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ATPM 17.08
August 2011


How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Upgrade to Lion Painlessly

I’ve done countless system software updates for myself, my wife, and the few brave friends who would let me touch their Macs. Most of these have gone quite well with few problems. Often, by the time I could afford to upgrade, someone else had already identified the bugs. Sometimes I didn’t even bother to back up my data first: who wants to initialize that many floppy disks?

With Lion set to be released the same day as our ATPM submission deadline, and users everywhere clamoring to upgrade, I thought we should take this month to look at some of the factors which might affect your decision to upgrade. We’ll focus on Lion since it’s the latest thing out there for Mac users, but the questions can be applied to any OS upgrade. We’ll also look at some specific steps that need to taken for a painless transition to Lion.

Questions to Ask Before You Decide to Upgrade

Despite what marketing says, not everyone needs to upgrade every time a new OS is released. I believe that the first question to ask yourself about OS upgrades is always, “Are the new features interesting/compelling enough for me to upgrade?” If the answer is “no,” the rest of the process suddenly becomes irrelevant. How many of the more than 250 new features in Lion are important to you? If that wasn’t enough for you, here are some hidden features, which look promising.

I Want to Run the New OS, But Can I?

This is a question of whether your hardware is powerful enough to handle the new features. If your Mac is relatively recent it probably meets Lion’s minimum hardware requirements. If you aren’t sure of your Mac’s speed and memory, go to the Apple menu and choose “About This Mac.” The processor type, speed, and amount of installed memory will be listed there. Compare your processor to the list of supported processors carefully: Macs with the Core 2 Duo processor are supported (assuming all the other requirements are met), but the Core Duo processor is not supported.

I will inject one note from personal experience here: Apple’s minimum system requirements for the recent OS releases have been fairly accurate. If they tell you an OS will run on 2 GB of memory it usually will. How much more memory you will need to run effectively depends upon such factors as how memory intensive your usual tasks are and how many applications you have open at one time. The current “sweet spot” for most general tasks seems to be about 4 GB of memory.

You may have noticed that, other than the minimum 7 GB of hard drive space, Apple doesn’t mention either additional hard drive space or minimum graphics card requirements. It seems that if your current graphics and hard drive are good enough for Snow Leopard they should be sufficient for Lion.

If you looked at the system requirements referenced earlier, you may have noticed that upgrading to Lion requires that your Mac OS first be updated to at least Mac OS X 10.6.6. This is because Apple distributes Lion as a download from the Mac App store, which requires the “App Store” application introduced with 10.6.6. Don’t get confused and go to the iTunes App Store. You won’t find it there.

How Do I Know If I Should Upgrade?

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably decided you want to run Lion and that your hardware can handle the upgrade. Those were pretty straightforward questions. The question of whether you should upgrade your OS now or wait a while is a bit more difficult to answer. Every situation is a bit different, but there are some questions that everyone needs to think about before making the final decision.

When friends ask me if they should upgrade, I try to figure out whether they like troubleshooting computer problems. If not, it might be best for them to wait a few weeks and see what bugs are reported. No initial OS release is entirely bug-free, because no company can possibly test every combination of hardware, software, and peripherals available. If troubleshooting these kinds of issues makes you want to revert to using a typewriter, let others find and report the bugs.

Once you know your hardware can support an upgrade, don’t forget to ask the follow-up question: “Does my existing third-party software work with the new OS?” Lion’s $30 price tag is a bargain. If you bought a new or refurbished Mac after June 6, 2011, purchasing Lion may cost you less than the stated price. It’s not such a bargain, though, if you have to update too much software. Each time there is a significant change in the OS, there is always some software that will need to be updated and some software that will need to be replaced because the developer has no plans to upgrade the program.

You could find out whether your software is compatible with Lion by doing the upgrade and then trying each program in turn to see which ones break. That would take a colossal amount of time. I think I have a better solution. Before you even purchase the Lion upgrade, look at the software on your computer and decide which applications you consider critical. This could be programs that you need for work or simply programs that you use frequently and would not want to be without. The rest of the programs can be divided into the “nice to have but not vital” category. Software in this group would be missed, but you could do without it until you can afford to upgrade or replace it. The rest of your software will likely be in the “Why do I still have that installed?” category.

