Miscellaneous Ramblings

The 'Better Safe than Sorry' Guide to Installing Mac OS X Updates

Charles Moore - 2008.12.16 - Tip Jar

I haven't yet installed the Mac OS X 10.5.6 update, although I hope to download the humongous 668 MB Combo updater sometime over the next few days. Because broadband hasn't penetrated to my neck of the (literal) woods yet, that involves a 24 mile round trip to the local (so to speak) library's WiFi hot spot, which hopefully will be working.

It wasn't the last two times I was there.

Software Update Impractical for Some

I may try to get away with the 372 MB Delta incremental updater this time, because I had the Combo for the OS X 10.5.5 update, but my, how it's grown. The OS X 10.5.4 "Delta" upgrade installer was a mere wisp of a thing at 88 MB, which I managed to download in an overnight session over my clunky home office dialup connection. I didn't encounter any problems with that update, which went very smoothly. However, the OS 10.5.5 "Delta" was a whopping 316 MB - and this latest one is even bigger.

For me, Apple's automated software update is not a practical alternative. But even if I had access to the fastest of broadband connections, I would still go with the standalone updates, at least for operating system upgrades. I keep Software Update turned off.

Apple released four OS X 10.5.6 updaters (Client and Server, each in a Combo and Delta version) Monday afternoon. To update to Mac OS X 10.5.6, you have the option of using Apple's Software Update or a standalone installer - the latter being my recommendation. As noted, the standalone installer is available in an incremental "Delta" version that lets you update from Mac OS X 10.5.5 to 10.5.6, and a comprehensive "Combo" version that lets you update from any prior version of Mac OS X 10.5 to 10.5.6.

Use the Combo Updater

I recommend using the combo updater even if you're only moving up one notch from OS X 10.5.5 to 10.5.6 if practical.

Note that both Combo updaters are now too large to burn to CD (well, you might squeeze the client version on - I haven't tried it) and will require DVD media if you want to make a backup or transfer copy. (An additional benefit of using a standalone updater for those with multiple Macs is that you need only download it once. Once that's done, you can burn it to a disc, copy it to an external drive, or transfer it over your network for use on your other Macs.)

Scanning through the published changelog, version 10.5.6 seems to be mainly a bugfix release for improved reliability of several functions, such as AirPort, the Address Book, and file synchronization. Graphics performance has been enhanced for gaming, iChat, Cover Flow, Aperture, and iTunes. Mail gets performance and reliability fixes, and MobileMe automated synching has been speeded up. I hope that the not specifically revealed improved performance and reliability of TCP connections will help improve spotty dial up performance with email clients, which has remained a sore point with Leopard for me, albeit somewhat better with each incremental update. Printing, Parental Controls, Time Machine, and Safari all get bugfixes and/or improvements, and there is a new Trackpad System Preference pane for portable Macs, which would seem to be the most significant change appearance-wise, at least for 'Book users.

Mac OS X 10.5.5 has been a decent performer on my old 1.33 GHz G4 PowerBook, although still short of the rock solidness of OS X 10.4.11 "Tiger". I'm hooked on Leopard, though, with Spaces, Quick Look, the improved Spotlight, and better spell checker being the things I miss most when running Tiger on my two Pismo PowerBooks, and 10.5.5 is solid enough that I'm in no particular rush to upgrade, other than for curiosity.

Preparing for the Update

Before updating, I will to bring my Time Machine backup up-to-date (easy, and something we should all keep current anyway) and run a set of system cleaning and maintenance routines - repair permissions, dump various caches, and so forth with OnyX (more time-consuming), to ensure that the system being upgraded is shipshape, which I figure is worth the bit of extra time invested in the interest of avoiding potential problems with what, for me, is a vital tool of my trade. I don't believe the world would come crashing down around my ears if I neglected to execute these preparations, but I like to proceed with these updates in an orderly and unhurried fashion if possible.

I'm sure millions of Mac users will opt to just let Software Update to its stuff, and the vast majority of them will achieve perfectly successful results, but then there are those who will encounter various issues that will keep the forums on MacFixIt, MacInTouch, and Apple's own forum site busy for the next few weeks, as happens after every OS upgrade or Security Patch release.

