Mac OS X Updates: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

One of the most common questions I get from users is “should I upgrade my Mac?” My first response is to note that “upgrade” is a marketing term, not a technical one, and then to clarify what exactly they mean by upgrade. Updates and upgrades are different things, and people often mean different things by both. The recent release of Windows 7 and “snow leopard” Mac OS 10.6 offers an excellent opportunity to discuss this.

Software, Hardware, Updates, Upgrades and Change

The term “upgrade” implies progress in a way that may or may always be relevant. Adding to this confusion is that most people are uncertain what the term means. It may be useful then to distinguish between and among the different things that people may refer to as upgrades, noting that not every change is an improvement.

Hardware Upgrades Involve Physical Parts

Hardware upgrades involve physical parts, and are the most obvious upgrade because they usually involve physically taking out a screwdriver and adding or changing something in the real world. Some people would consider adding a new peripheral an upgrade, but more common upgrades include replacing one part with another: replacing your 15″ CRT monitor with a 19″ LCD, for example. If you have a “tower-style” computer, it may involve adding a new PCI card for more peripheral ports, but the most common hardware upgrade by far is to replace one hard drive with a larger one, or to add more RAM.

A common question I am asked is whether or not it makes sense to upgrade to a larger hard drive or to add more RAM to a machine. In most cases, it does, and as RAM prices have dropped so radically over the past two years, I generally suggest that people who plan to keep a computer “max out” the RAM in their iMac, Mac Mini, MacBook or MacBook Pro. (Professionals who use towers for video, photo and print production may be wiser to add some RAM, then replace the machine every two or three years.) If your machine is slightly slow or running out of hard drive space, upgrading both of these will usually cost two hundred dollars or so, plus labor, if done at the same time. Adding RAM or a larger hard drive can especially help with a two or three-year-old “stock machine” that has never been upgraded, easily doubling or tripling its useful life by making it capable of running newer versions of the Mac OS.

Software Updates under Mac OS X

Since the introduction of Mac OS X, the upper-left “apple menu” has had a “Software Update…” option, which Apple uses to check periodically for minor upgrades and updates. Early on, these updates were a bit hit-and-miss, but are now generally reliable. If you hate the periodic nagging about updates, go into the System Preferences pane for Software Updates and set it to check monthly or manually as you prefer.

What the software update preference pane does is periodically log into Apple’s servers and check your Apple software against the current version at the mother ship in Cupertino. If the two don’t match, it politely tells you and invites you to download a free update. These updates are always free and are almost always “bug fixes” or minor improvements. Pretty much every time Apple introduces a new iPod or service at the iTunes store, there is an update for iTunes. If you have installed Final Cut, iWork or iLife, you will get periodic updates for those. If you are happy with their computer and how it is working, there is no need to download any of these, and indeed the software update window allows you to ignore an update by selecting it in the list and then choosing that from the “Update” menu.

Since so many updates are fairly large files, I generally recommend that people set their preferences to check for updates monthly, then actually install updates when they can be away from their machine, letting them download overnight.

Updates from the “software updates” preference pane or the apple menu are always free. Other programs and vendors, such as Adobe and Microsoft, have their own programs to periodically check for updates to their products and some programs (such as FireFox) have update-checking built in. Usually those programs have a preference to turn this “auto-update” check off if you prefer. Just be sure to check for updates every year or if you have problems.

Delta Updaters Versus “Combo” Updaters

Updaters are often classified as “delta” (small change) or “combo” updates. Delta updaters usually make small changes, such as from 10.5.7 to 10.5.8, and some programs can only be updated using a long series of combo updaters one at a time, in sequence. “Combo updaters,” by contrast, are like non-stop express buses, and can take one from 10.5.0 to 10.5.8 in a single bound. Combo updaters are usually much larger than their smaller counterparts, but more thorough and well-written. For any Mac OS X update, I always recommend taking the time to visit Apple’s web site directly and download the “combo updater,” even if it means waiting a few weeks for it to be released. Combo updaters have a long history of being both more reliable and stable than their quick-change delta counterparts.

Managing Software Updaters

A good general rule I suggest to all my clients is the creation of a special “Installer & Updater” folder somewhere on their computer, usually in the “Downloads” file or in a “Public” folder so that it is available other machines on the local network. By putting all shareware installers and updaters in one place, they are easy to find, and only need to be downloaded once. Most updaters take the form of a disk image “.dmg” file and can easily be burned to CD, DVD or even mounted across the network. By having a single place for all updates and installers, software management is much simpler. Folks with many programs or responsible for programs across many machines may also wish to create a text list or spreadsheet showing what versions of what programs are on which machines, along with installation codes. When printed, such a list is very handy to have in the file folder or box containing original CD or DVD installation discs.

Paid Software Upgrades

“Updates” to a program are generally minor, while upgrades bring larger, often major changes.

