Adam's Apple

Maintaining Your Macintosh

The Benefits and Possible Pitfalls of Software Updates

Adam Rosen - 2007.10.05 - Tip Jar

The task of updating software on your Macintosh can be a variable experience, ranging from mundane to annoying to catastrophic, depending on what gets updated and how successful the process is. Some people never update, some live on the bleeding edge, and most just live with default auto-update and nothing else.

Understanding when it is and isn't necessary to update your computer, and doing so in a methodical and reliable fashion, can ensure that you remain both relatively current and continuously working with your Macintosh.

When Should You Update?

I'm not a fan of updating for updating's sake. I don't like being an unwilling beta tester, and I don't want existing features in my software to stop working just because a new version exists. Computers are tools; they need them to remain stable and productive. Updating more than you need to has a downside besides potential cost: It increases the potential for things to go wrong.

The key to update sanity is knowing when an update is really necessary. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the update add a feature or capability I need?
  • Does the update fix a bug or problem I have?
  • Does the update address a major security concern?

If you answer yes to any question, backup your system, then update (see below).

If you answer no to all questions, if it ain't broke don't fix it! (My favorite tech support motto.)

A prudent update strategy to maximize stability with any software is to avoid "Point Oh" releases (e.g., Mac OS X 10.4.0, iTunes 7.0). If you don't need the features or fixes of a major update immediately, wait until a few subsequent minor updates have been released before taking the plunge. Instead of installing Mac OS X 10.5 upon it's release, waiting until 10.5.2 (or so) is available ensures that any early release bugs get fixed and applications can be updated for compatibility as needed. Early releases are often public beta tests by another name.

A related strategy with Mac OS X is to update to the last point release of your flavor of OS X when the next major version is released. On the day that Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" is released, the final release of Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" (rumored to be 10.4.11) will be the most stable and compatible version of Tiger ever to be available. 10.5.0 is a "point oh" release with lots of bugs and incompatibilities. Give Leopard some time; the last version of Tiger will be supported for years to come.

Regardless of how you decide when it's time to update, do so on your schedule and needs, not based on marketing or Auto-Update mechanisms. Computers are not automatically obsolete in 18 months time, nor is software, but certain components may need updating on a regular basis

Types of Updates

There are three main types of software updates you can perform on your Mac:

Major System Updates

Major System Updates include Mac OS X Full Version Updates (10.3 to 10.4, 10.4 to 10.5, etc.) and QuickTime Full Version Updates (6.x to 7.x, etc.). These updates add significant functionality to your Mac but may require more RAM, more disk space, and/or a faster processor than your current system has. Major Mac OS X updates are $129 ($199 for a 5-user "family pack") and must be purchased at retail. QuickTime updates are free and downloadable, but a new QuickTime Pro key is required at $29 with each full version change. Having a backup of your data - preferably your whole system - is essential before performing major system updates. (See Part 3: Effective Backup Strategies for Mac Users.)

For OS updates, you must decide if the feature set of the new OS is worth the cost and how well it will run on your Mac (if at all). Hardware that just barely meets the minimum requirements for an OS update, especially with slower CPU speeds, may be better served by continuing to use a previous OS release. I tend to keep Mac OS 9 on systems running below 300 MHz, Mac OS X 10.3.9 on faster G3s and slower G4s, and Mac OS X 10.4.x on everything newer. When Mac OS X 10.5 is released, I will probably keep my G4s running 10.4 and evaluate how well the new OS runs on G5 systems before updating. Intel-based Macs can all handle 10.5, but some may need more RAM before updating.

Minor System Updates

Minor System Updates include Mac OS X point releases (10.4.9 to 10.4.10), Mac OS X Security Updates, QuickTime point releases (7.1.3 to 7.2), Java, AirPort, and related Apple components. Most minor updates are bug fixes, security patches, or address new hardware released by Apple. There is typically no cost for these updates, and almost all of them are available through the online Apple Software Update mechanism or for download from the Apple website.

