Blog Post

How to downgrade from Lion to Snow Leopard

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Mac OS X Lion (s aapl) has been out for a few days now, and I’m quite happy using it on all my machines. But judging by questions I’ve been asked, that’s not a universal experience. A few folks have asked me how to go about stepping back to Snow Leopard. It’s possible, but unfortunately, you may not be able to easily take your current apps and documents with you. There’s a method that does restore your apps and settings, but you’ll need a cloned backup of your pre-Lion drive for it to work.

1. The “best fit” solution

Most won’t have a cloned backup of their drive on hand, I’m guessing. The good news is that performing a clean wipe and install is a good idea for general maintenance of your Mac. The bad news is that in this case, you really have no choice. Here’s how to save what you can and get back to Snow Leopard, provided you have a Snow Leopard install disc (including the one that came with your computer, if it’s a recent purchase). This method also erases the emergency recovery partition Lion automatically installs.

  1. Backup your User folders to an external drive. This should preserve your documents, photos, music, etc. If you store those things in locations not in the User folder, make sure to copy those over too.
  2. Insert the Snow Leopard disc. Restart your Mac and hold down C to boot to your DVD drive.
  3. Go to Utilities in the menu bar once the installer pops up and select “Disk Utility.”
  4. Find the drive in the sidebar where Lion is installed, select it and navigate to the Partition tab.
  5. Click on the drop down menu under Partition Layout and select “1 Partition.” Hit Apply.
  6. Now navigate to the Erase tab and make sure “Mac OS Extended (Journaled)” is selected, then hit Erase to delete all data on the drive.
  7. Quit Disk Utility to get back to the Snow Leopard installer and proceed with the install.
  8. Restore your User folder and documents from your backup.
  9. Run Software Update to get everything current, install your apps from your original install media and update those as well.

2. The “best case” solution

If you managed to clone your drive (Dave describes how in this recent piece) before you installed Lion, which you should do if you haven’t yet taken the plunge, then you can get everything back the way it was.

A popular option for cloning your drive is Carbon Copy Cloner, which is a handy utility to have for any Mac owner. Assuming you’ve done that, follow the directions above to get your drive primed and ready, but stop at step 6 and follow these instructions instead.

Now you’re ready to install Snow Leopard from your Carbon Copy Cloner backup. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Attach the drive containing your CCC clone to your Mac.
  2. Open System Preferences, then go to the Startup Disk preference pane.
  3. Chose your CCC external drive as the startup disk.
  4. Restart and launch CCC, then choose your backup from the “source” menu.
  5. Select your Mac’s internal drive as the destination.
  6. Chose “Restore items from a backup” from the settings pop-up menu and hit the “Clone” button.
As with any major software change, it’s a good idea to have a dependable cloning strategy in place in case you want to revert. But it’s also been my experience that it’s never the end of the world if you have to just do a clean wipe and reinstall, especially if you consistently backup your data from the beginning. Users not yet sure about Lion might consider installing it on a separate partition first to make sure they like it before using it as their primary system.

22 Responses to “How to downgrade from Lion to Snow Leopard”

  1. Mark Bella

    I just bought a 2011 iMac the other day band new with Lion pre installed. I’ve read on some of the comments here that retail SL disks won’t allow you to install SL on a pre installed Lion iMac, that they are experiencing bugs when they do downgrade.Is this true even if we follow the process above? I figure that by booting off the disk and using disk utilities to erase and set one new partition (without the emergency recovery Lion partition) that it would then allow you to install SL. Is this true? Or is the special Lion firmware preventing this process baked into the system? I know this is the same iMac hardware that shipped earlier this year with SL….at least that what I assume. I hope I don’t have to go back an get an older iMac just to get SL back!

  2. Brian Park

    I’ve just tried doing this and it seems step 5 and 6 in “best fit” solution are somewhat combined… I hit “partition” apply button and just further prompts to a secondary step to hit another final “partition” button where it then erases which I already did now. Is it too late now or does it really make a difference to start up from the cloned disk and then restore from it too???

