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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 The biggest hassle of setting up a new system is re-installing and re-configuring software. What can make matters worse is if you discover halfway through that you don't have a copy of the license key... 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

  1. Patrick Tillery
    February 2, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    This will sound like a commercial but it isn’t. I have tried for a week to figure out how to transfer hard drives from one computer to another. I have been on many sites including this one. I have tried:
    Booting HD in safe mode to new computer . . . no luck.
    Running SysPrep . . . no luck.
    Easy Transfer wizard . . . no luck.
    Finally gave up and just started a restore using AOMEI Backupper (free version) and start the horrible finding/downloading/moving/installing weeks of stuff.

    I noticed an otherwise unused little check box called “Universal restore” IT WORKED. In minutes it restored a backup and downloaded all necessary drivers/chipset stuff etc. All except NVIDIA on both but easily picked up by using device manager on both.

    If you have or can make a free BU, I recommend it!
    I transferred
    a SSD from a HP dual core AMD to a Dell Precision 8 core Intel.
    And
    a 1 terabyte hard drive from a Dell Precision 8 core Intel to a HP dual core HP.
    AMAZING!

  2. Alised
    May 22, 2015 at 6:25 am

    Well, you installed a fresh one. but I'm going to write the solution that helped me for users come here for a solution.
    Hibernating causes a blue screen error, after moving from HDD 1TB to samsung SSD PRO 512GB (by Samsung migration tool).
    to solve this broblem just disable and reenable it:
    in CMD (Admin) Type:
    powercfg.exe -h off
    powercfg.exe -h on

  3. Joe Austin
    December 19, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    After much consideration, I have decided just to do a fresh install on my new machine. The hardware is so different, this is likely the best bet. Also, I could leave the old machine as is, in case the new rig has issues. I did the same many years ago with XP, but Win 8.1 is so very different.

    I know there is an activation window. I wonder if both machines can be operational, and just not activate Windows on the new machine until migration is complete? Or is there some other catch that would prevent this?

  4. Igor
    November 12, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Correction: I meant I do "SLEEP and wake-up for days with my PC..."

  5. Igor
    November 12, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    I recently did an upgrade on my Win7 desktop - swapping out the HDD for an Intel SSD, but then Win7 would not wake up from Sleep. Well, part of the system would wake, but not the video card. I've done lots of searching and it seems many people have this problem with the Intel SSD. Just because it _might_ work, I tried taking out the Nvidia drivers. Still no luck.

    Plus - When I still had the HDD, when I'd wake up my PC, I'd hear the fan run fast for a moment, then it would slow down and the monitor would come on. But now when re-wake doesn't work, the fan comes on high and does not slow down.

    So now I've swapped out the Intel drive for a Crucial SSD. Same problem.

    Then I took out the Nvidia drivers and my PC can wake up - that is, after as much as an hour. But this AM, I tried waking it and found the same problem: No video (even w/o the Nvidia drivers installed).

    So just now - from this great link http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/stop-windows-computer-randomly-waking/ (thank you so much for that) - I've disabled every device from waking the machine (another shot in the dark) and will see if the Crucial drive can allow my PC to wake up after an overnight sleep. At the moment, it does allow wake-up after a minute.

    Oh, I have tried variations: Without hibernation; with hibernation; with and w/o hybrid sleep. None has fixed the problem.

    BTW, I do have a good-sized UPS, so it's not as if the machine is losing power overnight.

    Normally I do wake and wake-up for days with my PC, rebooting maybe once/week when something goes weird (such as some program that hangs and Task Mgr cannot kill it).

    Beyond that, I am startled that Intel has not (or cannot) fix this. I've read lots of posts at their site, people asking for help with this and Intel trying, but failing to provide solutions.

    So, Matt: You have any ideas as to what the problem might be with SSDs and wake up?

    • Tina
      November 28, 2014 at 9:38 am

      Igor, if you're still trying to figure this out, I recommend taking your comment and posting it as a question on MakeUseOf Answers.

    • Phil
      November 29, 2014 at 2:09 am

      I suggest the problem is with Windows and not the SSD(s). I also suggest not using Sleep at all !!

