Most of the hundreds of millions of people who will obtain Windows XP in the next few years will do so by purchasing a new personal computer. But these days, many people are keeping their old computer, rather than replacing it with the new PC, as they did in the past. This allows them to create home networks and share documents, music, printers, and an Internet connection. But it's never been easy to transfer personal settings from the first PC to the new PC: Most people have spent a lot of time tweaking their system just the way they want it, and it's laborious having to recreate all of these settings--fonts, color schemes and the like--on the new PC. Also, it can be a pain having to manually find and copy over all of your important data as well. Where are those Outlook Express data files hidden again?

The second largest group of Windows XP users will obtain the new OS by purchasing the retail Upgrade package and upgrading their existing Windows install in-place. This will generally work fine, but I recommend clean installing Windows XP, especially if you have a 9x-based OS like Windows 98, 98 SE, or Millennium Edition (Me). But the problem with a clean install is that, again, you lose all your personal settings and, potentially, your data.

To answer the problems presented in these two cases, Microsoft has created an invaluable tool called the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard (FST Wizard), which runs once on your old PC--to collect and backup all your data and personal settings--and then again on your new Windows XP PC (or installation), where you restore all that information to the new system.

Step-by-Step: Running the FST Wizard on your old PC
The first step is to run the FST Wizard, which can be found on the Windows XP Home or Professional CD-ROM, on your existing Windows install. This can be Windows 98, 98 SE, Me, NT 4.0, or 2000; we'll use a well-worn Windows 98 SE install here as an example.
 


 
  1. Insert the Windows XP CD-ROM on your old PC
When you insert the Windows XP CD-ROM, or double-click its icon in My Computer, you will see the Welcome window shown here. This is typically how you will launch XP Setup interactively, but it can also be used to perform other tasks, so click Perform Additional Tasks.
 

 
  2. Choose Transfer files and settings
In the next step, choose Transfer files and settings. This will launch the FST Wizard.
 



 
  3. Select a transfer method
After churning and bubbling for a while, the wizard presents you with a list of ways in which you can transfer your saved files and settings to the new install. The method you choose, of course, will be based on what you have available:

Direct cable. You don't see much of these any more, but in the early days of Windows 95, there were a number of serial cable-based pseudo-networks floating around. These days, it's more likely that people will use a single Ethernet crossover cable to connect two PCs through their network ports, however.

Home or small office network. If you're already part of a home network, this will probably be the best method, especially if you're going to be transferring massive amounts of data. However, most people aren't in this position yet, though hopefully they will be after installing XP

Floppy drive or other removable media. Floppy isn't really a viable choice for most people, but if you've got high-capacity ZIP disks or similar, this might just work.

Other. This nebulous choice is probably the one that will be used by most people, and it's the one we'll focus on here. This option lets you save your backup data somewhere on the hard drive. If you choose this option, however, you must manually figure out a way to get it to the new PC, especially if you'll be wiping the existing system out to perform a clean install. We'll look at this in the next section.
 

 
  4. Choose a folder or drive in which to store your backup
Once you've selected Other, you need to choose a location in which to store your backup. Click the Browse button and find a home for your files and settings backup.
 

 
  5. What do you want to transfer?
This is the meat of the wizard and the place you must pay the most attention. In this step, you tell the FST Wizard which files and/or settings you want to backup. You can choose files only, settings only, both files and settings, or, somewhat impressively, you can select a custom list of files and settings. This opens up a massive list of options, which we'll examine briefly in the next step. But I assume that most people will simply let the wizard do it's thing and choose "both files and settings," which is the default. If this is the case, skip down to step 6.
 

 
  5b. Select custom files and settings (optional)
If you're the obsession type of just curious, you might want to manually select the files and settings that get saved by this wizard. In this dialog, you can review the settings, specific folders, and file types that are backed up by the wizard automatically, but you can also add your own custom settings, folders, files, and file types to the list, and choose to remove specific settings, folders, and file types. It's pretty powerful, but then you really have to know the ins and outs of your system intimately for this to be of any use. If you've got a custom way of storing data, where you ignore the My Documents directory or whatever, you might want to look into this.
 

 
  6. Install programs on your new computer
In the next step, the wizard presents a list of applications with which it is familiar. If you see any applications in this list, it means that the wizard can save your personalized settings for these applications, but you will have to manually reinstall them on the XP installation before running the wizard to restore the settings. In this example, Real Audio Player and Adobe Acrobat Reader were found.
 

