How to prep your Mac for OS X Mountain Lion

Mac OS X Mountain Lion

Once you’ve got your Mac prepped, make sure to check out our review of OS X Mountain Lion.

Apple is set to launch Mac OS X 10.8 “Mountain Lion” this week, adding a spate of new features to its desktop operating system—many of which are borrowed and adapted from its even more widely-used iOS mobile operating system. With Mountain Lion, Mac OS X is getting things like Game Center, Messages, Notification Center, one-step sharing to services like Twitter and Flickr, and (eventually) integrated Facebook support. Mountain Lion also picks up new security features to help keep things like the Flashback botnet from happening again, deepens integration with Apple’s iCloud services, and offers built-in dictation so users enter text into almost any app just by speaking.

Apple is also upping its upgrade game with Mountain Lion: it’ll be available as a download from the Mac App store for just $19.99 — pretty much the lowest price ever charged for a mainstream commercial desktop operating system.

But is there a catch? What do Mac users need to know before they upgrade to Mountain Lion?

Is your Mac compatibile?

MacBook Pro 17 2008

The first question, of course, is “Can my Mac run Mountain Lion?” The basic answer is that if you’re running Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion” or Mac OX 10.6 “Snow Leopard,” the answer is probably yes. If you’re running an older Mac with Mac OS 10.5 “Leopard” or Mac OS X 10.4 “Tiger,” the answer is maybe…and your path to Mountain Lion will probably be at bit complicated.

Here’s the deal. Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion requires a Mac with at least an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, an “advanced” graphics processor, and (since Mountain Lion is 64-bit through and through) a logic board that can support a 64-bit kernel. In practice, this means the following Macs support Mountain Lion:

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

This list omits some older MacBook Pros, iMacs, and Mac Pro models that can have compatible processors and run a 64-bit kernel. Although it has not been officially confirmed by Apple, the reason is widely believed to be that drivers for the graphics systems in those older set-ups are all 32-bit. Mountain Lion will not load 32-bit kernel extensions…even if they’re graphics drivers.

System Info (Mac OS X Lion)

Not sure which Mac model you have? If you’re running Lion, click the “More Info” button in “About this Mac,” available in the Apple menu: your model description appears right at the top of the “Overview” panel. The same command works in Snow Leopard and earlier, but you want the “Model Identifier” field, which will say something like “MacBookPro4,1.” (Treat the comma as a decimal point.) For Mac minis, MacBook Pros, and Mac Pros (and Xserves, just in case you have one) you need a machine that’s “3.1” or greater. For MacBook Airs, you want “2.1” or greater, for plain-old MacBooks you want “5.1” or greater, and for iMacs you want “7.1” or greater. If your number is lower than that…Mountain Lion not for you.

These hardware requirements are the most complicated Apple has had for an operating system in years.

What else do you need? Mountain Lion officially requires a minimum of 2 GB of RAM; though, we really can’t recommend trying to use Mountain Lion effectively on less than 4 GB of RAM. Similarly, Apple says you’ll need a minimum of 8 GB of free disk space to install Mountain Lion. We’d recommend having at least double that amount.

How to get Mountain Lion

Mac App Store

As with Mac OS X 10.7 before it, Apple isn’t making Mountain Lion available on DVD: customers will have to get it online from the Mac App Store. Although it will be priced at $19.99, it will be a mammoth download in the neighborhood of 4 GB. If you’ve got a comparatively low-bandwidth connection to the Internet, the download could take many, many hours: set aside some time, or (if your Mac’s portable) maybe relocate someplace with tons of bandwidth for the basic download.

So here’s another gotcha: users can only get to the App Store if they have Mac OS X 10.6.8 or newer, an Apple ID, and either App Store credit or payment information (like a credit card) on file. If you’re running any version of Mac OS X 10.6, you can upgrade to Mac OS X 10.6.8 for free using software update: again, the process might take a while, but when you’re done you’ll have access to the App Store.

