Dear Lifehacker, I just got a new Mac and want to transfer a few of my old applications and preferences over. Migration Assistant seems to be an all-or-nothing deal — how can I migrate just the ones I want? Signed, Mystified by Migration
Dear Mystified, Migration Assistant is a great tool if you want to transfer all your applications, settings, documents and other files over, but if you want to start fresh, it doesn't give you a lot to work with. Mac apps are great in the sense that they are mostly portable — all you need to migrate an app is drag it from one computer to the other. However, if you want to migrate all your carefully crafted preferences for those apps, you'll have to do a bit more work.
The biggest roadblock here is that while most applications have a preference file stored in ~/Library/Preferences, it can sometimes be hard to tell which one is the one you want (it's also hard to find what you want among the hundreds of other .pref files). Furthermore, some apps have information stored in ~/Library/Application Support or other places, and it would take a mighty long time to manually search out every file and folder that you might to carry over. Luckily, there's an easy workaround using uninstallation apps.
While OS X comes with no built-in system for uninstalling applications, a lot of third-party developers have created programs that uninstall other Mac apps. My personal favourite is previously mentioned AppCleaner, but if you already have a favourite, that should work for this too. These apps are designed to search out an app's scattered preference files and trash them along with the original app. Since those are the same files we're looking to migrate, we can modify how we use the app to make it suit our needs.
The easiest way to gather up all an app's associated preference files is to just drag it right into AppCleaner. It will show grab the necessary preference files and folders and list them for you. You can probably uncheck any "cache" folders, since those won't hold any of your settings. Note the paths of the other files or folders, then hit Delete. Don't worry, they're just going to go into your Trash — we're going to snatch them right back out.
Open up your Trash folder in the Finder. Drag these files out and onto your flash drive, Dropbox or whatever other temporary location you're using to migrate them. Once the files are on your new Mac, drag the application into the /Applications folder and drag the preference files into the paths you wrote down earlier. If you open up the application, you should find that all your settings have been restored. Though, if you're transferring enough apps that this becomes inconvenient and tedious, you're probably best off using Migration Assistant to transfer your Applications and Library folder, then just uninstall the apps you don't want with AppCleaner.
P.S. Got your own preferred method for migrating apps and settings to a new computer? Share them with us in the comments.