 
  7. Collection
Now the wizard searches the drives on your PC and collects your files and user settings. This could take some time, depending on the size of your hard drive. The wizard does compress everything to make it the smallest possible size, but there isn't much it can do if you've got gigabytes of data. And again, this could pose a problem later when it comes time to get that backup to your new system.
 
  8. Collection complete
Once the collection is complete, you can exit the wizard. This might be a good time to navigate to the location in the file system where you saved the backup and see how big it is as well.

Getting the backup to your new Windows XP installation
Now that you've backed up your crucial files and settings, it's time to think about how you're going to get them to the new XP installation. Consider the following scenarios:

1. You bought a new PC and plan to keep using the old PC. In this case, you will have to figure out a way to get the backup from PC-to-PC. Possibilities include copying them over a network or writing them to CD-R or other removable media and transfer the disks from PC-to-PC. I recommend going the home networking route. Isn't that one of the reasons you decided to keep your old PC?

2. You bought a new PC and eventually plan to stop using the old PC. If the networking or CD-R options discussed in the previous scenario aren't possible, remove the hard drive from the old PC, place it temporarily in the new XP PC, copy the files over, and then remove it again from the XP PC and, optionally, replace it back in the original system. This wouldn't be a lot of fun, but it would work.

3. You are keeping your current PC and want to clean install XP on that machine, wiping out the previous install. If you have two hard drives, make sure the backup is on the second drive and just wipe out C: and clean install XP. If you only have one hard drive, you will need to move the backup off of the system, as a clean install of XP will indeed wipe out that drive, taking your backup with it. In this case, it's best to move the backups to CD-R.

4. You are keeping your current PC and want to install XP in a new partition, keeping the previous Windows install. In this case, simply save the backup files to your current Windows install, and then you'll be able to get at them from Windows XP after that is installed.

I can't really get into the plethora of ways in which you can move the backup around here, but you need to really think about this before wiping out the old PC, if that's what you're doing. In any event, once the backup is accessible to the new XP installation, it's time to run the wizard again, but this time in XP.

Step-by-Step: Running the FST Wizard on Windows XP
Before running the FST Wizard in Windows XP, make sure that you've first reinstalled any applications that were mentioned by the wizard when you ran it under your old OS (see step 6 above). When that's done, you can restore your files and settings.


 
  1. Insert the Windows XP CD-ROM on your new XP install
When you insert the XP CD-ROM in XP, you get the same front-end application. As before, choose Perform Additional Tasks and then Transfer files and settings. This will launch the FST Wizard.
 

 
  2. Choose New Computer
When you are asked which computer you're using, choose New computer.
 

 
  3. Do you have a Windows XP CD?
This step is designed to ensure that you run the wizard on the old PC first, which we've covered previously. Just select I will use this wizard from the Windows XP CD and click Next.
 

 
  4. Now go to your old computer
We've already done this, of course, but if you hadn't, you could now complete the wizard on your old PC first.
 

 
  5. Where are the files and settings?
The location of your files and settings backup will depend on the method used previously to store them. In this example, the old OS is installed in a dual boot with the new OS, so all I had to do was navigate to the correct directory. But as mentioned previously, you might be using a network or direct cable connection.
 

 
  6. Files and settings transfer
After the wizard has been pointed at the files and settings backup files, it will begin applying these to your new system. This process could take several minutes or longer depending on the size of the files.
 
  7. Files and settings transfer complete.
After the wizard completes, you will be prompted to log off so that your settings can be applied. Do so now and ensure that all of your files and settings were correctly transfered to XP.
 

Where to go from here...
The Files and Settings Transfer Wizard is a welcome advance for people who want to move their personalized files and settings from an existing Windows install to XP. If possible, however, you should test the tool to make sure that it's correctly transferring all of your settings, and it's always a good idea to backup, especially if you're going to completely wipe out a system to install a new OS, like XP. But even if the FST Wizard does leave a few settings in limbo, at the very least it will do most of the dirty work for you: In my experiments with the wizard, I've never seen it leave any documents behind, but it has forgotten a few minor settings (like the desktop wallpaper, for example).

In the next installment, I'll be looking at Upgrading to Windows XP from Windows 9x/Me, the most common upgrade scenario.