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The Disaster-Free Upgrade to Mac OS X

by Derrick Story

This is a note to you, the PowerBook and iBook owner who is contemplating an upgrade to Mac OS X but hasn't taken the leap yet. The point of the letter isn't to convince you to upgrade; it's to show you how to do so without dropping a stitch or sending your computing life into personal hell. In fact, if you follow my procedure, you'll have the best of both OS worlds.

Why focus on laptops? Well, as good as Mac OS X is on a desktop Mac, it's even better on a PowerBook or iBook. As you'll see in my "Wows!" list later in the article, at this point Mac OS X has more advantages for computing on the go -- especially in wireless environments.

Are you tempted? Then read on ...

I know you need your laptop. It's not a toy; it's a tool (at least that's what you tell your spouse every time you buy a new one). So you can't afford to go off and have some wild OS fling just for the fun of it. If you're going to upgrade, then it has to work.

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Fair enough, that's the way I feel too. But if you want to upgrade with complete confidence, it's going to cost you. Here's what I recommend you need:

  • An AirPort-enabled laptop. Computers without an AirPort slot don't count because you'll need drivers for third-party cards that are hard to find or that don't exist.
  • An external USB or FireWire drive to back up the current contents of your Mac. If you simply don't have one, or can't borrow one, then the painful alternative is to burn CDs -- but in my case, that would have meant I needed to burn 20 CDRs to completely back up my PowerBook. No thanks.
  • More RAM. I recommend at least 192 MB of RAM -- more if you can afford it.
  • A 10-GB internal hard drive (minimum); 20-GB hard drive (recommended).
  • Upgrades to Mac OS X and QuickTime 5.0
  • AirPort Base Station, or Mac running AirPort Software Base Station.

Bottom line, you're going to have to spend some money to upgrade. I spent $130 for the software and $170 for a new 20-GB IBM hard drive for my PowerBook. My original drive was only 6 GB, and that wasn't going to cut it for this failsafe system of upgrading.

This leads to my only real reason why a laptop owner shouldn't upgrade right now to Mac OS X: money. If it isn't in your budget (and I know all about that one being a writer for a living), then wait. Because the honest truth is, to set-up a disaster-free upgrade, it's going to cost you a few dollars.

Game plan for the disaster-free upgrade

If you've made it this far in the article and are still interested in upgrading, then you're in for a real treat. Because upgrading to Mac OS X has been one of my most satisfying projects in a long time. Here are the basic steps we're going to follow:

  • Back-up the entire contents of your existing laptop hard-drive on to an external drive.
  • Wipe your internal notebook drive and partition it into two partitions.
  • Install Mac OS X on one partition, and copy the entire contents of your existing drive on the other partition.

The end result is you'll have two drives appear on your Mac OS X desktop. One is the exhilarating new operating system with all its bells and whistles, and the other is your previous drive that has everything you need for day-to-day life. You can choose which drive to boot from at any time.

When you boot from your OS 9.1 drive, your computer will appear exactly the way it did before the upgrade. The only thing that will change is that it will run better because the new drivers seem to enhance performance.

Related Articles:

The Disaster-Free Upgrade to Mac OS X -- Part 2

Mac OS X: Another View

Getting Your Feet Wet With Aqua

Digging Deeper into Mac OS X


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Then, when you want to have fun (which is about 90 percent of the time for me), simply boot from the Mac OS X drive. By the way, fun doesn't mean lack of productivity.

I'm writing this article in BBEdit 6.1 on my PowerBook, running Mac OS X 10.0.3 connected to the Internet via AirPort with music playing from iTunes. In fact, Apple has provided me with the following Mac OS X applications free in my iDisk software folder (as they do every iDisk owner): iTunes, iMovie, AIM, BBEDit, Fetch, GraphicConverter, Adobe Acrobat, REALBasic, and StoneStudio. This is in addition to the already included IE5, e-mail, QuickTime (non-pro version), Chess, and a handful of utilities.

Last night, running Mac OS X, I effortlessly checked my e-mail, browsed the Web, chatted online with friends, wrote an article, and uploaded it to a web site. Fun doesn't mean wasting time ... (remember the "tools not toys" argument I mentioned earlier?).

OS X "wows!" and "bow-wows!"

Before going any further, I want to take a moment and share with you five of my Mac OS X "Wows!" and five "Bow-Wows!" so you'll have some idea of what you're getting into.

Mac OS X wows!

  1. Instant awake from sleep on PowerBooks and iBooks. Seems like a small thing, but gosh I love it, especially at work.
  2. iTunes -- this is the coolest application. On my AirPort-connected PowerBook, I have access to dozens of radio stations from A to Z, not to mention my own MP3 collection. I can listen to any type of music anytime I want just about anywhere.
  3. Integrated iDisk -- it is now part of your system, and I access my iDisk at least a couple times a day. What's really fun now is that Apple places goodies in there for me to use with Mac OS X.
  4. PDF files from web pages -- I can now save any web page as a PDF file complete with graphics. I can e-mail it to folks on other platforms, post them on my web site (with permission of course!), or save them as archives. It's really easy.
  5. Internet connectivity -- I use AirPort for 90 percent of my connectivity, so I've set AirPort as my first choice with dial-up and Ethernet following. Now, when I awaken my PowerBook in a new location, it automatically finds the AirPort connection. Real handy.

Mac OS X bow-wows!

  1. I still can't find things! For example: Where's the ScrapBook?!
  2. Some applications run slower. I can already tell that I much prefer Cocoa apps to Carbonized ones.
  3. It's expensive to upgrade the right way. After buying the OS itself, there's another $30 for QT pro, more RAM, and bigger drives. Ouch!
  4. I'm having a hard time getting my OS X Mac to communicate with my OS 9.1 Macs. The Internet connection is great, but computer-to-computer connection still requires too much fooling around.

What's next?

So, after reading these pros and cons, if you've decided you're ready to make the leap, here's what to do. Figure out the equipment that you need to buy, beg, or borrow, and wrestle with your budget. Place your upgrade orders, and while you're waiting for things to arrive (if you don't have an Apple store in your neighborhood, that is), get out your calendar and set aside some time to work on this project.

Then stop back by the Mac DevCenter for part two of this article where I provide step-by-step instructions for disaster-free upgrading. It's really easy -- I promise.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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