It's impossible to know for sure, but I do wonder if the folks reporting most upgrade woes might have avoided some grief had just taken the time and effort to clean up their systems and install from a standalone updater with no other applications running. Historically, many users have anecdotally reported that they encounter fewer issues using the standalone Mac OS X Combo updaters than with the incremental Deltas or Software Update.

Play It Safe

With my somewhat belt-and-suspenders mode of system upgrading, I've never encountered serious problems (and very few problems of any sort) with any Mac OS X version upgrade or update, dating back to OS X 10.1, which is where I climbed on board this train. Maybe I would have done just as well using Software Update (if I had had broadband), but the thing about precautionary principles is that you take preemptive action before there is a problem in hopes of preventing problems. If all goes well, as it has for me taking this approach, at least one has done no harm.

Actually, I used to also do disk optimizations or even defragmentation runs using AlSoft's DiskWarrior utility before running major system upgrades, but I haven't been doing that for the past couple of years, and so far so good. With today's larger hard drives, the the time investment involved with that sort of disk maintenance has become more daunting.

However, some folks think even the amount of pre-update caution I exercise is unnecessary and a waste of time, and that troubleshooting sites like MacFixIt and others recommending such measures and sometimes more are irresponsibly sowing needless FUD.

Mac Night Owl columnist Gene Steinberg has disparaged those of us who, as he characterizes as employing "a silly set of voodoo procedures to make sure that the update doesn't somehow bite them or, at worse, consume their Macs in flames . . . calling upon ancient deities or throwing tea leaves in a prescribed direction" for the "excessively paranoid."

I think that's more then a bit supercilious and am more inclined to agree with the counsel of MacFixIt (and others) "that Apple's Software Update, as presently implemented, is inherently dangerous," that it's simply common sense to to minimize use of the computer during OS installations, that the full Combo standalone update is a more fail-safe and superior alternative to the incremental updater offered by Software Update, and even that it's a good idea to boot the Mac into Safe Boot Mode (hold down the Shift key during a reboot before running the installer - note that starting up in Safe Boot Mode takes a long time, because it runs a media scan during the bootup process, so be prepared to wait about five minutes or so before the login screen appears, which it will in Safe Boot even if you have automatic login configured).

I have to admit that I'm usually a bit lazy about that last one, but I can only repeat that my anecdotal success with Mac OS X upgrades and updates has been excellent, although I can't affirm categorically that my precautionary approach has been key to or just coincidental to that.

I will concede that most of the time running system and disk maintenance software, whether preparing for a system update or just as a housekeeping routine, is an act of faith with no really tangible evidence to indicate that it's doing anything at all, but sometimes it does fix obvious problems, which indicates that stuff can go wrong "under the hood" frequently without any notable symptoms. Whenever I run Disk Warrior, it almost invariably finds some flies that need repair.


Then there was the time after I updated the second OS X system on my hard drive (I keep two systems installed on separate partitions, which allows me to, among other things, check out system updates without burning my bridges). That proceeded without drama, but I was slightly pressed for time and decided to skip doing my usual maintenance preparations as outlined earlier in this article before running the Combo updater.

The system installed and booted just fine, but I soon discovered that the Finder's "Find" function was not working (nothing would happen), and the little third-party text search utility SpeedSearch could find document titles but was no longer able to display contents summaries. A similar problem had once manifested on my Pismo PowerBook running Mac OS X 10.4.4.

I figured I might have to run the system updater again, but I decided to give OnyX a shot at it first. I ran the cron job scripts, Repair Permissions, and some selected cache dumps, but omitted optimizing the system,since the update installer had just done that. When I rebooted after OnyX had done its thing, both Find and SpeedSearch had been restored to working normally. That sort of experience inclines me to believe that a precautionary approach to system upgrading is more than just paranoia, but whatever floats your boat.

For more information, about the Mac OS X 10.5.6 update, see About the Mac OS X 10.5.6 Update at apple.com. For standalone installer downloads, go to Apple's software download page or the specific page for the Mac OS X 10.5.6 Update.

And finally, to use Software Update (if you must), choose Software Update from the Apple menu to automatically check for the latest Apple software. Note that an update's size may vary from computer to computer when installed using Software Update. Also, some updates must be installed prior to others, so you should run Software Update more than once to make sure you have all available updates.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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