Here’s a smart way to move internal hard drives between computers

What better way to herald in the new year than with a new computer?

Perhaps you want to purchasing a new PC because simply thinking of your current machine makes you grimace.  Or maybe you were fortunate enough to receive a new laptop on Christmas and now you’re wondering how to move all your stuff over.

It certainly seems like an onerous task to re-install all your programs, move all your photos and transfer all your files to a new computer.  That’s why the smartest and easiest way to get all your stuff onto your new computer is to use the built-in Microsoft Easy Transfer Wizard.

But audacious geeks may wonder: what would happen if I installed my old hard drive into my new computer?  Would it work?  After all, the system board, memory modules and processor are different; therefore, moving drives isn’t really viable right?

Windows is smarter than you think

Windows 7 ships with little program called the System Preparation Tool (sysprep.exe) that we can use to make the hard drive swap easier..

There are a few things you should know before we get started.

  • Most of your personalized settings will vanish after the swap so you’ll need to reconfigure things like stored passwords, browser settings and toolbar settings.
  • You might need to reactivate Windows.  Just click Start and type activate windows to get started.
  • You’ll need to download the latest drivers

Getting Started

I recommend backing up your old hard drive first.  You can save it to a massive cloud storage site such as the 100GB Shared.com or use something like XXClone to duplicated the Windows disk.

Now that you’ve got everything backed up let’s open an elevated command prompt to kick open sysprep.exe.

Click Start and type:

cmd

Then right-click that little icon in the search list and choose Run as administrator.

Windows 7 Sysprep

Click Yes on the User Account Control window

User Account Control Command Prompt

and enter the following command at the prompt:

%windir%\System32\Sysprep\Sysprep.exe

Launch Sysprep from the command prompt

Windows quickly pops open the System Preparation Tool.

You’ll want to change the System Cleanup Action to Enter System Out-of-Box Experience (OOBE) and flip the Shutdown Options to Shutdown.

The first time I read “OOBE” I gasped: What does having an out of body experience have to do with preparing my hard drive?

I didn’t realize that an Out-of-box experience is an industry term used to describe the initial experience a customer has when using a product for the first time.

I learn something new everything day – anyway… also make sure you click the Generalize check box on the System Preparation Tool.  You can’t see it in the image below because the dropdown menu is covering it but it’s here.

System Preparation Tool Out of Box Experience

After clicking OK Sysprep gets to work and diligently begins processing the request.

Windows 7 System Preparation Tool working cleanup

The time it takes to wrap things up depends on the configuration of your computer; however, it shouldn’t exceed 5 minutes.  It completed in 30 seconds on my Windows box.

Windows 7 System Preparation Tool working

After you computer shutsdown you can remove the hard drive from your old computer and mount it to your new computer.  The smart guys at iFixit created a myriad of guides featuring full-resolution photos that will walk you through every step of the hard drive swap.  I strongly encourage you to check it out because it helped me a lot.

When you boot up your new computer, Windows will act as if this is the first time the machine has ever started.

Just let it go through the motions and configure the machine like a new system.

Windows 7 Setup Screen

When the Set up Windows screen appears, you can create a new unique username and sign in with your old user account.

That’s all there is to it.

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Posted in Desktops, Hardware, Laptops, Windows, Windows 7 Tagged with: ,
  • Bavo

    In your last paragraph of this article, do you mean create a new unique “computer name” – instead of username – and then sign in with your old user account (so you preserve all your pre-existing user data)?

    Also, since you ran sysprep and presumably erased all traces of previous computer and useraccounts, you probably can reuse your old computername (as long as it’s unique on your network) – please let me know what you think.

    thanks,
    Bavo

    • shambles1980

      you make a new user name because your old one will still be in use. when you start you can then log out of that user and log in to your original name, after that you can delete the new user you created..

      this method works well enough, but if you use it more than once on the same hard disk it can be a huge head ache to get it to work on the 2nd/3rd attempt..
      And needs you to edit multiple registry entries. as well ad uninstalling then reinstalling a windows component (restarting after you uninstall, and then restart after the install.) and deleting the panther folder where the sysprep error logs are held.

      also you may have to dissable some windows media player sharing services in windows.

      there is a lot of conflicting tutorials out there on the internet. and i had a hard time running sysprep multiple times but faught my way through the miss information and finaly managed it.
      in the end i made my own reg files with the correct strings in them as i was tired of having to find and re edit them every time it failed.

      also for me all my apps were installed correctly. some of the shortcuts were pointing to the wrong place because my original install had C (hdd) D (hdd) E (dvd)
      When windows re configures after sys prep on the new system it will by default set the dvd to D: and the secondary hard disk to E:
      that was an easy fix though. just changed the assigned drive letter in computer admin

      • Bavo Bostoen

        Hallo Shambles and thanks a lot. Would you be willing to share these reg files, I’d be interested in trying them out.

