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Upgrading PC hardware is exciting, but it isn’t without its problems. One of the most serious is dealing with your Windows installation. You probably want to use data from an existing installation, but doing so can be difficult if you’re switching computers or performing a serious upgrade (like replacing the motherboard). Here are three ways you can move your existing Windows install – and the pros and cons of each.

Moving The Hard Drive

The simplest way to move a Windows install is to move the hard drive it’s installed to. You can re-use a drive when performing a major upgrade or move it to a new computer. The drive will be detected and used to boot as long as you set it as the boot drive in BIOS The BIOS Explained: Boot Order, Video Memory, Saving, Resets & Optimum Defaults The BIOS Explained: Boot Order, Video Memory, Saving, Resets & Optimum Defaults Your computer’s BIOS (basic input/output system) is the low-level software that starts when you boot your computer. It performs a POST (power-on self test), initializes your computer’s hardware, and passes control over to the boot... Read More . Choosing this route makes retaining data very simple. No special tools, software or hardware, are required.

There are some downsides, however. Your existing Windows installation will include drivers compatible with whatever hardware it was originally connected to. The operating system will attempt to detect your new hardware and install compatible drivers when it boots, but it may not be successful, and if it’s not you may not be able to boot into Windows at all. This means you’ll have to go into Safe Mode How To Boot Into Safe Mode In Windows 8 How To Boot Into Safe Mode In Windows 8 In Safe Mode, you can troubleshoot and fix Windows issues. When you enter Safe Mode, Windows loads a minimal environment that ensures a stable system. Read More and manually replace drivers until Windows is working again, a process that can become extremely tedious.

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This is the route you should take with a minor upgrade. Anything less dramatic than replacing your motherboard should be manageable by re-installing drivers. If you replace the video card, for example, Windows will revert to default VGA drivers until you uninstall old drivers and install the new, proper software.

I recommend having all necessary hardware drivers available for installation from a USB stick before moving your drive. This means the drivers for everything you’re upgrading; network adapters, video cards, optical drives, the works. Having Windows boot media can be handy, too, because you can sometimes install default drivers from it. Find your Windows install disc or, if you don’t have one, make a bootable USB drive How To Install Windows 8 From A USB Stick How To Install Windows 8 From A USB Stick If you’re looking to install Windows 8 and your computer doesn't have a DVD drive, you’re not alone. Whether you have a Windows 8 DVD or a Windows 8 ISO file you've downloaded from Microsoft,... Read More .

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Cloning The Drive

Cloning a hard drive creates an exact duplicate of the original’s contents. Absolutely everything on the original will be available on the duplicate. Though usually used for critical backups, cloning is sometimes used to migrate between computers. You’ll still have the data on the old drive, so no matter what happens during your upgrade you’re never at risk of losing data.

Choosing to clone also means you can take advantage of a newer, quicker hard drive instead of sticking with your original Windows install drive, which might be obsolete. Upgrading from a mechanical hard drive to a solid state drive Samsung 830 Solid State Drive (SSD) 512 GB Review and Giveaway Samsung 830 Solid State Drive (SSD) 512 GB Review and Giveaway Now we're reviewing one of the most well-known entries into the solid state drive market – the Samsung 830 SSD (Series MZ-7PC512N/AM 2.5" SATA III MLC). And we're not just reviewing any small, inexpensive version.... Read More , for example, is a major performance upgrade. It would be silly to upgrade while sticking with a 5,400RPM disk from five years ago.

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This method shares the downsides of just moving a hard drive because that’s effectively what you’re doing. All the driver data in your original Windows install will be the same and won’t be valid if you replace the motherboard or switch to a different PC. However, cloning is the perfect solution if you want to just upgrade your hard drive.

The actual process of cloning can be a bit intimidating. You’ll need special software and the clone process can take several hours if your drive is large. And remember – you can’t clone to a drive smaller than the one you’re cloning from. Check out our guide to hard drive cloning How To Clone Your Hard Drive How To Clone Your Hard Drive Copy the entirety of one hard drive to another. It's called cloning, and it's an important process if you want to replace or upgrade the primary hard drive in your computer. Cloning isn't the same... Read More for all the details.

Moving Windows Settings

The third migration option is to export your Windows settings into a new Windows install. Users who are upgrading to a new rig rather than switching components will find this a quick and easy solution.

Microsoft has its own software, Windows Easy Transfer, designed specifically for transferring settings. It is available for download free of charge from Microsoft’s website for Vista and Windows XP. Windows 7 and Windows 8 come with the utility by default. Here’s what the tool will transfer.

  • By default, the contents of your Documents, Music, Pictures and Shared Documents folders. The tool lets you select additional files and folders if you choose.
  • Email settings, contact and message (from Outlook or Windows Mail)
  • Program settings (but not programs)
  • User accounts and settings
  • Internet settings and bookmarks from Internet Explorer

You can transfer directly from one computer to another with a Windows Easy Transfer cable. These are $20 to $30, however, which is a bit much given their function. The option to transfer over a network or an external drive will be more appealing to most users.

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Windows Easy Transfer works well on Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. With Windows 8.1, however, Microsoft has limited Easy Transfer importing to Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows RT. Easy Transfer won’t export settings from a Windows 8.1 machine. Finally, this tool cannot migrate between 32-bit and 64-bit Windows installs.

One alternative to Microsoft’s tool is a third-party utility called PCMover. This software can transfer a wide range of data, including programs, from an old Windows install to a new one. You can transfer from Windows XP to Windows 8.1 (or anything in between), but you’ll have to pay $39.95 for the home version.

Anyone still using Windows XP can grab the program for free. Microsoft offers a complimentary version of PCMover to Windows XP users seeking to transfer to Windows 7, 8 or 8.1 5 Tools To Migrate Your Data From Windows XP 5 Tools To Migrate Your Data From Windows XP Are you looking for easy ways to migrate your personal data from Windows XP to a modern operating system? It's long past time to upgrade from Windows XP and we have got you covered. Read More . The free version is similar to the Home edition, but can only move files – not software.

Don’t Forget Your License Key

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You now know three ways you could move a Windows install, but there’s one more thing you need to think about. Your license key. If you replace a motherboard or move a hard drive between computers Windows is almost certain to detect the change in hardware configuration and flag your install as invalid. This means you’ll have to re-enter the key. Check out our license key retrieval guide Getting a New Computer or Reinstalling Windows? Make a List Of Your License Keys Getting a New Computer or Reinstalling Windows? Make a List Of Your License Keys Imagine you re-installed Windows and discovered halfway through that you're missing the license keys to some of your programs. Save yourself a headache and keep a list of your product keys for emergencies. Read More for more information.

Conclusion

Moving a Windows install often isn’t as easy as you’d think. Driver conflicts can cause problems and make the process take longer than most users hope. Still, it’s a conquerable issue and often preferable to re-installing Windows from scratch.

How do you transfer your Windows install or settings to new hardware? Have your say in the comments!

Image credit: Shutterstock/Edyta Pawlowska, Shutterstock/DeiMosz

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