Early adopter issues: MacBook Air and Migration Assistant

in Current Mac Hardware edited January 2014
Any time a car or computer is released with a significantly new design, there are certain to be issues found with its engineering. The more changes, the more likely there'll be early adopter problems to manage. With the MacBook Air, Apple traded FireWire, an optical drive, and Gigabit Ethernet to save a few pounds and shed a few millimeters. Here's a look at problems users face while trying to cope without those once-standard features, and how well the workarounds Apple provided actually work.

Air Migration Assistant Without FireWire

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Mac users is the lack of FireWire and any strong alternative on the Air. This is particularly an issue for users accustomed to migrating data between their existing Mac and a new system. The lack of Target Mode also means the Air is trickier to boot up and examine or repair using another computer. To help in the grieving process for lost FireWire, Apple includes a new version of Migration Assistant that allows users to transfer user accounts and files to the new Air using the network rather than a FireWire connection. This network option is hampered further by the lack of Gigabit Ethernet, and the optional 10/100 Fast Ethernet that is missing out of the box.

The Air ships prepared to import files from the network, but to perform a network file migration from another system, the host machine you'll be migrating files from needs to be updated using the software installer that ships with the Air on its custom Mac OS X Installer DVD. This new Migration Assistant is installed as part of DVD or CD Sharing Setup (below).

Incidentally, after installing the new software that comes with the Air, any Mac can perform a wireless migration. That sounds better than it actually is however. FireWire is simply far faster and more efficient at transferring large amounts of big files. After performing some tests, we found just how much faster FireWire is. We created a 1GB user account containing roughly 20,000 files. That would be a very small user account, but the number of files is very typical. We then used Migration Assistant to import the the user to another system. To get an idea of how much time was spent copying files compared to how much overhead is involved in Migration Assistant creating the new account on the system, we also manually moved the files over as a file copy. Here's what we found.

FireWire 400 took 4:10 just to set the migration up. This setup process will be longer on systems with a lot of applications, user accounts, and other files. Once finished, the migration setup presents a list of accounts that can be individually imported. We selected our 1GB test account, then deselected all the options to import apps, settings, and other files. With standard FireWire, the single user migration took 5:51. Manually copying the files over FireWire took 4:31.

That means it took Migration Assistant nearly as much time to scan through our messy system full of huge user accounts and lots of apps than it did to actually copy over our relatively small 1GB user. Once it began migrating however, it only padded on an extra minute or two of overhead. As user accounts and other data increase in size, the copying time will increase rapidly, but the overhead shouldn't increase dramatically.

We then tried FireWire 800 and found that it isn't anywhere near twice as fast in real world tests, particularly when using two laptops straddled with the performance bottlenecks of less than stellar disk mechanisms. With FW800, setup still took 3:50 and migration took 4:38. Manually copying files took 4:10, an improvement of less than 10% over standard FW400. Clearly, standard FireWire hits the sweet spot for migrating files between mobile systems that lack the components to take full advantage of the faster version. The Air doesn't need FireWire 800, but it's too bad the Air doesn't have standard FireWire.

So how does the network version of Migration Assistant fare? Not so good. Networking involves more overhead than a direct FireWire connection does, so we started by testing Gigabit Ethernet on a pair of MacBook Pros, assuming that it would toast or at least rival FireWire speeds. Instead, directly copying the files took 6:52 between the same two laptops. Even worse, when we tried to set up a migration, it spent nearly 15:00 preparing things before it gave up and failed. Network migration is not only going to be much slower, but it will also be more likely to crap out midway through. That's no good.

Wireless WiFi N estimated it would take about an hour to copy the same files manually, but then picked up and finished the copy at 14:39. Would you have guessed that Wireless N is nearly half as fast as Gigabit Ethernet? That's nearly as shocking as finding that FW800 was only slightly faster than FW400, and that Gigabit Ethernet was significantly slower than even FW400.

In a real migration, these numbers will all be far worse, because a 1GB user account is really, really small. It's easy to have a user folder that's 20GB, and if you have lots of music, photos and other big files, it's not hard to blow past 80GB. In addition, applications can easily add another 20GB to the migration process, and system files can tag on another 10GB without breaking a sweat. That's a huge amount of data to push between computers during a migration.

Apple's Migration Assistant utility has made it seem effortless, and its easy to take FireWire's speed for granted. However, trying to push scores of gigabytes over the network is simply a daunting task. Add in the greater chance for interruption when using networking rather than a direct FireWire link, and the delays, lost packets, or radio signal fadeouts leave network migration in the area of experimental new technology. Don't plan on using WiFi for file migration; use the Air's 10/100 Ethernet adapter and plan on leaving things to crank overnight if possible. If you have lots of big files to move to your new Air, consider copying them manually using a USB hard drive or flash drive.

