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

Apple’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.

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:

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.

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