Updates to the same version of a program are always free, but “upgrades” that bring major changes are usually purchased. Sometimes a vendor such as Intuit or Adobe will offer a discount for folks making such an upgrade, but one must always pay something. The jump from Office 2001 to 2004 was such an upgrade, as was the upgrade from 2004 to 2008. Similarly for updates from Adobe CS2 to CS3 or from iWork ’08 to iWork ’09. Such paid upgrades almost always involve purchasing a physical box with installation CD or DVD’s, and it is important to save those physical parts, along with the installation codes that come with them.

Apple has always charged for full-version upgrades. In recent years, Mac OS X Jaguar 10.2 was replaced by Panther 10.3 for $129. Tiger 10.4 and Leopard 10.5 were both $129 (with a five home-computer “family pack” at $199), while 10.6 “Snow Leopard” was only thirty bucks. If you purchase a full-step upgrade as Mac OS X, it is important to save the install discs, because they are used to repair your OS or for other tasks, such as directory fixes or password recovery.

Most companies have a fairly predictable “product release cycle,” usually from 12-24 months. Both Microsoft and Adobe are expected to release new versions of their programs in 2010, and sometimes it makes sense to watch those schedules, either to purchase the new version or make sure that you can get a copy of an older version that runs on your hardware. Usually a software vendor will only support any given product one or two versions back, which can be an issue for some people when the product is marked for “end of life” or “obsolete.” Ouch!

How Long is Too Long? How Far Is Too Far?

So how long should you plan to keep your computer or a particular version of a program? That depends on what it is you do or want to do. Odds are good that your computer does everything now that it did the day you bought it, and if that is enough, great! Don’t buy a new car if a tank of gas will do. For clients who really love a particular machine (or have a machine that cannot be replaced for other reasons) I will often suggest they acquire a few “organ donors” or “parts cars” to keep in reserve for spare parts. For most folks, though, I offer the following guidelines to get the most possible life out of a given machine.

  1. Upgrade RAM to as much as the machine will hold
  2. Use external drives to move unneeded files off the boot drive
  3. Replace the boot drive to keep at least one third of it unused
  4. Add PCI cards and external drives to add functionality
  5. Upgrade the Mac OS no further than two versions from what shipped

If you purchased an iMac with Mac OS 10.2 Jaguar, for example, I would suggest maxing out the RAM and upgrading the hard drive, but not planning to upgrade beyond Mac OS 10.4 Tiger. Upgrading all those things will cost a small portion of the original purchase price, and probably extend the useful life of the machine two or three years. Fighting to improve its performance beyond that is simply not cost effective in most cases, as I once proved by putting $4000 worth of repairs into an $800 car.

Planning For Obsolescence and “Tech Refresh” Cycles

Modern electronics are largely designed to be disposable, which is deeply annoying. More relevant for computers, however, is the rapid expansion of technology and the increased things that we expect of our computers. Ten years ago, almost no one had high-speed Internet at home, if they had Internet at all. Today, people are watching movies on their computers and performing video chat across social networks. The performance of ten-year-old computers did not decrease, but our expectations of our computers increased appreciably.

My general suggestion for businesses is to plan to replace every new computer every five years or so. For my own business, where my laptop gets heavy use, I budget to replace equipment every three years, as the AppleCare extended warranty expires. Some low-demand servers may be five or even ten years old, but the general rule to budget a replacement every 3-5 years is a good one for almost every situation. Sometimes accountants will want to amortize machines for longer periods, but that is not realistic, and it is a nuisance to have to account for obsolete machines in a back room somewhere. You will be happier and more productive if you can budget to replace your computer at least every five years, and perhaps all software with it.

“Upgrade” Horror Stories

Buying something new is not always a good idea, and sales people may or may understand all the moving parts in any system. Mac users had some major issues with the transition from Mac OS 9 to OS X years ago, and Microsoft so badly bungled their transition from Windows XP to Vista that they effectively ended up “leapfrogging” their own major release to focus on “Windows 7” last month, with fingers crossed. Sometimes a planned “upgrade” can create a cascade of other problems, such as when people purchased Apple computers with Intel chips that could no longer run “Classic” programs or quickly went to Snow Leopard without checking for incompatible programs or plug-ins. There are a variety of web sites such as Macintouch or the Snow Leopard Compatibility Wiki, but I generally encourage folks to wait a few weeks after any new machine or program ships to let others find the tricks and traps of the bleeding-edge shake-out cruisers. Quality assurance testing has advanced appreciably in the last ten years, but no one can foresee all possibilities, and even monkeys fall from trees.

Useful Sites for SW Updates and Hardware Upgrades

First-Tier Software Update Sites

One-stop shopping sites for versions and updates

Major commercial update sites, by company

Online resources for hardware upgrades and repairs

Help with Computer and Technology Planning

If you would like help evaluating your current computers and technology, to come up with a better maintenance and upgrade plan, please consider phoning at (360) 666-7679.

We can help you make the most of what you have, eliminate redundant equipment and streamline operations to increase pleasure, decrease frustration and improve productivity. Whether that means an update, an upgrade or a redesign, this is what we have been doing since 1998.

Happy computing!

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