Blog Post

Using the Cloud to Setup a New Mac

In a previous article I explained how in the last year I’ve moved the majority of my data to the Cloud. By utilizing MobileMe’s syncing mechanisms, I’m able to do this without sacrificing the “comfort” and “safety” of having all my data local. This not only saves me from worrying what I’d do if all of Apple’s servers exploded tomorrow, but it also allows me to utilize local desktop applications of my choosing, and to do so even if I have no Internet connectivity. 

For me it really is proving to be the best of both worlds. 

Well, a few days ago I received a new MacBook, and I want to recount how utilizing these sync services (specifically, MobileMe) made setting up the new machine a snap.

Keep in mind that my iMac will still maintain my complete iTunes library (currently 80GB), and my full Aperture library. I may very well move my photos to the Cloud, but I think iTunes media will stay local — due to its size — for a while. 

Before hooking up the new machine

The one step I needed to perform before setting up the new machine was to sync everything from my iMac (not just the iDisk) to the Cloud. I went into MobileMe’s Sync tab on my iMac in System Preferences and literally checked every box to sync every item.

Under normal conditions the four items you see unchecked above remain that way (I’ll explain why later), but for now I checked everything and let it all sync. 

This action gets everything up to the Cloud so when the new machine arrives I can sync it back down. 

On the new machine – First Sync

I spent the 10 minutes to walk through the startup. When it asked me about migrating from another Mac, I just said “no”. With syncing, the Migration Assistant isn’t needed. 

Once up, I went into the MobileMe control panel’s Account tab to log in, then the Sync tab to check every syncing option as I had done above, set it to automatic, and let it rip. The sync suggested that this may be a new sync, and asked what I wanted to do. I selected the option to replace everything on the machine with what’s in the Cloud. This initial sync took about 20 minutes. 

Second Sync

The above sync brings all my calendars, contacts, email accounts, filters, etc. Since I now have my email accounts my next step was to launch Mail and let it bring down all my emails. Recall from my first article that while I leave my messages in the Cloud, I download them locally as well, so Mail had a lot of work to do. 

It took ~20 minutes to bring all my mail down.

Third Sync

Now for the biggie. I went into the MobileMe’s iDisk tab and tuned on iDisk to sync automatically. This disk contains my word processing docs, spreadsheets, PDFs, some pictures, etc. Once the sync began, I knew it would take a little while so I went out to run some errands.

I can’t say how long the sync took (I’d guess maybe 1.5 hours), but it was all done when I got home a few hours later.

So, at this point, my email, calendars, contacts, documents, etc. are on the new machine.

Let me also point out that since I synced Preferences, the Dock, Dashboard, etc., the machine is already comfortable to use. It’s amazing how much time we normally spend with a new machine just re-establishing all the preferences we’d set over the course of months or years, and yet with MobileMe it’s all synced up. 

Other Syncs

I installed NetNewsWire, signed up with my account, and let it do its thing. Likewise with MT-NewsWatcher, whose preference files I keep in iDisk so each machine keeps track of the same subscriptions and read messages. 

Manual “Syncs” (copies, actually)

I did have to copy a few things myself. I utilized File Sharing to do this. Even if you don’t want to leave this on after your machine is setup, you can activate it temporarily to make it easy to manually copy some files to the new machine. Just go to the Sharing system preference and check the File Sharing box. Then from the Finder of the iMac I could connect to the new machine, open the Public folder and drag things into the folder called “Drop Box”.

So why do I need to copy some things manually? Well, for example, I installed Aperture and iWork on the new machine, and it’s great that since I synced preferences, after installing these apps they act just as I have customized them to. However, the default templates for each iWork application are not synced (iWork expects them deep in the local user’s Library folder), so I simply copied that folder from the iMac into the “drop box” on the new machine and then moved it to the appropriate place. 

Also, since my media files (iTunes and Aperture) will remain on the iMac, I exported some key projects (versions only) to the new machine’s drop box and imported them into Aperture. This allows me to have some photos on the new machine (mostly for viewing).

Regarding iTunes, I share my library, so in the house I have full access to my music from the new machine. When I travel, I usually use my iPhone or iPod for my music. Still, I wanted to have at least some local music so I grabbed about 30 of my 760+ albums and used the drop box to copy them.

Final Touches

I hit the web and installed a few essentials, such as Mail Badger, VLC, Perian, Double Command, Graphic Converter, and others. What’s remarkable is that as I install these apps their preferences are already there! Again, I can’t overstate how easy this makes setting up a new machine. 