Whether or not to apply minor system updates is a tough question. Apple's default settings encourage you to do so regularly by enabling Auto Update in System Preferences and checking weekly. But as a support tech it's not uncommon for me to get calls from clients who auto update their Mac overnight - and the next morning the computer won't boot. These problems can usually be avoided by updating manually and having a backup, as described below, but Macs are not Windows machines, and in my experience they perform best when updated as needed rather then regularly.

Security Updates warrant a special mention. Apple releases new security updates only for the most current point release of Mac OS X, along with (sometimes) the last point release of the previous major version; e.g., as of this writing (Sep 2007) Apple will release security updates only for 10.4.10 and 10.3.9. If you are running an older version of 10.4.x, not all new security updates will be available to you.

I disagree with Apple's strategy on this issue. There are many valid reasons why a user may stick with an older point release of Mac OS X: a key application isn't yet compatible with newer versions, some OS X releases are more stable than others, people haven't had time yet to backup, etc. I believe Apple should support all versions of their current operating system with security patches and provide the Auto Update mechanism with a preference to handle security updates only if desired. Microsoft has a more flexible policy in this regard than Apple.

If you feel it is imperative to always have the latest Apple security patches, you must keep your system current. In practice I have found that most Mac security issues cause relatively few problems for typical users, far fewer problems than the auto-updating itself causes, so I perform minor system updates every few versions and keep up-to-date backups.

Application Updates

Application updates also include major new versions (iTunes 6.x to 7.x) and minor point releases (iTunes 7.4.1. to 7.4.2). As with System Updates, new versions typically introduce many new features and capabilities, while point releases primarily address bug fixes and occasionally a few features. The same guidelines apply to updating applications as system software (both Apple and third party programs):

  • Does the update add a feature or capability I need?
  • Does the update fix a bug or problem I have?
  • Does the update address a major security concern?

Yes to one of these? Backup, then update.

No to all? If it ain't broke don't fix it!

How to Update Reliably

I have never lost any data or rendered my Mac unusable after an update by following these steps:

(1) Backup your Mac before updating. If possible use a clone or bootable backup.

I can't stress this highly enough - backup before updating! If things go wrong and you have a backup, you can copy from or boot off the backup and restore your old system. At the very least make sure you have a copy of your important data. Better yet are fully bootable backups (clones) that let you revert to an older system or keep working immediately if problems happen at critical times. See part 3 of this series for more info on Bootable Backups

(2) Restart your Mac and Repair File Permissions.

Restarting quits any running (or crashed) programs and ensures that everything is running as smoothly as possible before you start updating. You don't want to run other applications or multitask while updating, just let the installer do it's thing.

Incorrectly set file permissions can cause problems with OS updates not completing successfully. Use Apple's Disk Utility application (inside Applications --> Utilities) to select your boot drive, choose the First Aid tab (if necessary), then click Repair Permissions. Let the process run completely before continuing.

(3) Run a Disk Utility if necessary.

If your disk is behaving poorly, programs are crashing frequently or files aren't opening properly, run a disk utility on the boot drive after backing up but before applying the update. Trying to update already damaged or corrupt software can often make problems worse. My tool of choice for this task is DiskWarrior; see part 2 of this series for more info on fixing disk problems.

(4) Obtain and install the update.

To repeat, don't use your Mac for other tasks while updating - let the installer do it's work. It's especially important not to make changes to your files while the installer is optimizing your drive; using the drive while this step is in progress can often lead to an unbootable Mac.

For Mac OS X Major Version Updates you must install from a CD or DVD. The installer will reboot your Mac, or you can boot off the CD/DVD directly by restarting with the disc in the drive and holding down the C key. The installer will give you a choice of which drive to install Mac OS X onto - typically your internal hard drive. Before proceeding past this page, click on the Options... button in the Installer window and (if possible) select Archive and Install as your update method and enable Preserve Users and Network Settings. This method replaces your existing installation of OS X with a fresh copy rather than updating the old install while keeping your user data intact.

