How to prepare your Mac for OS X 10.11 ‘El Capitan’

YosemiteInstallerIconXApple’s OS X El Capitan is slated for release in fall, and with this season right around the corner, the OS will soon be available for those who wish to install it. While it is largely similar to OS X Yosemite, El Capitan does include a number of improvements that should enhance both your workflow and the overall snappiness of the OS. These alone may be good reasons to upgrade, but as with any upgrade or update, there is always a chance that something may go wrong when you install it, so it is good to take a few steps to help prevent this.

Check whether your Mac will run it 

Generally the first step is to ensure your Mac is capable of running a software update; however, this should be a pretty seamless concern for a couple of reasons. For one, the system requirements for El Capitan are the same as those for Yosemite, so if you have Yosemite installed, then you will only benefit from the enhancements offered by El Capitan. Secondly, when you purchase the upgrade (for free) from the App Store, the update should screen your system for compatibility and issue a warning if an incompatibility is detected.

Overall, the systems that will run El Capitan are the following:

  • iMac (Mid 2007 or newer)
  • MacBook Air (Late 2008 or newer)
  • MacBook (Late 2008 Aluminum, or Early 2009 or newer)
  • Mac mini (Early 2009 or newer)
  • MacBook Pro (Mid/Late 2007 or newer)
  • Mac Pro (Early 2008 or newer)
  • Xserve (Early 2009)

General preparation for OS X upgrades

If your system checks out, then now is the time to ensure your Mac is prepared for the upgrade. This primarily means to check your current software installations for compatibility, but also to check your system for any current problems, and address them as best you can.

First, be sure in the upcoming weeks that you use developer-provided updaters to regularly check for and install the latest updates for your various applications, especially if they are background tools like firewalls, system scanners, system tweaks and “haxies,” or other lower-level modifiers that require kernel extensions or other modifiers. Open your programs or associated utilities, and look in the menus or preference panes for any updating routines, and be sure you install the latest versions. To determine what is installed, check the menu bar for various menu extras, and open both your Applications folder and the Utilities folder on your system, display the contents in list view, and then scroll through them. If there are any programs you do not use, look into removing them, but otherwise spend some time searching each on the App Store or the Internet, and be sure every one is updated.

Little Snitch software update warning

Abide by software update warnings, and seek out updaters for all of your software, to ensure it is up to date for the most compatibility with the latest version of OS X.

Next, check your Mac for any errors before updating. In general, this means that if you are experiencing current problems, look into fixing them first. This can be anything from a general slow-down, to applications unexpectedly quitting. Granted sometimes installing an upgrade will overwrite problematic system files and fix problems, so its not necessarily a requirement to fix current issues, but do give it your best effort before installing an entire OS upgrade. Some of the fixes you can look into are the following:

  1. Free up hard drive space by clearing out items from your Downloads folder, or other locations where you might be storing files that are more temporary in nature.
  2. Use Disk Utility to check your boot drive for errors.
  3. Uninstall old or incompatible hardware.
  4. Consider scanning your system for malware using a reputable and light-weight malware scanner, such as Sophos home edition, or MalwareBytes’ Anti-Malware for Mac (formerly AdwareMedic).
  5. Reboot into Safe Mode (hold the Shift key at startup), and then reboot normally, as this basic step will run some basic maintenance routines.

Note that current problems do not extend to connectivity issues. If you cannot log into a remote server, access a specific Web site, or are continually dropped from your Wi-Fi network, then the problem may be external to your Mac. Resolving these may be helped by an upgrade–but then again, upgrading may also affect these services, so you do take a small gamble either way.

Back up your Mac

This step cannot be stressed enough. Having at least one current backup of your system is vital for far more than upgrading your Mac, and will be crucial for preserving your data if a problem arises after any change you make to your system:

Finder information window showing hard drive capacity

Check this area of the information window to view your boot drive’s capacity and usage.

  1. Go to the Finder and press Shift-Command-C.
  2. Select your boot drive (usually “Macintosh HD”), and press Command-i to get information on it.
  3. Check the size of the drive’s Capacity, and Used space.
  4. Get yourself an external hard drive that is at least as big as the Used space, but preferably at least the size of the capacity of your boot drive.
  5. Plug this drive into your Mac, and then go to the Time Machine system preferences and turn this service on.
  6. Choose the option to select a drive for Time Machine, and be sure your new drive is selected.
  7. Follow the on-screen instructions to format the drive and set it up for your backups.

