The "File and Settings Transfer Wizard" is either a life saving piece of software, or a pile of junk. Allow me to explain. My father inherited one of my old machines and needed to get his files & settings from his old XP Home machine to his new-ish XP Pro machine. This seemingly simple process took about six weeks to achieve, and you can read the full, ugly details later. But here are my conclusions:

  • The only 100% reliable way to use this tool is via an external hard drive or large USB stick
  • The network option (which should be the simplest and fastest) can crash after taking hours collecting the data, after entering the password
  • If you install HotFix KB896344 then you will be unable to read the data file that the old version created
  • Remote Assistance is a life-saver
  • Sometimes you just can't beat snail mail to transfer data
  • If you copy the files from their original location, you must put them in the same weirdly-named directory (USMT2.UNC in my case) else you will get a lame-ass error message

The Ugly Details
Dad's old machine ran XP Home at about 400MHz. His new machine runs XP Pro at 1.5GHz. He lives on the other side of the Atlantic from me, but while he was staying with us in January I went through the steps required and he took notes of what was he had to do when he returned home.

I avoided showing him the Network option because it had crashed for me when I last tried to use it, and because he lacks the plethora of hardware I take for granted (multiple monitors, keyboards etc) that would make using two machines simultaneously easy.

Anyway, he gets home and runs the Wizard on his old machine. It takes many, many hours, but does create the magic file. However he could not write it to his CD-R (which was the plan) so calls me up and I Remote Assistance to his machine. Sure enough the CD-R burn fails because his file is about a gigabyte in size, clearly too large for a CD-R. I download the trial Winzip for him and use that to chop the file into two chunks, but still can't burn a CD-R: I could not figure out why.

Next I tried to use his network to copy the file from one machine to another: I could not get a file share to work either way, and I still don't know why. My theory was because XP Home has some crazy network difference to XP Pro (I've never used Home and I never want to again). Anyway, I gave up with that.

Next I tried the File Transfer feature of Windows Messenger: that failed immediately, as it always does. I've never got that to work on any machine on the planet, and I wasn't expecting it to work anyway.

Next I used the File Transfer feature of Remote Assistance to copy his file to my machine: this worked, and it took five days to copy that file (yes, five actual days). Then I tried to use the same feature to push this file to his new machine, but this failed in the middle three times: at least each attempt only took a few hours, not days.

As I had a copy of the file on my machine I burned it to a DVD-R and mailed it to my Dad. A week later he got the disc and tried to run the Wizard on his new machine (which sported a DVD drive). It failed with a cryptic error message.
I used Remote Assistance and got the same error. After doinking around with it I discovered the file must be in a directory with the same name as it was created (USMT2.UNC in my case), and when I did that the Wizard could at least find it. However, it complained that "Your migration store was created with a previous version of File and Settings Transfer Wizard" so it couldn't do anything useful with it. After some heavy web searching, I discovered that I had to uninstall HotFix KB89634 on the new machine: I could find no mention of this error on the Microsoft site and no warning about this file-format-breaking-change in the docs for the HotFix either. Grrrrrrr.

Having removed the hotfix and rebooted, I ran the Wizard and it actually started unpacking things. I disconnected from Dad's machine and went out: when I came back I had a phone message from him that it worked: it actually frigging worked.

You may wonder why this took six weeks? Apart from the five day file copy, the other reasons were time zones (I could only Remote Assistance to him maybe one morning each weekend for an hour at the most) and the week postal delay. If I could have spent concentrated time on his problem I could have solved it in maybe eight actual days. That is still seven and a half days longer than it should have taken.

Without Remote Assistance I could have done nothing: Dad's descriptions of the problems and error messages were, well, not very technical, and I would have had even less of a clue than I did by actually seeing them with my own eyes. Weirdly Remote Assistance would not connect to his machines while I was on the phone with my him via Vonage VOIP. We had to hang up or use the land-line to talk while RA was connecting.

So is the File and Settings Transfer Wizard a life saving piece of software, or a pile of junk? Well both. When it actually works it does a great job of copying your stuff to a new machine, but getting it to actually work and decoding its lame error messages make it much, much harder than it should be. Here's hoping the Vista version is better.