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ATPM 16.11
November 2010

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by Sylvester Roque, sroque@atpm.com

Deciding to Run Older Versions of Mac OS X

There must have been some kind of cosmic realignment going on this week in order for two things to converge in my Mac life. First, the submission deadline for this article was approaching and the article I had hoped to write had not materialized. Goodbye brilliant idea number one with nothing to take its place. Second, Apple’s media event, which contains some information about the next Mac operating system. Much to my chagrin, it will apparently be named Lion. Personally, I was hoping for something named Sylvester, but that’s another story.

The announcement of a new OS led me to think about the process of upgrading an OS or running older versions of an OS. This article isn’t really about upgrading, though, nor is it about virtualizing Windows. Instead, I’d like to spend some time talking about the benefits of keeping at least one installation of an older operating system around.

The Next Upgrade: I Don’t Want to Wait But I Can

For most of the time that I have been a Mac user, I have been slow to adopt a new OS. By the time I did pick it up, most of the headaches and software incompatibilities had already been identified and were well on the way to being corrected. It’s not that I was expecting a problem. If finances had permitted it I would have purchased and installed the new OS the day it was released. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective, circumstances dictated purchasing the new OS several months after the initial release.

With both Leopard and Snow Leopard, things were a bit different. I purchased both versions as soon as they were available. For once in my Mac life I was one of the early adopters. I’d read horror stories about earlier versions and the perils of life on the “bleeding edge” of technology. I almost restrained myself but then decided I had a second system available so, even if things didn’t work out, I’d be able to keep right on working till I could resolve the problems. Any concerns I might have had were unfounded: just as it had numerous times before, the new OS was up and running flawlessly in no time. I’m probably going to want Lion as soon as it is released, but experience has taught me that, if necessary, I can wait.

If You’re Sure You Like the New, Why Keep the Old?

There are some obvious reasons for needing to keep an older copy of the operating system around. First and foremost, if you have an older Mac it may not run the newest OS. Even if you have the newest, fastest Mac on the market today, there is one inescapable truth: if you keep it long enough there will come a day when it won’t run the newest OS at all. That day has already come for the PowerPC Macs with the release of Snow Leopard. It will eventually come to the first generation of the Intel Macs if one waits long enough.

Other than aging hardware, one of the things that stops many users from immediate OS upgrades is problems with incompatible hardware or software. Whether it was produced by a major multi-million dollar company or a smaller shareware developer, there’s little incentive to upgrade if your favorite software doesn’t work with a new OS. That’s one of the benefits to using a little restraint: by the time you upgrade, someone else has figured out which hardware and software works properly.

Recently, I have encountered a slightly different problem with upgrading. Some of the things that I have built with Automator no longer work properly without some revision. I should have realized that was coming when I read this thread about iTunes 10. I realize that’s not really an OS issue, but it does show how minor changes to one piece of software can have unintended consequences. The iTunes problem didn’t bother me too much, though, since I have not had a lot of time to listen to it recently. There had to be another reason to get me thinking about the benefits of keeping an older OS around. It came in the form of another problem with Automator.

Recently I was perusing the Apple Discussion forums and ran into someone who wanted an easy way to send automated birthday greetings. Of course I sent him to my automated birthday greetings article. I haven’t run that set of applications in a while, but when I did I discovered that they no longer work properly. One of the Automator actions for Address Book no longer works the way it used to. If I am going to continue running those workflows, I’ll have to either redesign them or run them with an older version of Automator. For the time being, it’s faster to just run the older OS since I already have it installed on another Mac.

A Few Thoughts on Running an Older OS

If you are thinking of running an older version of Mac OS X, there are some things that you need to consider before you commit to such a project. It would be really annoying to get part way through this type of project only to discover that it won’t work. Hopefully these thoughts will get you started in the right direction:

Take some time to think and research before you do anything. Depending upon exactly what software is involved, it might be easier or more efficient to simply upgrade the software. In the case of my Automator projects, most of them were running without error or were fixed in a few minutes. As for the remainder, I’ll have to think a bit about whether they are useful enough to warrant running an older OS.

Think about the software that you intend to run under the older OS. Whether it is a major piece of third-party software or a series of Automator applications, find out what you need before you make any system changes or purchase any software.

Will the Mac you want to run the software on support an older version of the OS? Beware of this as a potential pitfall. As a general rule, a given Mac will not run a version of the OS that pre-dates the hardware. My Mac Pro, for example, will not run the retail version of Jaguar that I have gathering dust. If you are not sure about the minimum OS version for your target Mac, take a look at Mactracker. In addition to a wealth of other information, this database lists the minimum and maximum OS version for any given Mac.

Mactracker can tell you the maximum OS for any given Mac model, but it can’t tell you how well that version will run on the Mac you want to use. As a general rule, if the software you’ll be running will allow it, shoot for an OS version that is somewhere in the middle of the minimum and maximum range. Choosing the maximum OS that a machine can support may give you access to some nicer features that an older version but it tends to slow the system down a bit.

Now that you have an idea of which OS you would like to use, the question becomes, do you have a legitimate copy of the OS? If not, do your homework before purchasing a copy of the OS you want. While some earlier versions of OS X can be had rather cheaply, Leopard is sometimes advertised for more that it sold for new.

Make sure the discs that you already have, or want to buy, will work with your target hardware, Some OS discs are machine-specific for a given Mac model and will not work with other Macs even if the rest of the specs are the same. Mac Pro–specific discs won’t, for example, work with iMacs. Machine-specific discs usually have gray labels.

Beware of upgrade discs unless you have the previous version of an OS. Upgrade discs will not be of much use if you need to do a clean install of an older OS and don’t have the previous version as a starter.

Think about the amount of drive space that will be needed. When I first began writing these columns, I had three different OS versions spread over two different drives. One partition had whatever the current OS was at the time. The next partition was one minor revision behind the current version, and the second drive was one major revision behind. If I were doing this today, one partition would be 10.6.4, another partition would be 10.6.3, and the second drive would have 10.5.8.

The benefit of this arrangement was that in the event of a problem I could quickly boot to a working version of the OS. The cost was in drive space. Each OS needed space for the swap files that Mac OS X creates. There were some ideas for putting the swap files in one place, but those generally had mixed results at best. The other downside is that it isn’t possible to run two versions of Mac OS X simultaneously without using two different Macs.

Closing Thoughts

Now that I have regular access to more than one Mac, I no longer have three versions of OS X on the same machine. That doesn’t mean, though, that I have abandoned the practice of using multiple OS versions on the same machine. The MacBook Pro that serves as my primary machine runs the current OS. Since it is stable, that is the only version I have on that machine.

My Mac Pro media machine was kept one minor OS version behind until I was sure the current version was stable and worked well with my software. The media Mac also has a drive with Leopard installed, just in case I encounter a piece of software that is a must-have but hasn’t been updated for Snow Leopard.

That’s it for now. I hope you have found this helpful. It occurs to me, though, that this arrangement would really be useful if one didn’t have to reboot in order to switch versions of Mac OS X.

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