So, you've got a new computer: Time to haul all those old e-mails, love letters and Quicken files from your old box to the new machine. The most obvious option would be to break out a batch of floppy disks and use them to spoon your data from one computer to the next. But you may not want to jump into that right away.
For one thing, you need to inventory your stuff first. Collect all the things that you've created -- documents, personal-finance records, archived e-mails, Web bookmarks and so on -- in one folder or directory. But don't bother bringing over old programs unless you don't have installer disks for them or they're no longer available for download off the Net.
Now the misery can begin. And yes, it can be done with floppy disks. If you're only moving over personal documents from a 286 or 386 -- a PC so antique that you wouldn't have much need for the programs installed on it -- then it may be quicker than anything else outlined here. Expect a bad case of floppy-disk elbow from shuffling disks in and out of drives.
So what other cheap and (relatively) easy ways exist to solve this problem?
If both computers are Internet-connected, you can employ the biggest file transfer system ever invented, the Internet itself. Set up both computers with your Net account information, then use the old computer to address an e-mail to yourself; attach the files you want to move and transmit it. Disconnect, move the phone line to your new computer and dial back into your Internet provider; check your mail to get the file. This is a grotesquely slow way to move files, though. And don't forget to make sure your provider lets you send and receive large files.
For anybody who needs to cart over more than, say, 20 megabytes' worth of data, one-time networking will be the best option. If you're moving from one Win 95/98 machine to another, a component called Direct Cable Connection is designed just for this.
You'll need a parallel cable, like the kind most printers use, but with two "male" ends -- this costs less than $10 in most computer stores. Attach your cable to both computers and turn them on. On the old PC, click on the Start menu, go to Programs, then Accessories, then Communications, where you select Direct Cable Connection. (If you don't see it, you'll need to install it -- in the Add/Remove Programs control panel, click on the "Windows Setup" tab and select "Communications" to start. Sorry.)
A program will ask you if you want the computer you are using to be the host or a guest; select host, which lets that computer share files. A window will pop up saying "attempting to establish direct cable connection." The only option is to close it. Then go to the new computer and set it up to be the guest machine; both computers will connect. Drag the files you want to the new computer. This isn't fast, but at least you can go have lunch while things proceed.
If, however, you're moving files from a Windows 3.1 computer, you are in for some trouble. You'll have to set up a "null modem" connection, something that's beyond the scope of this article, due to its hideous complexity. That leaves floppy disks and Internet transfer as options.
Or you could go with the relatively headache-free -- but also expensive -- solution of buying an external, parallel-port-based Iomega Zip drive, about $100. (You could also try to borrow one from a friend for the occasion.) It holds 100 megs of data and essentially acts like a voluminous floppy disk; simply set up both computers to use it, then plug it into one PC to copy your files, then turn that PC off and move the Zip drive to the new computer. Pull your files off the Zip; repeat as necessary.