How to Avoid or Minimize Apple Update Woes

caution_updateQuite a few folks are reporting problems in getting the Mac OS X 10.5.7 Update installed and working properly on their officially supported Macs, while “hackintosh” netbook users are finding they’re getting dramatically improved battery runtime with 10.5.7 — one of those ironies.

I’m still waiting to see how the dust settles, and also looking for a time window to drive to my “local” (24 miles round-trip) library’s Wi-Fi hotspot and cool my heels for a couple of hours while the 729 MB OS 10.5.7 standalone Combo Updater downloads over their none-too-speedy wireless LAN. In the meantime, OS 10.5.6 is giving me nothing in particular to complain about on either my Intel unibody MacBook or my 17″ G4 PowerBook, so there’s no compelling reason to be in a tear about updating.

“Belt & Suspenders”

I have never allowed Software Update to upgrade an OS install on any of my computers. It’s a moot point anyway on my glacial-drift-slow home dial-up connection, but I wouldn’t be inclined to let something as crucial and potentially problematical as an OS update run in the background even over the fastest broadband connection. I keep Software Update turned off.

I know millions do take the SU route without experiencing difficulties. But there are also those who will encounter contretemps like stalled installers, blue screens, and a variety of post-upgrade issues of the sort that get reported on MacFixIt, MacInTouch and other forums, including Apple’s, after every OS upgrade or security patch release. MacFixIt has flatly stated that “Apple’s Software Update, as presently implemented, is inherently dangerous.” On the other hand, over the course of dozens of OS X installs, upgrades and updates since OS 10.1 on my machines, I’ve never experienced a serious problem, and I attribute that, at least in part, to my “belt & suspenders” approach to updating.

That said, I’m less obsessive than I used to be about preparation. I used to do disk optimizations, or even defragment using AlSoft’s highly regarded Disk Warrior 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 drive capacities, the time investment involved in that sort of disk maintenance has become more prohibitive.

Maintenance and Backup

Before updating the OS, I do at least bring my Time Machine backup up to date (easy, and something we should all keep current anyway) and run a suite of system cleaning and maintenance routines — Repair Permissions, cron scripts, dump various caches, and so forth with my favorite system maintenance app, OnyX. I don’t believe the world would necessarily come crashing down around my ears if I skipped these preparations, but I like to proceed with things in an orderly and unhurried fashion if possible.

Maybe I would have done just as well using Software Update, but the thing about precautionary principles is that you take pre-emptive action before there is a problem so you don’t have to spend more time fixing one later. If all goes well, as it has for me till now taking this tack, at least one has done no harm.

You could argue that most of the time, running system and disk maintenance software is an act of faith, with no tangible evidence to indicate that it’s doing anything at all. But sometimes it does fix obvious problems, which suggests that stuff can also go wrong “under the hood” without any notable symptoms. Whenever I do find the time to run Disk Warrior, it almost invariably finds directory damage and files that need repair.

Common Sense Prudence

I also prefer to use the Combo updater if I’m not absolutely pressed for time on the download, which is the mode MacFixIt and other experts recommend. The standalone installer is especially useful if you have multiple computers to update and only want to download the software once. The full Combo standalone update is a more fail-safe and superior alternative to the incremental version offered by SU.

I think it’s simply common sense prudence to at least minimize use of the computer during OS updates. If one has the time (I concede that I usually don’t do this) 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. Be aware that starting up in Safe Mode takes a long time because it runs a media scan during the boot process, so be prepared to wait about five minutes or so before the login screen appears, which it will even if you have automatic login configured.

Happy Medium?

Is there a happy medium to be struck between “What, me worry?” and obsessive compulsive take? Neither approach is necessarily “wrong.” It really depends on your comfort level with risk, and to some degree, on the amount of time you can invest in running upgrades. However, a failed upgrade will usually burn a lot more time than an ounce of preparation.

What’s your preferred OS upgrade/update approach? Do you rush right in, hang back and take it slow, or use multiple strategies for different machines?

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