If you’re running Mac OS X 10.5 or earlier (and have a compatible Mac—see above!) your official route to Mountain Lion is to buy a DVD copy of Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard (still available from Apple for $29.99), install that, then connect to the App Store and pay an additional $19.99 to install Mountain Lion. However, before you do that, you’ll want to make sure the software you need everyday can run on Mountain Lion — and get upgrades or find alternative solutions if it can’t make the transition.

By default, Mountain Lion installs in place over Mac OS 10.6.8 or 10.7 — you don’t need to boot from a separate drive or media to perform an installation. However, users can perform a clean install of Mountain Lion to an empty disk — that’s particularly handy if you want a totally fresh start, and the installer includes a File Transfer utility to move your existing media, documents, settings, and files from you current Mac OS X installation over to the Mountain Lion clean install. A clean install lets you run disk utility and other checks before you install Mountain Lion; however, it also erases the target disk — so don’t do it without complete backups!

Make a bootable backup before installing Mountain Lion!

Iomega Mac Companion Hard Drive - beauty shot - 08_2011

Before installing Mountain Lion, make a bootable duplicate of your existing Mac OS X system to a separate hard drive or partition. That way if anything goes wrong, you can always get your Mac back to its current state.

A bootable backup is not the same as the incremental backups offered by backup systems like Apple’s own Time Machine. A bootable backup basically copies everything on your existing Mac OS X boot volume to another device (we really recommend using a separate external hard drive for this). If push comes to shove, you can then boot your Mac using that external device, and copy your working system back to your Mac if anything goes wrong. It’s a snapshot backup, but it’s a fantastic safety net if anything goes wrong.

Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t provide a great way to create bootable backup disks. Your best best are the venerable SuperDuper ($28, but with a free clone-only mode) and Carbon Copy Cloner (30-day trial, now $30 leading up to Mountain Lion with licenses). Depending on your device, making a full copy of your boot drive may take some time (FireWire is faster than USB 2, USB 3 faster still, and Thunderbolt fastest of all) but there’s really no better safety net.

Once you’ve made a bootable backup, test it. Connect the drive, restart your Mac and hold down the Option key. The Mac will display a list of valid bootable volumes. Select your backup and make sure your Mac boots from its normally. A bootable backup isn’t much good to you if it doesn’t boot.

Check your software

Mac Office 2004

This is more of an issue if you’re upgrading from Mac OS X 10.6 or earlier, but before upgrading to Mountain Lion, you should check to see if your everyday software will work correctly with Mountain Lion. If you’re already using Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, you shouldn’t have many problems: although some applications will issue upgrades to take advantage of new Mountain Lion features or to work with Apple’s new sandbox security, for the most part Lion-friendly applications will work with Mountain Lion.

For Mac OS X 10.6 the situation isn’t so clear. Mac OS X 10.6 included Rosetta, an emulator that enabled Macs with Intel processors to run software originally built for Macs with PowerPC processors. Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard” was the last version of Mac OS X that could be installed on PowerPC Macs, but thanks to Rosetta, Intel-based Macs could run most software written for PowerPC machines. Rosetta was great: for the most part, the apps just ran like you’d expect: no muss, no fuss.

For better or (I would argue) worse, Apple ditched Rosetta in Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, meaning Macs running Lion can’t run PowerPC software at all. If you’re planning to upgrade from Mac OS X 10.6 or earlier, you should check your software to see if it can run on Intel processors.

    1. Launch System Profiler (click the Apple menu then hold down the Option key: “About this Mac” will change to “System Profiler” — you can also launch it from the Utilities folder in your Applications folder)
    2. Find and click the “Software” item in the list on the left side of the window

The program will churn for a few moments while it scours your disk for software, then present a list. It will find an astonishing number of applications. Key applications from Apple (Mail, iTunes, Safari, etc.) will all be updated with Mountain Lion, but you should look for other applications that you rely on, paying attention to the “Kind” column. If the entry says “Intel” or “Universal,” the app should run under Mountain Lion. If it says “PowerPC” or (gasp!) “Classic,” the software will not run under Mountain Lion. You will need to find an upgrade or replacement for that application.

You should evaluate the compatibility of your software before installing Mountain Lion. After all, once you upgrade, it’s too late: if you need to get something done immediately, but the app you need doesn’t work, you’re between a rock and a hard place. (You did make that bootable backup before you upgraded, right? Right?!)