Now that you have your list of “must have” software, check out this App Compatibility Table. The applications in this table are divided into four groups: applications that work, those that work but have some problems, those that don’t work, and those not yet tested. You will also find links to the developer’s Web site, whether the application is available in the Mac App Store, and in some cases more detail about what exactly does not work. If you can’t find your favorite program there try this list.

While we are on the topic of incompatible software, I must mention that Lion does not support Rosetta: the translation software licensed by Apple which allowed Intel-based Macs to run applications which would normally require the older PowerPC processors. If you’re interested in the history of Rosetta you can find more information here and an overview here. It’s sufficient for our purposes to know that applications which need this feature will no longer work once you upgrade to Lion.

How do you know if you are still running programs which require this feature? Macs have useful tidbits of information everywhere and lots of tools for gathering that information. We’re going to use System Profiler to help locate software that requires Rosetta to run properly. From the Apple menu, choose “About This Mac.” When the basic information appears, choose “More Information.” This launches System Profiler, which can also be launched by locating it in the Utilities folder.

When the program appears, you are presented with a wealth of information about your system. Find Applications on the left and click there. After a few seconds of thought, your Mac presents a table with information about all of the installed applications. The column headings are pretty self-explanatory, and clicking a column heading will organize the table according to that column. We are interested in the Kind column, which reports applications as Intel, Universal, or PowerPC. The programs marked as PowerPC need Rosetta; the others do not. Programs marked Classic will also not work, since they require the Classic environment for Mac OS 9 that was included in older versions of Mac OS X.

There isn’t a good search function that I can find in System Profiler, but you can save the list as a text file and search the list from there. You can find the same information about other areas of software including components, extensions, and frameworks. Give them a quick check in case one of your favorite Intel applications left some PowerPC code there.

Finally the Upgrade

If you’ve read this far, I assume that you are committed to upgrading to Lion at some time in the near future. At this point that requires a multi-gigabyte download, but a thumb drive version is scheduled to arrive soon. In either case, there are some steps that you can take to increase the chances of a successful upgrade.

The first step should be to check the health of the drive that will contain Lion. Make sure to verify the disk and do any repairs that Disk Utility recommends. Unless I am having issues, I don’t bother repairing permissions, but it doesn’t really hurt anything. If you don’t remember how to do this, check here.

If you aren’t already doing so, back up your data. I don’t anticipate a problem there, but why risk it? While you are backing things up, make sure your Snow Leopard installation is up-to-date and back that up as well. Whether you use a bootable clone of your hard drive or a Time Machine backup, the important thing is that you understand how to restore from it in the event of a problem. I know this takes some time and disk space, but it also gives you a means of reverting to Snow Leopard if you don’t like Lion.

If your Snow Leopard installation is functioning well, you may choose to download Lion and begin installation. If you are having problems with Snow Leopard and would like to do the equivalent of a “clean install,” you’ll need to boot from your Snow Leopard disc, erase the hard drive, and install and update it before downloading Lion.

All that’s left now is to log in to your Mac App Store account and download Lion. The download weighs in at just under 3.5 GB, so it may take a while depending upon demand and the speed of your connection. When the download is complete you will be prompted to begin the installation. If you want to save the Lion installer to create a bootable disc follow these instructions beginning with step 2. You must save the image file before the actual installation is started. The installer deletes this file when the installation is complete.

Final Thoughts

I have only played with Lion a little bit since its release, and since I did a clean install on my MacBook Pro I have not installed most of my applications yet. I can tell you from my Mac Pro installation, which I did as an update, that Lion shows me the PowerPC apps that won’t run by marking them with the circle with a slash through it used to indicate “no” on most signs. It also shows me a warning message about not being able to run that program. I’ll have more about Lion next month, including whether someone has found a way to use Rosetta effectively.

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