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How to migrate/transfer user data when upgrading Mac OS?

My friend needs to upgrade her Mac (with a new OS, I believe) and she is worried about losing her data during the upgrade. Apparently a hard drive reformat is required.

I am not familiar with Macs, so what is the best strategy for saving and migrating her valuable data (like business-related documents: where would they be located?) I recommended having her current hard drive swapped out with a new one to be absolutely safe: she could just have it swapped back in if anything goes wrong. However, this is not exactly convenient for migrating that data to the new hard drive.

I could not get too much info over the phone, as my friend is very unfamiliar with computers. This is what I could get:

  • Mac laptop bought within the last two years.
  • The OS is too old to run some programs she needs.
  • To upgrade the OS, a hard drive reformat is required.
  • The data she is most concerned about is from an application called Scrivener.

edit: Will an Apple Mac store provide this type of data backup and migration if they do the upgrade?

update: The name of the application with important data is called Scrivener. Also the Apple store won't do a data migration (in Korea, anyways)

The Apple store in COEX [Seoul, Korea] said they can't back up my files temporarily, it's not even an official Apple store.

update: more info about laptop

  • Hardware: Macbook
  • Current OS: 10.4.11 Tiger
  • Required OS: 10.6 Leopard
  • "I guess I missed the 10.5 upgrade, since I'm skipping it they have to reformat everything. "
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up vote 2 down vote accepted


edit: Will an Apple Mac store provide this type of data backup and migration if they do the upgrade?

Yes, the brick & mortar Apple Stores will offer free migration, if the new system is purchased from them.

Second, On the new system, as soon as it is booted will offer to migrate the old computers data. All you would need is one of the following an ethernet cable, Wireless network, or a Firewire cable.


To use Migration Assistant, both Macs must be FireWire-equipped or be connected to the same Ethernet or wireless network.

Tip: If you have a MacBook Air or MacBook (13-inch, Aluminum, Late 2008), make sure both computers are connected to the same Ethernet or wireless network. See this article.

Note: If you experienced issues while using some files or applications on your previous computer, you may not want to transfer those files and applications to your new computer. If you do, you may transfer issues or incompatible files.

To transfer files via Migration Assistant Before performing migration, use Software Update on your older Mac to ensure you get the latest updates for Mac OS X. If you're using a portable Mac, make sure the power cable is connected. On your new Mac, open Migration Assistant, located in the Utilities folder in your Applications folder. Read the Introduction screen, then click Continue. If a dialog appears, type your admin password, then click OK. In the Migration Method screen, select “From another Mac,” then click Continue. If you are using FireWire, connect a FireWire cable between your new Mac and your earlier Mac, then click Continue. If you are using a wireless network, click "Use Network to transfer files and important settings over a wireless network", then click Continue.

Follow the instructions in Migration Assistant to restart your earlier Mac if necessary. Select the hard disk and user accounts from which you want to transfer, and select whether you want to transfer applications, files and folders, or your Library folder. Note: When you first open a transferred application on your new computer, you may need to re-enter the application’s serial number or registration code.

Select whether you want to use your old network, time zone, and Sharing settings, and then click Transfer. When Migration Assistant is finished transferring files, click Quit.

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Thanks for the detailed explanation, Benjamin. How do these instructions apply if she's not buying a new laptop, but just a new OS for her current laptop? – Leftium Nov 16 '09 at 1:24
Run the Migration assistant from the Utilities folder. It's the same tool, it just automatically gets launched when you initially power up the system. – Benjamin Schollnick Nov 16 '09 at 18:12
Sorry I may have misread that. Install the new HD, install the OS, and then run the migration assistant either during the initial boot up, or after logging in. Just make sure that the old drive is in an enclosure and is available for migration. – Benjamin Schollnick Nov 16 '09 at 18:14

I would recommend getting a firewire external hard drive (at least as big or bigger than the internal hard drive) and using Carbon Copy Cloner to back up the current drive onto the external drive. The format and install the OS onto the internal hard drive. You could then use the Migration Assistant to move her files onto the internal drive. Cloning is safer than someone who doesn't know what they're doing popping open an older machine.

If something goes wrong, she could always boot from the external hard drive and she'd be exactly where she was before the upgrade. But it should go fine and afterwards she'd have drive for backups.

Or she could sign up for a online backup service. I'm just not sure what is available in Korea. But bandwidth probably isn't a problem I'm assuming.

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Thanks, this seems to be the simplest solution for my friend! – Leftium Nov 16 '09 at 2:58

Here's what I do:

  • Timemachine backup (will work with ANY usb connected drive)
  • Format + Install a new version of OSX, then just use the Migration Assistant, to move my Applications and Documents back.

This way I don't get stuck with any 'old' OS system files, and everything just 'works'

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An OS that's "too old to run some programs she needs" is probably a pretty precise description of MacOS X Tiger which, in turn, does not support Time Machine. – Uwe Honekamp Nov 15 '09 at 10:07

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