If the drive cannot be selected, or is not detected by Time Machine, then you need to use Disk Utility to prepare it for use. Open this program, and then select your drive device in the sidebar. When you do this, a “Partition” tab will appear in Disk Utility. In this tab, select “1 Partition” from the drop-down menu, then click the Options button and ensure GUID is set as the partition scheme. Apply the changes to set up the drive, and then again try setting it up with Time Machine.

Wait for revision 2

Anytime new software is available, there will be inherent bugs that need to be ironed out. This simply the case with any software development, where any new features will bring incompatibility and instability, that are then progressively ironed out in a gradient over time. It is then up to you and the developer to determine the point at which the enough bugs have been squashed such that both the developer guarantees a certain level of functionality, and you accept a certain threshold potential for problems.

Various stages in this development gradient are labeled “Alpha” and “Beta,” but there is no true cutoff, and these stages are somewhat arbitrarily determined. Apple has helped its beta development by creating its Developer and Public beta seeding programs, which should help squash more bugs before final release, but even so bugs will still get through. Your best protection against these is to avoid the timeframe right after initial release, where the full public has had a chance to run the software. This means, wait for the second revision of the software (ie, version 10.11.1), before considering installing. Despite best efforts, there have been several instances of notable bugs making their way into initial releases of OS X, and its worth the time for these to be ironed out, before you go ahead with your upgrade.

Cannot wait? Install now!

Finally, if you cannot wait to install El Capitan, then sign up for the public beta program and install it right now. Again, the development cycle is a gradient, and Apple’s use of public beta programs has significantly helped it identify and kill off bugs. The current release of El Capitan is the seventh developer preview and fifth public beta preview, and the vast majority of known issues have been dealt with. Many beta testers are simply running the latest version with no real issues, so it may be mature enough to install.

Keep in mind that this advice is only for those who cannot wait, and have no mission-critical tasks for which they use their Macs. For everyone else (which includes you if you feel any sense of hesitation about upgrading), I highly recommend to wait for the second revision of the final release.

9 thoughts on “How to prepare your Mac for OS X 10.11 ‘El Capitan’

  1. MaX

    Does OS X 10.11 El Capitan is faster or slower than OS X 10.10.5 Yosemite on 2 GB RAM Macs with SSD like MacBook Air released by Apple on June 2009?

    Such machine was fast with Mac OS X 10.6.8, but became excruciatingly slow with Yosemite.

    1. B. Jefferson Le Blanc

      Back up your Yosemite system before upgrading, as Topher suggests. Then, if El Capitan doesn’t meet your expectations, you can easily revert the system. You should have done the same thing before upgrading to Yosemite, but that appears to be water under the bridge. No doubt you didn’t read, or didn’t heed, Topher’s advice about upgrading to Yosemite, which was essentially the same as his advice for El Capitan. In fact, these recommendations have not changed substantially in, well, pretty much forever.

      For an even more reliable path back, clone your boot drive with a good backup utility like Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper!. Then you can test your Yosemite system against El Capitan – though OS X 10.10.5 might be even slower, unless you use an external SSD for your clone.

      On the other hand, it what Topher and others have said about improved performance with OS X 10.11, it may be your way out of your problems with Yosemite. Since your MacBook Air cannot be upgraded, your only other option might be to reinstall an older version of OS X, though OS X 10.6.8 is not all that useful any more. Depending on how much you value your time, if El Capitan doesn’t restore your computer’s performance, it may be time to consider getting a new Mac – not, however, the new MacBook, which is severely limited in a number of ways. With that one you’d be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, buying a whole new set of problems.

  2. Jack

    I haven’t used Macbook 2009 but it has 1. Very slow Processor 2. Very little RAM (I wouldn’t dream of using EL Capitan without 4 GB, preferably 8 GB) 3. Very likely it won’t support METAL and 4. SSD is it’s only redeeming quality and I seriously doubt it will help much given the other hardware limitations.