  3. Ben Clarke

    I have had a 2011 iMAc 27inch running Lion perfectly, everything was without issue. Then we changed IT and location to a new comapny and they installed SL and 2 days later my screen has died or the hardware is having serious issues, very blown out and only some colours. If it aint broke don’t fix it :( Lion was actually very stable and fine. I didn’t bother with Mission Control etc. THe apple site does say not to install earlier versions of OS X on your Mac and now I would have to agree.

  4. Well I ended up with Lion, not on one, but on two machines. I decided to grab one of the new 11″ Airs. About 3-4 days in, I was hating it and about ready to return the thing. But it was so fast and zippy that I wanted something faster than my older (mid-2009) 17″ MacBook Pro. I checked Craigslist and found a deal on a 3-mo-old Feb-2011 release 17″ Pro with 8 gig and a 256 gig SSD. Downside was it had Lion. But I knew it could run Snow Leopard since they were originally released with it. Thing is, I couldn’t find anybody with an SL DVD from one of those, as it wouldn’t boot the “Retail” version of SL that I had.

    I went ahead and got the machine, because I couldn’t pass it up due to the price. That was last weekend. That same weekend I was at a seminar, and had the 11″ with me. I was doing some coding while at the seminar, and something just “clicked” for me. I took the time to arrange my Desktops in a specific way, like how I had done with Spaces (just horizontally instead). I’m at eleven desktops now. But between that and the VERY slick gesture to move between desktops, I really came to like Lion. It’s now really easy, especially when coding on one display, to flip back and forth between Eclipse and Firefox… easier than it was on Slow Leopard!! So I was hooked.

    Now, I do hate the mutli-monitor support. It’s lame. But it does work. I’m also hoping they will add the ability to re-order desktops and drag apps from one desktop to another without having to be ON that desktop. BTW, hold the OPTION key in Mission Control when clicking on other desktops and it’ll switch to it while keeping you in Mission Control.

    Compatibility… I’ve had NO compatibility problems. Office (2011) runs just fine. I’ve had NO crashes from any of my apps. Now, these are 100% fresh OEM Lion installs too, not upgrades from Snow Leopard. I would advise against upgrading SL to Lion. Do a wipe and fresh install. It’s the only way to be absolutely sure that there’s no old junk around to screw stuff up is with a wipe.

    I’m going to download the Lion installation DMG this week and make a bootable USB stick in case I need to do a repair or reinstall. But for now, I’m liking Lion. I do still miss Spaces and the better multi-monitor support, but I’m having a much better Lion experience than I had expected.

  5. Someth Victory

    Hi all, Could you all give me some recommendation about how to downgrade from Lion to Snow Leopard on MacBook Air 13 inches 2008? I really appreciate for your time and consideration.. Thanks!

  6. Not to forget: Steve Jobs succeeded in transforming APPLE into a multimedia company, everything worked together well: the networking, the iLife-apps & iTunes and then they switch off FRONT ROW! – the part I miss the most. And the Front-Row-enablers can’t save it at all … They can all have it back: Mission Control, App Store, Launcher and the other Lion-rubbish if they give me back my Front Row. That’s why I will downgrade.
    Can anybody set up a short list which essential data are to be exported and folders are to be saved before downgrading?

  7. EXPORT your mailboxes first! Snow Leopard and Lion use a different mailbox format. You will LOSE any emails you have stored locally after your upgrade to Lion if you don’t export the mailboxes first.

  8. lion is still not very good with multiple displays and the samba flaw is the worst in OSX history. The Launcher is OK, but it also shows the uninstall Apps and other links that make it inefficient. Mission control may be good, but frankly I don’t use it at all. I’m currently running 10.7.1, which did fix a few kernel panic errors with most apps, but productivity wise, Snow Leo seems far superior. maybe because it had the user in mind, instead of who knows whose needs.
    Lion, although stable for the most part, feels like it’s on the beta stage, IMO. After the 7.2 update, I’ll consider on upgrading to Lion, based on reviews, but for now, SL FTW! =D

  9. jmgschmoe

    Who ever though up this one?

    Flawed is not the word! Lion is a Blunder… NO backward compatibility.. no new computer…

    Word, Excel and many, many other applications absolutely will not work in Lion. Except for one system change I have ALWAYS BEEN ABLE TO USE MY OLD SOFTWARE! I simply cannot afford to “Get with the program.” I know people who, without backups would have lost PhD thesis or years of business records.

