until you see the big Firewire symbol appear.
  • When the message “Firewire connection established” appears, STOP.
  • You can now minimize the Migration Assistant. We won’t be needing it for the remainder of the transfer, but don’t close it completely or you could disrupt the connection.
  • By now you should have the icon of an orange rectangle bearing the Firewire symbol appearing on the Destination Mac’s display. Its name will be the same as the Source Mac’s hard drive, and is a representation of it. (You might have more than one, depending on how many drives you have in the Source Mac.)
  • Now, all you have to do is double-click on the Source Mac’s drive icon found on the Destination Mac’s display to find what you’d like to transfer, open the Destination Mac’s hard drive icon to locate where you’d like to put it, highlight and drag the files and folders you want from one to the other.
  • It’s important to remember that you’re only copying the files and folders, not actually moving them.
  • This is the easy part–you wait for the transfer to complete.
  • Once you’re done copying all the data you wanted to transfer, highlight the Source Mac’s hard drive icon and drag it to the Destination Mac’s Trash. This ejects the drive.
  • DO NOT DISCONNECT THE FIREWIRE CABLE UNTIL YOU HAVE EJECTED THE DRIVE! It’s possible you could damage the Source Mac’s drive if you don’t eject it first from the Destination Mac’s desktop.
  • Once it no longer appears on the desktop, you can disconnect the Firewire cable from both machines.
  • Restart the Source Mac by pressing the Power button to turn it off. After a few moments, press the button again to start it up.
  • You’re done!

By following these instructions you can enjoy the higher speed of a Firewire data transfer, which is especially good if your machine is otherwise only capable of the snail’s pace slooowwwness of the older USB 1.1 standard.

(Note: it is also possible to connect the computers directly with a short length of ethernet cable, which should provide the same results. While I have not attempted this transfer method, more on it can be found here–almost at the end of the article. Click the link marked Wireless (Wi-Fi) or Ethernet Migration.”)

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