How the Migration Session Works

Nevertheless, how does the new Migration Assistant work? Once installed as part of the CD and DVD Sharing software from the Air's installer DVD, the updated Migration Assistant (below, in /Applications/Utiliites ) allows you to initiate a file import session from the Air by first launching the assistant from the host computer serving as the source of the migrated files.

If the host computer hasn't been updated, it only offers to import from another Mac (using FireWire), from a Time Machine backup, or from another disk on the local computer. The updated version provides a new option: to another Mac (below).

Once a migration "to another Mac" option is selected, the host computer begins scanning for an Air on the local network (below) that has also launched Migration Assistant and is waiting to begin a migration from another Mac. Any other Mac with updated Migration Assistant software can also serve as a destination for a "to another Mac" migration, but the speed disadvantages of network migration over using FireWire make that option irrelevant for anything apart from the MacBook Air.

Launched from the Air, Migration Assistant begins looking for the migration session host and then asks the user to enter a session key to bind the two networked computers together (below). Once begun, the session allows the user to migrate selected users, files, and settings just as if it were working over the typical FireWire connection with the host in Target Mode. The big difference, of course, is that it will progress far more slowly.

A number of other users have reported issues trying to perform wireless migration using WiFi. After waiting for about twenty minutes for Migration Assistant to "prepare information," we gave up and tried Ethernet. Over the Air's Ethernet adapter, the process was still painfully slow. Fortunately, migration is usually only done once.

Users might only perform a migration once, but will likely need to install software regularly, and may occasionally need to reinstall their system from the Mac OS X DVD. This process also begs for the fastest possible method. Ideally, users will spring for the USB SuperDrive, a $99 option that Apple suggests users don't actually need. The next segment on early adopter issues looks at the Mac Book Air's lack of an optical drive and the suitability of the workarounds Apple provides.


  • Reply 1 of 36
    That's all very well for a one off event, but what about those of us that use a main computer and want to sync to a laptop on a regular basis. This just is not going to work. And if you do what I do and carry a 2.5" hard drive back and forth with my user folder and sync that with which ever machine needs updating, (using carbon copy cloner) then it is completely hopeless. Even if the macbook air is a 'secondary' machine this slow sync is a real deal killer.
  • Reply 2 of 36
    s10s10 Posts: 107member
    Great! I'm still waiting for a replacement dvd from Apple since the one that came with my Air didn't work.
  • Reply 3 of 36
    teckstudteckstud Posts: 6,476member
    The lesson here is that there is always that risk whenever you buy a first generation device. Just ask all those that bought blu-ray players and will never have many features i.e., pic in pic , web, etc available on the newer players.

    I learned that lesson from buying the AppleTV and 9 months late finally getting HD content worth viewing even though it's been hooked up with HDMI cables. And we still don't know what the USB connector on the back is for.
  • Reply 4 of 36
    I think the best solution would be to clone your HD to an external USB2 drive then use Migration Assistant to pull the data from the USB HD. Any form of network copy is going to have too much overhead compared to a direct file copy over FireWire or USB2.

    I think Apple should have at least included the USB to Ethernet adapter standard with every MacBook Air.
  • Reply 5 of 36
    virgil-tb2virgil-tb2 Posts: 1,416member
    Originally Posted by Johnny Mozzarella View Post

    I think the best solution would be to clone your HD to an external USB2 drive then use Migration Assistant to pull the data from the USB HD. ...

    This is what I am going to be recommending. A bootable "SuperDuper" backup of the old system on a USB drive seems the only sensible way to go. But how ironic that the best way to migrate files is now going to involve using anything *but* Apple software?

    I was one of those people saying that "no way" would Apple leave firewire off of the new ultra-portable before it came out. I was wrong of course, but now that the Air is out, it seems to me that leaving out firewire is the device's biggest flaw.

    It's not like it's really a design issue either, they could certainly fit one extra port in that drop down thingie.
  • Reply 6 of 36
    Wouldn't it be cool if they could have added an ipod dock port so you can sync your MacBook Air to your regular computer?
  • Reply 7 of 36
    s10s10 Posts: 107member
    Originally Posted by Virgil-TB2 View Post

    It's not like it's really a design issue either, they could certainly fit one extra port in that drop down thingie.