Note that you need a full retail copy of Mac OS X to use Archive and Install. An OS X Updater disc typically does not offer this option, and you have to update rather than replace your existing OS.

For Mac OS X Minor Version Updates, it's best to use downloaded Mac OS X Combo Updaters rather than use the Apple Software Update mechanism. Downloading updaters in advance ensures that you don't need to worry about an interrupted network connection during the update, plus the updater can be saved for future use. Combo updaters tend to work more reliably than the Single Version Updaters and include cumulative updates and patches so you can jump more than one point level at a time if needed.

Mac OS X 10.4.x has separate updates for PowerPC and Intel Macs. Make sure to get the Combo Update versions. You can find these updates at <http://www.apple.com/downloads/ macosx/apple/macosx_updates/>

For QuickTime (all releases), it's also best to use downloaded installers, and for the same reasons. QuickTime is a major system component and is notorious for breaking software with new releases, so be wary of updating QuickTime unless you truly need to (and keep your backup current). QuickTime installers can be found at <http://www.apple.com/quicktime/download/>

For Other System Software (Security Updates, AirPort, Java, etc.), the online Apple Software Update mechanism is the easiest (and often the only) way to obtain these patches. Make sure to backup and repair permissions first, and uncheck any boxes for Mac OS X versions and QuickTime in the Software Update list, since you'll be handling these manually. Apply any Apple miscellaneous updates like these after any system software version updates are performed if you're doing both at the same time.

For Application updates (both Apple and third party), most patches today are available online. If you have the opportunity to download a newer full copy of an application rather than updating an existing copy, do that when possible. Next best is a standalone updater. If neither of these choices are available, then you must use whatever online mechanism the developer provides for updates.

I often find it helpful to make a copy of an application and that application's data, support, and preference folders before updating it. As long as the updater doesn't install any system or kernel extensions (these items typically require a restart), it's easy to revert to an older setup if the update doesn't work by replacing the newer files with older versions. Check in the following locations for an application's files (~ is a shortcut for your home directory):

  • /Library
  • /Library/Application Support
  • ~/Library
  • ~/Library/Preferences
  • ~/Library/Application Support
  • ~/Documents
  • ~/Movies
  • ~/Music
  • ~/Pictures

(5) Repair File Permissions again.

After your update is done (and after a reboot, if required), run Repair Permissions a second time with Disk Utility. This fixes any permissions problems caused by the updater itself, some of which take a lot of shortcuts.

Disable Auto-Update

Auto-Updating software is (after clueless users) the Computer Tech's Bane of Existence. Due to security issues with some products and platforms, it's become default behavior to have an auto-update capability, but this feature is not always your friend. Updating one piece of software, particularly an OS component, can affect many other things; you may come in one morning to find your computer has been updated and now something doesn't work or the Mac won't boot.

It can be even worse when QuickTime gets updated: Suddenly your stable version of QuickTime 6.5.2 Pro becomes an unstable version of QuickTime 7.0 Free, and you need to purchase your QuickTime Pro key again! To prevent this, update only on your schedule. Turn off the auto-update options for your OS, it's associated components, and all applications.

For Mac OS X and other Apple software, use System Preferences --> Software Update to disable the weekly check. For Applications you can usually find an Auto-Update setting in the Application's Preferences or in one of its Menus. Note that many System and Application updates re-enable Auto-Update after updating, so check and make sure things are still under manual control when you're done.

Have a headache yet? Yearning for an abacus or a paper notebook? The attractions of Luddism have been known to make themselves apparent to many computer users from time to time - you are in good company! LEM

This article was originally published on Adam's Oakbog website. It has been adapted and reprinted here with his permission.

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Adam operates Oakbog Professional Services and The Vintage Mac Museum. He publishes The Vintage Mac Museum Blog. If you find Adam's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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