    My advice is to go back to Snow Leopard, if that is not possible clean install of El Capitan might help somewhat.

    I have no idea why writer recommends only waiting to 10.11.1, there is no way I am going to install El Capitan until 10.11.3 or 10.11.4 because Yosemite was full of bugs when it was released and I am fairly certain Apple can’t iron out El Capitan bugs before its released.

    If you have time to waste by all means instal El Capitan when its released but don’t be surprised if you have problems!

  3. B. Jefferson Le Blanc

    Like Jack, I won’t be rushing to install El Capitan, except, perhaps, on a test partition. He’s right that Yosemite was a dog from day one. Even now I don’t know if everything’s been fixed. Personally, I’m satisfied with Mavericks for the time being; it has had none of the problems OS X 10.10.x suffered from, and Apple continues to support it.

    Still, there will be many people who learned nothing from the Yosemite disaster, whose faith in Apple remains undimmed; they will rush to upgrade to El Capitan, heedless as ever. I wish them luck. Of course, we will soon be hearing reports from some of these early adopters whose luck was not all they expected it to be. Many of these will not have learned from their own or other’s experience and will fail to take the recommended precautions. The number of these pie-eyed optimists never seem to decline.

    Those of us who are less precipitous by nature can sit back patiently (and smugly) and learn from their experiences, bad and good.

    The real question will be, did Apple learn anything from their troubles with Yosemite, or will they be pushing out El Capitan before it’s time as well?

  4. tech-52

    Well, if El Capitan becomes the Snow Leopard equivalent of Yosemite, then people may very well benefit immensely from installing it. I’ll simply clone my Yosemite installation first, then jump right in. I’ve used Macs in my home office for most of my adult life, and have generally been pretty happy with each successive OS release. I started using Carbon Copy Cloner about six or seven years ago, though, which adds a level of peace of mind about upgrades. If you’re a Mac user, and not using CCC, you are missing out on a critical tool, and one of the key benefits Mac OS X has over Windows.

  5. David Anders

    Snow Leopard was the fix for Leopard. Mountain Lion was the fix for Lion. El Capitan is supposed to be the fix for Yosemite. The first two of these fixes were very stable, very quickly.
    Well, Snow Leopard did take four or five updates.
    And, yeah, Mountain Lion wasn’t rock solid from the get go…

  6. msadesign

    I loves me some geekery. But:

    I will install El Capitan exactly as Apple instructs: downloading and running the installer right over the top of Yosemite. I will be joined by the tens of millions who, over the decades, have done exactly the same thing with none of the geeky-craziness suggested herein. Apple=Simple, and Simple=Good. You get the rest.

    I will rely on my Time Machine, as Apple instructs. I anticipate another completely flawless update.

    A few- an astonishingly small, barely visible but often hugely vocal few- will have some problems. They will whine. They will cry. They will thrash about, and they will beg the baby Jesus to come fix their computers which are now broken because Apple can’t write software. For them, a simple phone call or a visit to will clear it up with out confusing under-the-hood nonsense that computer users nowadays neither want nor need.

    The rest of us will go on with life.

    1. dtg1990


      I wish mine went smoothly. I had to use time machine to revert to my old software version because I could not get any of the users’ accounts connected to icloud, imessage, app store, etc. El Capitan wiped my ability to access anything that required any icloud account. I tried twice to just install over my current version (which is older than yosemite, but that shouldn’t make any difference if the install goes correctly).

      However, if I went to I could log in to any icloud account–even the one I created just for el capitan.

      Now performing a clean install and seeing if migration assistant works. Hopefully I can log into icloud after migration assistant finishes. I was able to before transfer of files. Now I wait.

  7. Greg McMahan

    I updated to 10.11.3. Uh oh…

    Now my computer is a total mess. It’s a 21.5in iMac (late 2013) with 8gb ram. Many of my extensions (in the menu bar) are missing, can’t open the System Preferences, opening the applications window in the finder takes 12 minutes (278 files) for the icons to appear, they’re all generic. Apps won’t open (error message “damaged or incomplete”). Since I can’t access the preference panes, I can’t restore from my 10.11.2 backup on the time machine HD.


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