Where do people most trip up with older Mac software?

Software Workaround
Microsoft Office 2004 Microsoft Office 2008 (no Visual Basic) or 2011 (with Visual Basic); other alternatives include Open Office and Apple’s own Pages and Numbers.
Quicken 2007 and earlier After a long wait, Intuit finally released a version of Quicken 2007 for Lion; they also offer Quicken Essentials. Neither offers feature parity with the Windows version of Quicken. Several other financial management programs are available for Mac OS X; whether any are appropriate or true Quicken replacements depends on users’ situations.
AppleWorks Check out Apple’s own Pages and Numbers for word processing and spreadsheet needs; OpenOffice and Microsoft Office are also available, although neither offers database or drawing tools. For databases, maybe look at FileMaker or Bento.
Adobe Photoshop CS2
or older
Adobe Photoshop CS3 was the first to support Intel Macs. Upgrades are available to Photoshop CS6; many folks can get by with Photoshop elements or apps like Pixelmator.
Utilities and games Check with developer to see if Intel/Mountain Lion versions are available. One particular gotcha is AppleScript scripts: many can simply be recompiled for Intel-based Macs using the Script Editor, but others rely on scripting extensions (OSAXen) that haven’t been updated to run on Intel Macs or Lion.

Do you use FileVault?

Mac OS X FileVault

Many Mac users (particularly MacBook users) use FileVault, a security feature that encrypts either a user’s data or a full disk so users’ data is secure in the event a device is lost or stolen. FileVault 1 that debuted with Mac OS X 10.3 Panther merely encrypted the contents of a user’s home folder. Mac OS X 10.7 Lion substantially improved this security option with FileVault 2, which encrypts the entire disk.

But here’s the thing: if you were using FileVault 1 under Snow Leopard or earlier, you could still be using it under Lion or Mountain Lion: Mac OS X would actually be running FileVault 2 on top of FileVault 1. If you’re upgrading from Snow Leopard or earlier, we recommend turning off FileVault right before you upgrade, then turning on the much-better FileVault 2 once the upgrade is complete.

Check your software and services

Finally, once you’ve checked all your software, made your bootable backup (you did do that, right? And tested it?), you should note some of your settings and credentials to make the upgrade process easier:

AppleID: Make sure you have your AppleID(s) and passwords handy, and give some thought to how (and if) you want to take advantage of iCloud services. You’ll need an AppleID to purchase Mountain Lion in the first place, but you’ll also need it for using any iCloud services — and Apple is increasingly putting iCloud at the center of both the Mac OS X and iOS universes. With Mountain Lion users still can’t merge AppleIDs — that’s a much larger issue that Apple will have to deal with — but users will need their credentials to authorize media and app purchases.

Social media credentials: Mountain Lion has integrated support for Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, and Vimeo: if you plan to use those services, get your credentials together so you can set up Mountain Lion to use them.

Sharing and firewall settings: When you upgrade to Mountain Lion, you may find that it turns off certain sharing and access features — we’re not sure why, but in our testing the reversions are always err on the side of being more secure rather than less secure. Open System Preferences and note your settings for things like screen sharing, file sharing, printer sharing, etc. You may need to turn those back on after installing Mountain Lion. Similarly, if you’ve made configuration changes to Mac OS X’s built-in firewall, make a note of them and make sure they’re still intact in Mountain Lion.

That’s It!

For most users — particularly folks running Mac OS X Lion — the process of upgrading to Mountain Lion should be pretty painless. (You did made that bootable backup, right?) The most complicated scenarios are for folks who skipped Lion and are now considering Mountain Lion. The good news is that a broad range of Apple’s recent Macs will support Mountain Lion just fine; the bad news is that it may be a little more complicated for those folks to get to Mountain Lion.

For folks running Mac OS X 10.5 or earlier, the simplest solution may actually be to buy a new Mac with Mountain Lion pre-installed — not coincidently, that’s exactly what Apple hopes some users will choose. That scenario might also be the best of both worlds: all your old software running exactly as you like, and a new, fast system will all the latest bells and whistles.

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