Software Updates – A Leap of Faith…?
“A window popped up on my computer asking me if I wanted to update it’s software – should I do this?”
The answer is maybe…
Automatic Software Updates
Many software vendors and computer manufacturers (including Apple) have built automatic updating into their software – the software uses your internet connection to check to see if you’re running the most recent version. If not, the software asks if you want to download the version du-jour.
In theory this could be a great thing – your software would always kept up to date with a minimum of effort on your part. New features added by the software/hardware manufacturer would be available to you as soon as possible. Bugs would be fixed quickly.
In practice, software updates, especially operating system updates, can be problematic. Undoing a software update can be very complicated, if not impossible (without a good backup). I have seen software updates corrupt machines so badly they would no longer boot. Ick.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
As you can see, software updates are a double-edged sword. If my machine is humming along just fine, I’ll usually wait until there is some compelling reason to update something, especially the operating system. If it ain’t broke…
Then again, it’s a good idea to keep software relatively current on your machine so things don’t fall too far behind. Future upgrades can be problematic if you try to jump from version 2 of a program to version 5, without going through version 3 or 4 in between.
How long is too long? That depends on the particular program in question. Some software vendors release updates as often as monthly. In that case it’s probably a good idea to keep somewhat up to date with the currently shipping version.
There are several sites on the web where users post their experiences with software updates. Users often write reports minutes or hours after software updates are released, telling their experience of how the software performs, compatibility issues, any problems during installation and other things to be aware of. This is an excellent way of finding out more information *before* you decide to run an update. Let someone else be on the bleeding edge…
It is important to backup before you run any software updates. I recommend running a Bootable backup (more info on backup here) so you can simply reboot from your backup if something goes south for the winter during the update.
Play Around in a Sandbox
One ingenious strategy for installing and testing software updates is built into a backup program called SuperDuper. The ‘Sandbox’ feature allows you to make a backup copy of your system to an external FireWire hard drive before you run the software update. Your personal data remains in it’s original location on your main hard drive while you boot the computer from the external drive. Here’s an excerpt from the user’s guide:
“A Sandbox is a bootable copy of your system, stored on another hard drive or partition, that shares your personal documents and data with the original. In the past, you might have stored this copy away in a drawer as a backup. With SuperDuper, you actually use the Sandbox as your startup volume.
You can safely install any system updates, drivers or programs in the Sandbox, without worrying about what might happen to your system. If anything goes wrong, you can simply start up from the original system. SuperDuper has preserved it in its original, pre-disaster state – but all your new and changed personal documents are totally up to date. Within minutes, you’re up and running again – without having to go through a difficult and time-consuming restore process.”
When you do decide to install an update, particularly if it’s an operating system update, it’s a good idea to repair permissions first. Repairing permissions makes sure the computer knows who (system, user, group) has access to which files on the drive. The process only takes a few minutes and tends to yield a happier software update.
To repair permissions on your drive, insert your current OS X CD/DVD. When the disc appears on the Desktop, restart the machine. Hold down the C key on the keyboard while the machine restarts to boot from the disc.
Choose Utilities>Disk Utility (10.4 – Tiger) or Installer>Open Disk Utility (10.3.x – Panther) Disk Utility and then follow the steps below:
2. Click ‘Repair Disk Permissions
3. Wait a bit for the process to complete…
Check Your Disk
Before you install new software, it’s a good idea to know that your hard disk is healthy. To that end, I recommend using Disk Utility to verify/repair the startup disk before you run any operating system updates. To repair your startup disk, start up from your Mac OS X Install disc and open Disk Utility as noted above. Select your drive from the column on the left and click ‘Repair Disk’ in the lower right.
If you’re using a PowerBook or iBook, make sure your power supply is connected during the software update process. Running out of battery power during a software update would yield unexpected results and is not recommended!
Software Update vs. Standalone Installers
Most people have better experience downloading the ‘standalone’ installers directly from Apple’s website rather than using ‘Software Update’ from the Apple menu. It’s more work but I highly recommend NOT using Software Update for any Mac OS version updates (i.e. 10.5.5 to 10.5.6), preferring instead to download the standalone COMBO update directly from Apple here.
Updating system components and applications such as QuickTime, iTunes, etc. should be OK via Software Update.
Rinse, Lather, Repeat
After running a software update, it’s a really, really good idea to repair permissions again. You’d think all would be well after running an installer program, particularly and Apple installer, but that’s often not the case. Follow the directions above to repair your disk permissions once more.
Doing a bit of research and maintenance before installing a software update will make your machine run more reliably and keep you up to date with current software, features and reliability.
Please feel free to contact me for more information about software updates for Macintosh desktop and portable systems.
Kirk van Druten – LANsharks Consulting
About the Author:
Kirk van Druten is the owner and founder of LANsharks Consulting, an Apple, Macintosh, network and consulting firm, serving Northern California clients since 1994.
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