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First Look: MacBook Air Migration Assistant

updated 05:05 pm EST, Thu February 7, 2008

MacBook Air Migration

Following our MacBook Air teardown, delivery/unboxing, accessory photos, benchmarks, and first impressions, MacNN has investigated the specialized Migration Assistant that ships with the MacBook Air. To achieve ultimate mobility in its new MacBook Air, Apple was forced to re-evaluate which features are necessary in a notebook computer and which are expendable or replaceable. The result compromise is a striking, razor thin laptop with full sized keyboard but lacking an internal optical drive and many of the standard ports found on traditional laptops, such as Firewire or built-in Ethernet. These limitations make the process of migrating one's existing user accounts on another Mac to the Air more challenging than with Apple's other computers - a process usually accomplished via Firewire.

To accommodate the Air's limited connectivity, Apple relies on a new version of its Migration Assistant to transfer account and data information. The Migration Assistant can transfer accounts wireless to other Macs through WiFi or by using the USB-to-Ethernet port adapter. The WiFi process could take upwards of 12 hours to complete; using the Ethernet connection should cut that time down to just a few hours.

Transferring Accounts: First Try

I attempted to transfer one of my existing user accounts from a PowerBook G4 to the new Air. Doing so requires installing the software containing the Remote Disc Application & Migration Assistant on the source computer. After inserting the CD into the PowerBook and running the installation package - a straightforward process that only takes a few minutes - the actual Migration Assistant program was nowhere to be found within my Utilities folder.

A quick check of the system requirements for migration revealed that the process requires Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger or higher, whereas my PowerBook was still running 10.2 Jaguar. I was somewhat surprised that the installation process indicated that installation was successful, although in retrospect the installation wizard told me that it required zero bytes of space on the target disc to install, which should have been a hint.

Transferring Accounts: Second Try

For a second attempt, I decided to transfer my existing user account from a PowerMac G5, running Tiger, to the Air. This time, installation of the Migration Assistant was truly successful, taking only 16 MB of disc space.

Installing the Migration Assistant program on the source computer.

Initiating the subsequent migration process was also straightforward: run the Migration Assistant on both computers, which requires administrative access, selecting the MacBook Air to as the destination computer and the other computer as the source computer. The Migration Assistant on the Air then generates a numerical password to enter on the source computer to authorize the transfer.

A password from the Air is required to authorize transfer from the source computer.

The password generated by the Migration Assistant on the Air.

Once the two computers have established a connection, the user is prompted to choose which account to transfer from the source computer, or more than one account if desired. At the bottom of the window, the Assistant calculates the amount of space required to transfer the selected accounts, and the net space left on the Air after transfer.

Step 1: Selection of which account(s) to transfer

After making a choice regarding which accounts to transfer, the subsequent window clarifies which information is to be transferred.

Step 2: Further control over what elements to transfer.

The last screen further refines the transfer by presenting options for transferring network, time zone, and sharing settings.

Step 3: Selection of what settings to transfer

Unfortunately, because of ample hard drive space on my PowerMac, I had accumulated large amounts of multimedia and document data, which made the account too large for migration to the Air. A brief attempt at going back to the PowerMac and rearranging the file structure - by moving unwanted files to shared folders and backup drives - and re-running the assistant still produced a profile too large to transfer.

A quick check of Apple's support forums revealed that others were encountering the same problem, with many offering tips to trim the excess fat from a user account. Since I wasn't throwing away my old PowerMac, I was reluctant to mess around too much with the file structure or start deleting items.

Transferring Accounts: Third Try

Frustrated by the lack of flexibility of Apple's Migration Assistant, I started to evaluate what I truly wanted to achieve from migrating my existing account. What I really wanted was my documents folder - which was of minimal size) - plus my iTunes and iPhoto libraries. Together, the two libraries eclipse the size of the Air's hard drive, meaning that I could only transfer sub-sets of these libraries. Connecting wirelessly over the network easily solved this, allowing me to copy the exact folders I wanted.

However, this raised an important question as to how to rotate the media content on my Air, keeping it up to date with new selections. The Migration Assistant is useful when setting up the initial account, but what the Air is currently lacking is a method to continuously keep itself up to date with choice content. iTunes could potentially provide this service to the Air, since it is already designed to do so for both the iPod and the Apple TV.

Despite these setbacks, the migration assistant appears straightforward and simple enough to use if one's user account is small enough to be accommodated in its entirety. Although hardly a deal-killer, the user-friendliness of the Air could be drastically reduced by this factor when it comes to basic users.

by MacNN Staff



  1. testudo

    Joined: Dec 1969



    To achieve ultimate mobility in its new MacBook Air,

    If apple wanted the 'ultimate' in mobility, they wouldn't have included a USB port, monitor jack, or headphone port. And they would have made it smaller (say index card sized). And cut the weight a lot (say index card weight). Then you MIGHT achieve ultimate mobility.

    Or you could change that first sentence to read "To achieve the best balance between mobility and features...."

  1. 010111

    Joined: Dec 1969


    it really kinda sucks.

    i have pre-trimmed my information from my MacBook down to a size that would fit on my Air. set it all up fine. and ran the Migration Assitant. so far so good. ran for about 3 hours... and failed.

    so i tried it again. ran for about an hour... then hung at a 19 hour estimated time remaining. left it that way for another hour... no change.

    tried it again. now i no longer had enough free space to run the full migration. apparently it was *saving* all the files in the failed migrations. not very cool. normally i would boot into FW disk mode and delete the file and try again. no such option with the Air. so i skipped running it again and created a new user and logged in.

    from there i tried the Migration Assistant again. i tried a good 15-20 times to get it to run at this point. it would either not find the other machine or find it then hang at "Preparing" or the step after "Preparing" (looking for users or something like that). like hung hung... beach ball... had to force-quit out of it.

    after doing that many many many times... eventually skipping wireless and trying on the ethernet network... no change. still lame. restarted both machines several times as well.

    i finally got it to work by connecting the machines *directly* together via ethernet (no switch etc.) and running it that way.

    that worked. gave some ridiculous estimates... 8 hours. 27 hours. 19 hours. 2 hours. etc etc. it was all finished in about 3 hours though.

    so that was good. but half the applications were crapped out. converted to "Unix Executable Files" etc. icons missing. some other small problems. it got *most* everything though so this morning i manually recopied the applications that went bad (Adobe CS3 / Office 2004 and a couple others) and since their various other parts copied fine they all worked.

    so now it is all fine. and working. i read the Ars Technica review this morning and they seemed to have a similar problem using Migration Assistant wirelessly. and anecdotally they suggest it hasn't worked for anyone.

    so use a direct ethernet connection. a Time Machine backup on an external USB drive is actually probably the best bet as far as speed goes. so if you have that option... use it!

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