By Tim Brookes
You’re probably aware of the problems that outdated software can pose. But how do you know your machine is completely up to date? There’s no one-size-fits-all maintenance solution, so let’s understand how updates for your Mac and its software work.
For example, you don’t have to use the Mac App Store to install operating system updates. Apple’s desktop storefront only goes so far when it comes to updating the rest of your system too.
It’s also possible that there are times when delaying an update makes good sense. Let us fill you in on the details.
macOS Software Updates
Periodic operating system updates often include some of the most important changes, and as such they should be applied as soon as possible. Apple frequently patches security holes that can leave your Mac vulnerable to attack. At the same time it improves general system stability and sometimes add’s new features.
Update via Mac App Store
Apple’s own updates will always appear above everything else. They’re often grouped together, and you can click on More to see each pending update or choose to install them individually. Click on Install, after which the update will be downloaded and applied.
Download Updates Manually
Sometimes Apple rolls out updates slowly, so the latest version may not show up in the Mac App Store. Maybe you really don’t like the Mac App Store, or you want to update a number of machines using a single downloadable file. This is where Apple’s regular downloadable patches are handy.
These take the form of regular updates and combo updates. Regular updates include only the most recent changes, whereas combo updates include all changes for the current major version of macOS. As an example, if you haven’t updated your Mac for a while and would like to update from 10.12.0 to 10.12.4, you’ll need the combo update.
If you keep things updated and are only moving from 10.12.3 to 10.12.4, you can get away with the regular update. To find out which version of macOS you are using, click on the Apple logo in the corner of your screen, then select About This Mac.
Major macOS Version Upgrades
Apple is committed to a yearly software update cycle, which means a new major revision of macOS is released every year (usually in October). These major updates are referred to as upgrades, and they’re completely free to download. Each new upgrade has its own name and version number: macOS Sierra is 10.12, the next version will be 10.13.
Upgrades are released via the Mac App Store also, and will likely appear in the Updates tab at the top of the screen when a new version is available. You will also find links on the Featured tab, check out the screenshot below. You can click Download to grab the latest update from the store.
Important: Major operating system upgrades can take a while to complete, so make sure you’re connected to a power outlet if you’re on a MacBook. You should also have a recent Time Machine or other backup, because things can go very wrong.
Delaying Major Upgrades
There are valid reasons for delaying major upgrades, and provided you have the latest security updates installed for your current version of macOS then you’ll only be missing out on new features. The main reason to delay an upgrade is due to software compatibility.
If you’re using a piece of software that you simply can’t live without, make sure it works with the next version of macOS before you install. We recommend checking with the developer, or testing on a spare Mac if you have one. Every year Apple rolls out a major upgrade, and every year apps stop working till developers can patch them. Be smart and think ahead.
macOS Public Beta Program
Apple’s modern public beta program has been running for a few years now, allowing users to test software before it’s ready for mass-consumption. You can opt-in to the program on Apple’s Beta Software Program website: sign in with your Apple ID, download the public beta access utility to enroll your Mac, then check the Updates tab of the Mac App Store.
Apple’s public betas are far more stable than the early versions they seed to developers, but beta software is still unfinished. As such you might want to avoid using beta software on a Mac you depend on for work, study, or other important daily tasks.
If you’ve enrolled in the program and decide you’ve had enough, head to System Preferences > App Store and click Change next to “Your computer is set to receive beta updates” to opt-out.
Regular Software Updates
In addition to system files, regular software needs to be kept up to date as well. For software installed via the Mac App Store, you can simply launch the store, and click on Updates. By default automatic updates are off, so you’ll need to update manually via this method.
If you installed software from anywhere other than the Mac App Store, you’ll need to update the software by launching it and checking for available updates. This option can usually be found by clicking on the application’s name at the top of the screen, then selecting Check for Updates.
Most apps will tell you when there’s an update available, and many will install new versions automatically — like Google’s Chrome browser. Some older software may even require that you manually download the latest version. You should avoid third party apps that promise to update other software for you, as this is a front commonly used to install malware.
Turn On Automatic Updates
The Mac App Store can be used to keep your software up to date. That includes regular third party applications and operating system updates too. You can turn this on under System Preferences > App Store.
Important: If you don’t regularly run a Time Machine or other backup, it could be risky to automatically install operating system updates. If something goes wrong, you might wake up to a black screen and unresponsive Mac. You might even need to reinstall the operating system via the recovery partition, and you’ll lose anything you haven’t backed up.
Malware Hidden in Updates?
In March 2016, Mac torrent client Transmission became infected with malware, or ransomware to be precise. The app was hit again with yet more malware in August of the same year. The primary method for spreading the included malware was by including it in a software update.
The main problem is that there’s no way of knowing if the app you’re about to update has been compromised until it’s too late. It’s a rare occurrence, and it’s even rarer for it to happen twice, but it’s never impossible. This is another great reason to back up your system regularly.
Mac App Store updates are scrutinized by Apple themselves. So these shouldn’t pose too much of a threat. Software downloaded from the store is sandboxed too, a measure put in place to protect your system from unwanted changes.
Have you got any questions about updating your Mac?
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