Finally, I go into MobileMe’s Sync tab and turn OFF (i.e., uncheck) the items unchecked in the picture above. Why? Well, as I described, syncing Preferences is perhaps the single greatest time saver when setting up a new system, which is why I do it initially. However, the prefs I use for a 13″ display are not exactly the same as those for a 24″ display (perhaps 90 percent of them are, but there are some differences). Of course I can make changes to accommodate the smaller screen, but then they’ll just get synced to the iMac, and I don’t want them there. So after the initial sync I just shut them off. The same is true for the Dock and Dashboard. As for Mail accounts, they never really change, so why expend time with each sync messing with them?


I don’t think I can even count how many times I’ve setup a new machine. In many cases this has been going from PC to Mac or vice versa. The truth is moving the data itself is not the hard part. An Ethernet cable, external hard drive, or even an FTP server can all work to get data pretty easily from one machine to another. 

No, the hard part about setting up a new machine is moving all the intangibles. The email accounts, settings, application preferences (I’m pretty anal about those), etc.. Even the directory structure of where your data is located may take time to reproduce. But now, with syncing from the Cloud. that amount of work was easily reduced by 90 percent (maybe even more). 

I’m usually tweaking settings on a new system for several days after a move, but in less than 24 hours with the new MacBook it was pretty much done. You could argue that an Ethernet connection would allow for faster moving of data then a Cloud sync, but I would counter that the time saved with all my personal settings — and of course the original goal of having everything synced with the cloud as well as local — far outweigh any speed gains in initial setup. After all, you only do the setup once anyway.

10 Responses to “Using the Cloud to Setup a New Mac”

  1. Chris Weiss

    Geoff – It doesn’t seem to happen to everyone. I think it’s due to the initial Mac setup was from the factory and I did the restore using an OS-X Leopard disk (couldn’t find the original Macbook CDs at the time). I’m OK with it doing that in the name of security and all, but it sure would be nice to have gotten a dialog or at least been aware of it before hand (I would have spent more time looking for the original CDs!)

  2. Chris Weiss

    I used Time Machine to do a full restore when I upgraded the hard disk in one of my Macs. The restore operation itself was pretty smooth, but I found it made several changes (I believe in the name of security) to the restored image that have me no longer trusting it. The most frustrating one was to reset my login password (I had to boot off the OS-X disk and use the Password Reset utility to get it back). It also disabled all file sharing.

    Also +1 on Jono’s suggestion of using DropBox rather than iDisk. I’m always getting random “could not connect” errors when using iDisk, but DropBox seems to be pretty bulletproof. Like iDisk, it’s also got a Windows client and Web interface.

  3. I see there is some disagreement with my method of migrating from the older MacBook to the new one, but using the Time Machine back up data from an external hard drive was extremely easy, seamless and quick. It worked great for me. I was surprised and pleased at how perfectly it worked.

  4. I’ve tried using iDisk to sync automatically between 2 Macs a few times, but it’s been an awful experience. Not sure if it’s because I’m in the UK but iDisk is painfully slow for me.

    I left one Mac doing nothing but uploading about 1 GB of data. Weeks went by with sync errors, conflicts etc. (even though the data was supposedly only uploading 1 way to the cloud). In the end I’ve had to scrap the idea of using the iDisk at all.

    Now using Dropbox for my data files which has been working flawlessly.

  5. chris weiss

    I follow much the same process when setting up/restoring a new Mac. The one additional tool I like to use is AppFresh in combination with It stores a profile of apps I use and automates the process of downloading or updating said apps just about as smoothly as is possible (some apps with dynamic download pages will cause AppFresh to spawn a browser window and ask you to click a download link link).

  6. This wasn’t a typical transfer of data from an old Mac to a new one. It’s one where most of the data I wanted is synced in some fashion.

    Almost all the data I want on both machines is synced on my iDisk (where most of my non-media documents reside). Just copying that data between machines would not maintain the sync. And simply migrating the sparsebundle file to a new machine does not “rebuild” the iDisk. A sync is necessary at some point to keep both machines in, well, sync.

    In my view, it was best to just have a fresh iDIsk built from the Cloud. This guarantees data integrity from the start. Likewise, may as well freshly sync the other MobileMe options.

    Perhaps another way to envision this is that the iMac wasn’t the true “source” of migrated data. In a synced world, the Cloud is.

  7. Wow, you usually spend more time setting up a new Mac? It seems like a lot of extra work you did there. Why not allow Migration assistant via gigabit ethernet ( faster than FW400) and have the whole user moved into the macbook in minutes? Then everything would be exactly the way it is on the iMac.
    I don’t get it… am I missing something?

  8. I just sold my black MacBook and bought the new silver MacBook. I used TimeMachine from ane xternal hard drive to configure the new computer. It was flawless. TimeMachine brought in all of my former settings, applications and files from the older MacBook. I highly recommend this method of going from one Mac to another. I was amazed at how well it worked.