Time Machine and Migration Assistant are both software tools. And they are a standard part of the Mac operating system.
It might seem on the surface that their roles overlap and they do the same thing.
But they don’t.
You use each tool for different stuff you want to do on your Mac.
It’s time you knew the difference. Read on now to find out …
Time Machine VS Migration Assistant Head To Head
|Migration Assistant||Time Machine|
|Take Regular Backups||No||Yes|
|Restore From A Backup||No||Yes|
|Migrate All Your Data From One Mac To Another||Yes||Possibly with Effort|
|Restore To A Previous MacOS||No||Not Any More|
What Does Migration Assistant Do?
Migration Assistant – its name gives the game away. Is the Apple tool you use when you want to migrate your files from one Mac to another.
A good example would be. You’re retiring your old mac and now you need your files on your new mac.
Different To What Does Time Machine Does?
Time Machine is software that’s used for backing up your Mac. And like Migration Assistant, Apple provides it as a standard part of MacOS.
You’d use Time Machine to keep your files safe. By taking a backup – take a copy of your files to a place that’s not part of your Mac.
Time Machine will also restore your files. And you get flexibility around how much you can restore. A group of files, several folders or just one individual file.
And between backups it’ll take snapshots of changes you’ve made to your Mac. You’ll get snapshots for the last 24 hours. As long as you’ve room for the snapshots on your Mac’s internal drive.
Migration Assistant does not, and is not backup software. Backing up is what Time Machine does.
How Does Migration Assistant Work?
As a Mac file transfer tool it migrates your files in groups.
And by that I mean it separates your files into your applications. That’s one migration set.
All the files outside of applications that are under a particular user name. Are grouped into another set. And that includes the files, folders and setup of that user name.
The system files and network settings are another group.
And then it collects other files and folders that doesn’t fit into the other groups into it’s own set of files.
By putting a check mark against the file set you want. You can pick to migrate just a certain set of files. Or migrate everything.
The beauty of using Migration Assistant is it migrates and puts all your files in the right places. Where the destination Mac expects them to be.
Versus How Does Time Machine Work?
As a backup tool. Time Machine’s first backup of your Mac is a backup of everything. After that it’s an incremental backup forever.
What does that mean?
Time Machine notes and backs up changes you’ve made to your Mac since your last backup.
This means it’s not backing up everything each time. And growing your backup like crazy with copies of the same unchanged file.
Only files and folders that have changed are backed up.
And that means you can step back through time in your backup. And restore that deleted file. Or a version of the file before you made a change. As long as you took a backup in the meantime.
And that implies that it’s best you take regular backups.
What does that mean?
You’d use Time Machine to take a full backup of your Mac as soon as it’s up and running.
Then backup once a week or more regularly if your files are crucial.
And certainly, before you do anything major to your Mac. Like moving to a new operating system version. Just in case you find something on your Mac breaks. Or the new OS doesn’t work with a particular application you need to use or accessory you have on your Mac.
Migration Assistant does none of these things.
What Does Migration Assistant Need To Work?
Migration Assistant works on a Mac that is already booted up and logged in. And that means a Mac with a working MacOS on it.
The MacOS install can be a ‘bare bones’ install for Migration Assistant. If your plan is to migrated your files and folders from an older Mac to a new Mac.
Once you’ve logged in.
Migration Assistant needs to transfer/migrate from something.
You can transfer your files from a Mac to another Mac over WIFI. Direct Mac to Mac over Ethernet. Or Mac to Mac over USB C cable.
Migration Assistant will also use a Time Machine backup and use that to transfer your files.
And now we’re at the point where Time Machine seems to overlap with Migration Assistant. So let’s take a closer look at Time Machine.
Compared What Does Time Machine Needs To Work?
Time Machine also needs a Mac with an operating system on it. Booted up and you logged in.
You need a drive for Time Machine to take its backup to.
Yes, it’s possible for you to back up to another internal drive on your Mac. But really that makes little sense. The main idea of having a backup is that you can recover from that backup if your Mac fails. And having your backup sitting on your Mac wouldn’t cover you if that happened.
And that means you need an external hard drive. Or SSD drive connected to your Mac. And you use that drive with Time Machine to backup up to.