      I've had issues with sleep on 4 different machines, typically after upgrading the OS (64-bit seems especially prone), and have wasted hours attempting to debug them. There are numerous posts on the web about Windows Sleep/Wake issues, without a clear fix, but it seems to be related to Power Management and the order it (the OS Kernel) shuts things off.

      You could try resetting your Power plan settings (control panel) back to default as this has solved the problem for lots of people. For many more, it's a n on-going bug.

      But seriously ... why use sleep at all? Win7 and 8 can be set to spin down HD's, turn off the screen/graphics and put the CPU into a low-power mode (idling) without going into S3 mode (suspending) at all. And if you're not planning to wake the machine for a day or more, then powering it off completely is the better bet.

      It's a no-brainer when using an SSD which not only uses minimal power while the CPU is idling, but also can boot from cold in a fraction of the time of a regular HD.

      Even more convincingly, like all flash-memory SSD's have a 'shelf-life' based on the number of write cycles they're subjected to ... eventually they wear out ... and using sleep will actually shorten an SSD's life (see "Disable Hibernate On Your SSD" right here on MakeUseOf).

      Turning off Sleep and Hibernate (and Hybrid Sleep), as well as not using a Paging File ('Virtual Memory') and even turning off Indexing are all best-practise for using SSD's.

  6. Gabriel
    November 10, 2014 at 8:59 am

    I used Window Easy Transfer to move my data to Windows 8.1, but it failed. Now I am using Todo PCTrans, it works on my Windows 8.1. Similar with PCmover mentioned in the article, it can transfer software to another PC, but not keys.
    easeus.com/free-pc-transfer-software/

  7. A41202813GMAIL
    November 7, 2014 at 6:07 am

    I Do Not Know With Newer OSs But With XP 32 PRO, The Install Disk Has An Option, Immediately Following The F8 EULA Screen, That Enables Your Hard Drive To Be Mounted Anywhere Else.

    Until You Have Local Internet Access, Use An External USB Network Adapter To Bring All The Drivers For The New Machine.

    No Applications Need ReInstall, But Some Minor Tweaks To The OS Are In Order.

    Cheers.

  8. scott
    November 5, 2014 at 10:09 am

    i found linux to be cool as i taken my hard drive out off my laptop with ubuntu on it and put it in a new better laptop with different hardware and the os just worked without reinstalling it. very useful some linux OS do this i found it works with ubuntu.

    • dragonmouth
      November 5, 2014 at 8:52 pm

      You can move any Linux distro, not just Ubuntu, without problems from one hardware setup to another. The only thing you need to watchout for is moving a 64 bit version to a PC with a 32 bit processor.

  9. Leandro Toledo
    November 5, 2014 at 12:59 am

    Wow! Thanks.
    I have a SSD HD only for my windows 7 and HD for the other files.
    However, my SSD is full (only 3GB left) and I'm planning on buying a bigger SSD HD. I have lots of programs installed and all the settings tailored to my taste, so the thought of installing everything again gives me the creeps!
    So I guess I'll try cloning.
    Let me ask you something: Will my itunes library and steam saved games be unaffected by the cloning?

    Cheers!

  10. jasray
    November 4, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    Doesn't sysprep make the current image on a disk a general image that will work on another machine with different hardware? And Easeus To Do has a clone function for dissimilar hardware.

    • Andy
      November 26, 2014 at 2:48 am

      sysprep /generalize.

      But if you knew that chances are you wouldn't be visiting this page.

    • Patrick
      November 26, 2014 at 5:18 am

      Yeah, Jasray is right. EaseUS Todo Backup free offers clone function, you could image windows system. Besides it, recently EaseUS released Todo PCTrans. The PCTrans(http://www.easeus.com/pc-transfer-software/) can transfer data, programs to another computer.

  11. DonGateley
    November 4, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    I used PCMover with my last laptop upgrade from a Sony to a Lenovo and it went easily and flawlessly. That was a couple of years ago and the intervening time has shown no problems. It's ease of use and effectiveness are well worth the money in my opinion.

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