    Imagine my horror and consternation when I could not read a large number of Excel files hundreds and hundred of pages of Word Documents. (I am working on several books.) Are you supposed to buy a NEW MS Office? Are you supposed to laboriously transfer megabytes of data to Text edit or “Pages?”

    I could not use my DesignJet z3100, my Epson 3800, the internet was iffy, problems with Adobe. AutoCad (think $4000!) will not work.

    One would have thought one was dealing with, heaven forefend, (horrors) MS! I never thought I would utter these words.

    SUGGESTION. Make a “clone” on your external drive (Get one if you don’t have one.) If you are thinking about UPDATING to lion, don’t. If you want to get a new machine make sure it is backward compatible – people I spoke to have “hemmed and hawed” and “arummmed, cough-coughed” about it. Many newer Macs will run on SL, but you have to do a clone from your back up. New Airs don’t seen to be backward compatible.

    “NEVER BE CLEVER FOR THAT SAKE OF BEING CLEVER!” That is NOT clever!!! I shall tell everyone I know not to buy Lion until the situation is completely resolved. The download took some 8 hours to say nothinf of the terribly long install.

    I have been using Macs since 1987 And SINCERELY WISH I HAD SOMETHING GOOD TO SAY!

  10. Rich Love

    When you install from the Snow Leopard DVD, why do your instructions not include restoring the applications?
    (Step 1. The “best fit” solution)
    Says to backup your user folder.
    But why not backup your applications folder while you are at it and get your apps back into Snow Leopard?

  11. AH!! Lion = frustration… A lot of things don’t work now… To be fair though, I do own a 2006 MacBook Pro. However, everything works great in Snow Leopard. Also the UI changes and new “features” are not that great. Resume is really annoying and there isn’t a way to fully turn it off. Unchecking the “Resume windows…” box doesn’t completely do it. I’m going back to SL, where Spaces and Exposé are actually functional.

  12. I’ve never reinstalled an earlier OS but it looks like I will be going back to Snow Leopard. Very frustrating. Mission Control is awful. I don’t own an iPhone, I’m not interested in ever owning an iPhone, and I don’t want to spend my days working on an OS that appears to be turning my computer into an iPhone with dual 24″ screens. Maybe basing Lion on a mobile OS saves Apple money but it sure doesn’t provide value to the pro user.

  13. Omkaar Sharma

    I’m really disappointed with Lion, Keynote crashed more that 15 time yesterday alone and Preview is slower than a turtle stuck in molases. I’m about to pull my hd and instal SL on a new drive.

  14. fabioBR

    The loss of SMB alone was enough for me to go back to SN, for me the lion experience has been brief and unsettling, ALOT of hangups, ALOT of minor glitches and overall system performance has degraded since lion. 2011 MacBook Pro 15.

  15. Lion has been a seriously flawed release for me. Especially Spaces and Mission Control, with its degraded functionality, worse UI experience, glitches (windows moving spontaneously). We’ve had software compatibility issues (TunnelBlick, VPNs in general), and even data loss (while merging address cards).

    My advice is to wait until 10.7.1 before you purchase this.

  16. Etienne van leeuwen

    I did a normal back up with time-machine. So am I correct thinking I can’t go back by choosing the last snow Leopard back-up?

    BTW, thanks for posting this.

  17. Rob – the “old” 11 and 13 inch airs are cheaper now on the APPL website and perfectly good machines. They’ll run SL just dandy – maybe take a look at one of those

  18. Why is it not possible to downgrade? I was talking with an Apple Store employee about it last week and they think it’s doable. If it’s not, I won’t be buying one, or any new Mac…

  19. Skittou

    You mean you don’t want Lion on it? If that’s the case, be aware that you won’t be able to install Snow Leopard on a 2011 MacBook Air.

  20. Any advice on doing this on one of the new MacBook Airs? I plan to get a new 11″ in the next few weeks, and I don’t want Snow Leopard on it. I have the Snow Leopard DVD from my 17″ MBP, and figured I could make a bootable USB stick. Anything else I should be aware of? Thanks.