    • Thanks Shambles, Hey, Bavo does that makes sense?

      • DK Gombera

        Hi Von
        whilst sysprep is doing its thing , i get a fatal error message and can’t continue any further. Is there a way to resolve this issue?

      • Bavo Bostoen

        Yes, as far as user names/profiles are concerned, but I’m still not clear about the computer name part: will this be retained on the sysprepped disk?

        Thanks everyone.

  • Jessica ‘Freya’ Boyles

    Just to clarify, this process retains all installed programs, correct? My specific concern is Quickbooks. I’m rebuilding a machine for someone else and I do not have access to their Quickbooks login information (required to download the software from the website). Everything on the current hard drive is configured correctly, I really don’t want to have to re-do everything again. ^_^

    Thanks

    • Great (and important) question Jessica: yes, if you use Sysprep with the /oobe flag it will erase everything. Thus, as it pertains to this article, you’ll lose the user accounts, applications and preferences of your client. All the Quickbooks data will vanish. Is there anyway to have the user save their Quickbook’s login information first?

      • Jessica ‘Freya’ Boyles

        Actually, I ended up using sysprep with oobe and, as far as I saw, there was no loss. It was almost as though it uninstalled all of the drivers associated with the previous build and allowed the new drivers to install once placed in the new build. I did have to create a new user profile, but the applications and saved files worked exactly as I needed them to. This saved a TON of time, thanks again!

        • JEGAN R

          Thanks for ur reply……

  • Richard X

    Just worked through this, seemed straight forward. But right at the end I got this error message:
    “Sysprep was not able to validate your windows installation. …..”
    Any ideas on how to deal with this issue?

    • Hey Rich, you’ll get that message if you’re trying to use Sysprep on an upgrade installation. You can tweak the registry to fix it up though:

      1. BACK UP the registry FIRST – most people skip the backup but it’s critical when working the registry because you can seriously goober your computer if you don’t do this.

      Once you have it backed up, remove this key:

      HKLMSYSTEMSetupUpgrade

      2. Next, find this key:

      HKLMSYSTEMSetupSTatusSysprepStatusCleanupState and set the Hex value to 7

      3. Now open the command prompt as an administrator and type:

      slmgr /dli

      4. Run sysprep again and it should work now.

  • Craig Cooper

    On nearly all sysprep disc swaps I have done, I need to start in safe mode once (F8 at startup). I get an error message after that, but restarting normally gets the startup working properly (no endless error message loop). Just thought I would point this out to make life easier for a few people out there.

  • James Pokemon Master

    may have to get a new laptop soon. How well would this work if the new computer has the same parts only not broken? like if it’s the same type of motherboard, gpu, and processor would I have to even do any of this? I just don’t wanna go through the hassle of trying to redownload all my steam games and such since it takes me like a week for each one…

    • wayland

      I’ve moved a Windows 7 hard drive between 3 motherboards of the same type, Del Vostro. You know when it’s failed because you get a blue screen.

  • Lazpl

    Great guide, thanks!
    I’m just about to migrate, but the problem is the disks are non-removable (fancy laptop with everything built into the screen). Would this work in the following scenario: 1) run Sysprep on the first laptop, 2) clone its drive to an external hdd – 3) boot the new laptop from a USB stick and overwrite the new hdd from the external hdd?

  • simon yeoman

    i am after swapping my main driver in my pc cud i swap it with whats in my other pc. they are both on windows 7 or will i need to reinstall windows if i swap em over

  • Tinto

    Hi, will this delete my porn?

  • John S.

    I’ve already sold my old computer (doh!)…can sysprep be used from the command prompt using an Win 7 install disk? (Any recommendations on how to backup the volume now that its original host computer is gone?)

  • Chris Rew

    Hey guys, this guide is straight forward and very clear. Just to make sure I am understanding this correctly, This guide is for someone with a completely new build but wants to keep the old HDD, files, and OS, correct? I recently purchased all new hardware components for my pc- cpu, mobo, gpu, ram, and psu- but I want to keep my hdd and OS. This guide will help me do this correct? I am running win 7 64 bit

  • MrCager

    Will this work for Windows 8.1 also?

  • toobored54

    Looked like a great solution for me, but I got “A fatal error occurred while trying to sysprep the machine” on a Windows 7 Ultimate on a dell studio xps 7100. Anybody have a fix for that?

  • Chowie13

    everytime i run sysprep it comes back with an error message:
    “Afatal error occurred while trying to sysprep the machine”

  • kelvin rivera Lopez

    Can I use this while upgraading my pc? like everythin will be new even the mobo but want the same hardrive. Is this posible.