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Using a Mac still comes with some pleasent surprises

Old macbook pro laptop with dirty keyboard and USB Ethernet adapter

Recently we got a new Macbook in our household, seeing that the previous one was from 2013 and would not allow new versions of macOS to be installed. Part of setting up the new laptop is to move all data from the old one onto it. This is a solved problem, you might say, and you are right: it is.

The data of the old laptop had been backed up via TimeMachine and so I could just restore it to the new system. Another option is to copy all data from the old machine onto an external drive, plug it into the new computer and copy the data onto the local hard drive.

Apple’s Migration Assistant provides yet another option: the direct 1-to-1 data transfer between those two computers. One can start the program on the old (or source) machine and then start up the new laptop. During the first start, macOS offers to get old data on board and for that, it starts its own instance of the Migration Assistant.

And this is where the “magic” begins. While Apple’s product design generally seems to have moved away from simplicity, consistency, and “magical” user experiences, the Migration Assistant still holds up these values.

On the new computer, one now can choose to use one of the Time Machine backups from the network share or connect to the old computer via a Wi-Fi network. In a similar fashion to AirDrop, the two computers running the Migration Assistant “see” each other and after entering the security code (which means typing in the numbers displayed on one computer into the other a simple but effective measure to make sure the right target computer is literally in-sight) the transfer process begins.

At this point, one could be content and just wait for the data transfer to finish. But this would mean, that for the next few hours, the local Wi-Fi network would be swamped with traffic, which is not acceptable when the same network is used for remote work and video conferencing throughout the day.

In anticipation of this, the Migration Assistant creates a new, private Wi-Fi network (Peer-to-Peer SWAP) between the two laptops. Placing the computers next to each other on a table outside the home office is an effective way to get the best transfer speed without affecting the remaining Wi-Fi users.

Apparently, it is possible to create such peer-to-peer networks yourself in macOS: Create a computer-to-computer network on Mac.
I did not know that!

This still requires several hours of wait time for the data transfer to finish. The tool provides technical statistics and shows a transfer rate of approximately 8MB/s, which really is not that bad for Wi-Fi with a nine-year-old laptop, but considering all the photos and music that need to be copied, not great either.

Interestingly, the Migration Assistant advertises that by using a cable connection, Ethernet or Thunderbolt, the transfer speed could be improved.

I thought “great, now you tell me” and figured that I would have to stop the transfer and start from the beginning again if I wanted to use a cable. To my absolute astonishment, this assumption was wrong.

While I was getting out the necessary USB hubs with Ethernet adapters and connecting them with a single CAT5 cable, the transfer continued through the Peer-to-Peer SWAP network. Once the USB network adapters were plugged in, both Migration Assistants recognised that there is now another connection option.

USB Ethernet connector in old Macbook, and a very dirty keyboard
USB Ethernet connector in the old Macbook, and a very dirty keyboard

The tool even shows a comparison and moves the file transfer process to the faster connection:

Transfer options window in the macOS Migration Assistant, also: reflection of yours truly taking an actual "screenshot"
Transfer options window in the macOS Migration Assistant, also: reflection of yours truly taking an actual “screenshot”

This more than 10-fold increase in transfer speed was also reflected in a massively reduced total copy time:

Data transfer information and progress bar.
Hundred gazillion files will be moved within 21 minutes. Go get a coffee!
Hundred gazillion files will be moved within 21 minutes. Go get a coffee!

I did not expect that Apple would spend time and engineering effort in making the Migration Assistant not just usable but optimise it to take advantage of the best available connection – and fully dynamic and automagically. No stopping and reconfiguring, the tool itself points to other, better options (just in case they are available), and while one is looking for the cables, the tool continues to work.

This is consumer electronics as they should be; it just worked.

Pleasant surprises may be attributed to low expectations to start with, and maybe that was the case here. However, I really enjoyed finding this tool working so well.

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