Checklist: Transferring Data from One Computer To Another

Did I move everything over? Before moving data from one computer to another, here's a checklist of various methods of storing your data and what to copy off before you format that hard drive.

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Transfer Files from one computer to another

Over the past month, I've taken three PCs and transferred data from one hard drive to another: Two were for my uncle, one was for me.

For the regular user of laptops/PCs, they only know where their folder is that contains their pictures, movies, and videos. They have no idea where their other data is located on their hard drive such as financial information or game data. All they know is that they double-click an icon and access their data.

When I received the laptops, I had to format the drives and put a fresh copy of Windows on each machine. However, I needed to remove pictures, music, and videos and anything that was important before erasing both drives.

First, I needed to copy the data off to another location.

Copy Destinations

Copying the files off is easy. However, you need to pick the best device for accomplishing your task.


Ghosting a PC is the process of reading an entire hard drive and making an image (a file) of it so you can take that image and apply it directly to another hard drive.

Nowadays, most people just copy their data instead of taking the time to create an image file, but in corporations, ghosting a PC is great. If you have a number of PCs that require the exact same configuration for, say 5 employees, you can easily take that one image and push it down to the 4 PCs in a flash. You wouldn't need to install all of the applications and data 5 would apply that one image to all five machines.

However, for "Joe-Consumer" this is a little overkill (but Joe-Consumer is becoming wiser lately). Also, if you have a bad hard drive, it may not make sense to create an image that can't read a hard drive. It'd be best to move data instead of backing up an entire hard drive.

Pros: Copies en entire hard drive exactly.

Cons: It takes a while to make the image; You need a storage location to put that image file while it's creating it.

Products Recommended: Symantec Ghost (commercial); Clonezilla (free); DriveImageXML (free)

External Hard Drive

This is probably the easiest way to transfer data from one computer to another. This is what I used to transfer my uncle's data.

Pros: Can hold a number of large files if necessary.

Cons: You still have the transfer time to copy them over. Depending on the amount of data to transfer, it's best to get a USB 3.0 External Drive (if the PC can handle USB 3.0).

Products Recommended: Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex (320GB)

USB Drive

I would have never recommended this in the earlier days, but now, you can use USB drives for copying your files off of the hard drive. Hell, you could even copy an entire hard drive off with this Kingston Predator DataTraveler (DUDE! 512GB...ON A USB DRIVE!).

Pros: Again, can hold a number of large files if necessary.

Cons: Again, you have the transfer time to copy them over.

Products Recommended: Any USB Drive large enough to hold the files (I would recommend a 32GB or 64GB USB Drive).

Bonus Device: Hard Drive Docking Stations

If you're Operating System (OS) won't turn on and you can't access the hard drive at all, you can always physically remove the hard drive from the computer temporarily and use this device to access the hard drive.

This device has saved me countless hours of frustration (and for $22 nonetheless).

NOTE: This one only works with SATA drives. There are other drive types out there, but I thought I would give fair warning to those before they buy it.

Take the hard drive and plug it into the docking station. Then take the USB cable and plug it into your computer. BOOM! There's your "portable hard drive."

Cloud Storage

Everyone is doing the cloud. Of course, it's becoming extremely easy to do now as well.

Sign up for these recommended cloud storage facilities to make sure your data is safe while transitioning to another hard drive.

Pro: Your files and data are stored remotely on another computer; you only have so much storage for free.

Con: For additional storage, payment is required.

Product Recommendations: Microsoft One Drive (15GB free), DropBox (15GB free), Google Drive (15GB), Box (50GB Free).

What to copy?

Now that you have your storage media ready to go, do you remember the files you need to transfer?

How many times have you been sitting there before pushing the button, ready to format a hard drive and say, "Did I get everything off my hard drive?"

Luckily, I did enough of these transfers to write down and create a checklist of what you need to preserve before formatting another person's hard drive.

Press Windows-E to open the Windows Explorer, navigate to each of these folders, and COPY the files to your media.

This checklist of types and directories should give you 99% piece-of-mind when formatting your hard drive with confidence.

Here's my list of things to copy: 

Pictures, Documents, Videos, and Music

These folders are no-brainers. Copy these directories to your shared media and you should be good. 

  • Documents (C:\Desktop\Libraries\Documents)
  • Pictures (C:\Desktop\Libraries\Pictures)
  • Videos (C:\Desktop\Libraries\Videos)
  • Music (C:\Desktop\Libraries\Music)


If you've been on the Internet for any period of time, you know that if you lose your bookmarks, you lose a lot of reference material.

I use XMarks to sync my bookmarks across multiple computers. Where ever I go, so long as I have my XMarks plug-in handy, I know that my bookmarks will be there when I bring up a browser.

Game Data

If you have any games on your computer and they aren't networking games (MMORPG), you may need to find the saved game directories to save your spot for later.

Check most of the game forums for locations of where game data is stored and copy that directory over to the media.

Application Data


If you have some applications on your computer, the data files are all that's necessary to copy off. You don't really need the full application copied off.

Go through the list of applications in your Start Menu and see if there are data files that you need from that program. Depending on the program, nowadays, the application may be saving data in the cloud for you automatically (which is basically what most applications should be doing).

For example, if you have Quicken installed, check your save directory for any recent files and find out where they are located. Copy those "data files" out to your media of choice or see if there is a Backup/Restore function for your specific program.

Another technique is to go to your Control Panel and open the "Programs and Features" to view your uninstaller applications. This list is strictly meant to go through your already installed applications and jar your memory to see if you need any of those data files. I would consider this a better index than what is displayed in your Start Menu.

Development Settings/Snippets

Visual Studio has the Visual Studio Online Settings, but for other editors, make sure you have your settings and code snippets backed up somewhere.

Development Projects

If you have a source control manager (i.e. GitHub, Subversion, TFS online), your projects should be in the source code repository so you can retrieve it at anytime using a different computer and "access the cloud."

Services like GitHub is remote, so you should be ok there.

If you have a separate directory for tech spikes or small R&D (Research & Development) projects, make sure you backup those directories as well.

Download Directory

I have a download directory for most of my files that are unorganized. This is my default directory for downloads. At least I know where the downloads go on my hard drive. 


After setting up both laptops successfully, I transferred all of my data files and source code from my old desktop onto my Dell Inspiron 14z Laptop. Now I have the good old laptop with two flanking monitors.

One last note: Keep the hard drive around and don't format it. Use the Hard Drive Docking Station I mentioned above to grab files at a later time in case you need them.

Did I miss a directory or is there a better tool to copy files? Is there better media? Post your comments below.

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Picture of Jonathan Danylko

Jonathan Danylko is a freelance web architect and avid programmer who has been programming for over 20 years. He has developed various systems in numerous industries including e-commerce, biotechnology, real estate, health, insurance, and utility companies.

When asked what he likes to do in his spare time, he replies, "Programming."

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