Confession time: I just finished a complete new installation of Snow Leopard. I had thought that this was a thing of the past, a dreaded “standard procedure” from when I was a Windows user. But unfortunately, I had too many problems with the upgrade, mainly performance and compatibility related. Despite the discouragement of Apple’s support line, I managed a pretty smooth transition in a reasonable amount of time. In case you are facing similar issues or want to migrate a user directory without the Migration Assistant, read on.
I was really looking forward to upgrading from Leopard to Snow Leopard (MacOS 10.6), as I was adequately impressed by the news that the installation was a snap and that the performance and stability benefits would justify immediate action. The installation went well, but both performance and stability had now become a real nuisance: applications would freeze regularly – especially on-board apps like Safari and Mail – and many of my other apps would crash or simply wouldn’t start (bye-bye PDFLab).
To understand the full impact it had on my well-being, just have a look at this screenshot (it’s my German configuration, but you don’t need the translation to get the drift):
I have seen too much in my professional career of managing software development projects to look for a single culprit. Very likely, some previous experiments with 3rd party apps must have been causing all the trouble. (Everybody else’s upgrade went fine, apparently.)
To cut it short: I decided to go for a complete new installation and subsequent migration of my user folder. Something that I had last done when I was a Windows user, but let’s not get pride in the way.
I created two complete backups: one via Time Machine and a bootable one via Disk Utility. I should have used the excellent SuperDuper app, though, as DU failed to copy one important directory and didn’t tell me – so take this as a big caveat: make sure you have everything backed-up safely! Then: formatting and installation (make sure you include Rosetta if you are still running pre-Intel apps). All went well. Finally, I re-installed the latest versions of all my apps from the brand-new administrator account. I suppose you can do it once you’ve migrated your user, but I didn’t want to get into trouble with my application preferences and support files.
Then it was time to transfer my user directory via Apple’s Migration Assistant. Trying both my backups, it came up each time with negative numbers for the file size of my user folder and refused to continue.
This was the moment I decided to call in and see what Apple had to say about this. (Though on second thoughts I should have sold my harddisk to the nearby data center – you don’t very often find a 4.2 Exabyte drive in a laptop these days.)
Well, I could have saved my breath. The poor man had some difficulty understanding the issue (kept repeating the wrong things) and couldn’t offer a suggestion nor pass me on to 2nd level technical support. No Genius. For less technically savvy people this would have been the the moment to despair, but I decided to try a workaround.
The good news is: manual migration is easy and worked really well for me. It’s pretty straightforward, too. Logged in with administrative rights on the new system, I copied my user folder into the /Users directory using the Finder. Then I created a new user with a user name that matched this user directory name. I was then informed that a user directory with that name existed and whether I wanted to merge it with the new user. I did and all was well.
Two things you might want to consider, though:
- When installing new apps I had always opted for the “install for this user only” option. Thus, all application preferences travel with my main account and I didn’t have to re-register my apps after migration. – But that’s not for you if you run a multi-user Mac.
- Because I installed the new apps under a different account I had to re-assign user rights for each application individually via cmd+i (unlock the user list with your admin password, add yourself to the user list, give yourself read and write access and use the cogwheel symbol to make you the app’s owner). You don’t necessarily have to do this, but if you don’t some apps will not cease to inform you on startup that they were downloaded from the internet and whether you would want to run them anyway.