You can also use Time Machine to backup over WIFI to a Time Capsule. And though Apple has discontinued the Time Capsule product. It’s possible to buy a refurbished Time Capsule.
Where Did Migration Assistant And Time Machine Overlap?
On previous Mac operating system versions pre Catalina.
You could use your Time Machine backup to recover your Mac system. Operating system, applications and all your files.
To do that you’d boot your Mac to Recovery Mode. And then use MacOS Utilities to restore everything from your Time Machine backup to your Mac. But that feature also allowed you to restore onto a different Mac.
And in that mode a Time Machine backup acted much like Migration Assistant.
Transferred your files – like Migration Assistant, from one Mac to another.
Too often the MacOS running on an old Mac wasn’t compatible with the new Mac. Along with incompatible applications running on the old Mac compared to the new.
And since MacOS Big Sur Apple has changed all this.
Since Big Sur you load operating systems on as a separate job. Either using the Mac’s recovery mode. Or a special boot sequence on your Mac to load the OS your Mac shipped with. Or you can download available OS versions from the Apple app store.
You Can Use Migration Assistant With A Time Machine Backup To Migrate
And this is where the two applications inter-work with each other.
Migration Assistant can use your Time Machine backup of your old Mac from an external drive.
And smoothly migrate your old Mac’s files from your Time machine backup. Including your applications, system settings. User profile information. All the files and your network settings from your old Mac.
Making the migration process easier.
Letting Migration Assistant use your Time Machine backup to migrate from. Means you move all your files (in fact they’re copied) from your old Mac to your new. From the external drive rather than direct from your old Mac.
Useful if one of the reasons you bought yourself a new Mac was because your old Mac was failing. Or has failed.
Use the Time Machine backup and let Migration Assistant put all your files in the right places on your new Mac.
Can Time Machine Migrate Files Like Migration Assistant?
Yes, it’s possible to do the migration yourself from your Time Machine backup.
And to get it done you’d need to have an intimate understanding of how Mac’s work. And where things need to live. Because it’s a manual job.
Because a Mac won’t allow you to use the standard Time Machine restore feature on a Mac that didn’t take the backup. And that means copying your files out from your Time Machine backup yourself. To where they need to be.
It’s a job that’s certainly possible but time consuming. And it’s likely you could get something wrong.
Check this document to find out how to get individual files from Time Machine onto a new Mac.
Where Does Time Machine And Migration Assistant Live?
Migration Assistant is an app that lives in the Applications folder. Inside a folder called Utilities.
In contrast. You can find Time Machine on the System Preferences menu. You access Time Machine through System Preferences to set it up.
You’ll also find Time Machine in the Applications folder. This is where you access it’s restore features.
Migration Assistant VS Time Machine Restore
Here’s the deal.
Migration Assistant migrates your files from one Mac to another. And it does it by copying. As part of its migration, it puts your files where they need to be on the new Mac. The files are the current versions of your files. And they’re copied as they currently are from one Mac to the other.
Time Machine restores from a backup. And as it’s an incremental backup you can restore a file back to your Mac from a certain backup date in time. And that file may not be the same as the current copy.
From a restore point of view the job Migration Assistant does is not the same as Time Machine.
Migration Assistant VS Time Machine Backup
Migration Assistant isn’t a backup tool. It’s a file copying tool. It copies files from one Mac to another.
Time Machine in contrast is a backup tool. You use it to take backups of a Mac to an external storage device. The backup is incremental – recording and backing up changes made to each file since the last backup.
Time Machine will also take snapshots. A point in time record of changes made hourly on a Mac to its internal drive. But only for the last 24 hours.
If it’s a backup you need then Time Machine is the software to use.
And now you know the difference between Time Machine and Migration Assistant. Use Time machine to backup your Mac. And restore your files or folders from a point in time from your backup.
Migration assistant in contrast ‘migrates’. It copies your files from one Mac to another. And you’d use it to build your brand new Mac with the files from your old Mac. And now you know the difference, why not read some of the other related articles by clicking on the links below?
About Simon Irons
As an admin I spend my day helping folks with their Mac issues. From the guy at work, through to unofficial 911 support for family and friends. I swear they have me on speed dial.
For fun I like testing out and playing with new stuff. I think Apple make the best products on the planet.
In my spare time I like to fish and play around with boats.