    No, it is not possible.. the "thingle" is not high enough for FireWire and would also need to be longer.. I suspect there is no space available inside.
  • Reply 8 of 36
    Originally Posted by S10 View Post

    No, it is not possible.. the "thingle" is not high enough for FireWire and would also need to be longer.. I suspect there is no space available inside.

    The Firewire Chipset is HUGE compared to USB 2.0 that is why they dropped it from the iPod.
  • Reply 9 of 36
    timontimon Posts: 152member
    What's needed is for the Air to support the USB to USB transfer cables. That should be close enough to FireWire 400 speeds. Problem is that they will have to release firmware update for all of the other Macs.
  • Reply 10 of 36
    mstonemstone Posts: 11,510member
    If I was to buy a MBA I would not be using Migration Assistant at all because I would not be replacing any of my Macs with the new notebook. The Air is not meant to replace anything, but is rather a new class of device altogether. Therefore I believe most people will just start using it without any migration necessary.

    Not that I wouldn't rather have FW and Ethernet, and Express card too, I'm just saying, it isn't a deal breaker.

  • Reply 11 of 36
    haggarhaggar Posts: 1,568member
    Can the MacBook Air connect to a wireless network and use Remote Disc if the hard drive fails or is replaced with a blank drive?
  • Reply 12 of 36
    Originally Posted by Timon View Post

    What's needed is for the Air to support the USB to USB transfer cables. That should be close enough to FireWire 400 speeds. Problem is that they will have to release firmware update for all of the other Macs.

    Can't I copy my user folder on my desktop mac to my external HD via usb and then connect the external HD to the MBA via usb to copy the user folder?
  • Reply 13 of 36
    I am asking... What if Apple was shipping the MBA with MacOS on a USB key instead of a DVD? Would it work to repair a damage disk for example?
  • Reply 14 of 36
    crebcreb Posts: 276member
    I would be happier if Apple had a removal, and dockable hard drive for two reasons:

    1) Uploading, and downloading, files, OS, etc.

    2) When I do have to take it in for service I would be able to keep my hard drive with sensitive data.

    Apple has so many docking stations for the iPod, and iPhone, why not the MBA's hard drive?
  • Reply 15 of 36
    After holding one of the MBAs in the store, I must say I now think it will be a successful seller. I never minded losing the optical drive, but GigE was a disappointment for me. I can live without firewire, but I wish they had at least provided a second USB port so 2.5" USB drives can work without an external power brick.

    They key for it being effective for people with two computers is to have Unison on both machines to minimize the network traffic required to move and copy files.
  • Reply 16 of 36
    eckingecking Posts: 1,588member
    I still think the lack of firewire is unnecessary and a mistake. I Hope they do like they did with the mbps with out fw800 (like mine ) and add it back next revision.
  • Reply 17 of 36
    For the record, the Migration Assistant option of migrating from a Time Machine back-up works very well and is pretty speedy. My wife's old machine was previously backed up onto a Lacie external drive which supports FW400, FW800 and USB2 and when we plugged it in to her new MacBook Air it migrated everything flawlessly, taking between 10 and 15 minutes for 20GB of (mostly music and photos).
  • Reply 18 of 36
    nagrommenagromme Posts: 2,834member
    I'm keeping my $29 in my pocket and passing on the optical drive as well.

    I haven't used wired ethernet OR optical discs on my current laptop in over a year--and I would sooner or later to install software, but Remote Disc will handle that.

    I've never used the migration assistant--I like a fresh start, and probably don't want ALL my files on the Air anyway.

    But whether I use migration or manual copy, I won't lose sleep over how slow it is. I'll let run overnight or beyond. It only happens once, and it's not like I'm buying the Air mere hours before I suddenly need all my files on it.

    And from then on, my transfers will be in the hundreds of MB, at WiFi N speeds. I already movie those files all over at G speeds, so N will be a step up! No Ethernet needed for me.

    It won't even kill me to have to try several times, or wait for 10.5.2 or other patch (which will probably arrive before my Air does). That will annoy me... but if I HAVE to face early adopter issues, I'll take software ones over hardware ones
  • Reply 19 of 36
    wilcowilco Posts: 985member
    Originally Posted by christopher126 View Post

    Can't I copy my user folder on my desktop mac to my external HD via usb and then connect the external HD to the MBA via usb to copy the user folder?

    Apple should make an ad about that.
  • Reply 20 of 36
    who says that usb will be any faster? in my experience, usb2.0 is not anywhere near as fast as firewire 400 in practice. i'm not so sure it would be any faster than some of the other options here. would be nice if you had tested that, just for comparison.
Sign In or Register to comment.