It was the worst of times, it was the best of times

The following is an account of my experiences upgrading my Powerbook to the new “Tiger” version of Mac OS X – a long spiel which is probably of very little interest to anybody not likely to be doing the same thing… and probably not of much interest to them!

This turned out to be a very long post and only suitable for those with great stamina, so I’ve moved it into the Comments. Summary for the rest of you: Buy an external firewire drive if you don’t have one, do a complete bootable backup onto it before starting. Then reboot with a system CD and use Disk Utility to verify/repair your disk. Then do the install. Then reboot with the Tiger DVD and ‘Repair permissions’. That’s my recommendation, anyway, and you can read the rest if you want to know the reasoning.


On the first machine I tried – my development and experimentation machine – everything went flawlessly and I’m typing this on it while waiting for other installs. Frankly, on this machine, there was nothing that I would have been upset about losing anyway, and it has been running various developer preview versions of Tiger in the past.

Then came my main Powerbook – the one on which much of my life, business etc is stored. Now, in terms of rashness, I’m somewhat middling. I’m not the kind of person who waits for more than a day or two after a brand new operating system is released before installing it. On the other hand, neither am I the sort of person who does this without a backup. In my case, that proved to be a good thing!

I wasn’t sure whether to do an upgrade or a clean install followed by copying all my data and apps back. The latter is much more time-consuming, but it can also be very satisfying. It’s a bit like moving house; it can be a good way to work out which possessions you really want in your life and which you just never got around to throwing out. On Windows, in my past experience, it was a necessity to reinstall the operating system from time to time to keep things moving smoothly even if no new version had been released! On the Mac I tend to do it occasionally, but only when I’m upgrading the OS anyway.

I decided to start with the option that does a new install, archives your old system and then transfers your old user accounts across. I would come back for a clean install if I had any problems. The process begins by checking the contents of your installation DVD and then checking the state of your hard disk. After the hard disk check, it stopped and said it couldn’t install – there was a problem, though it didn’t elaborate, but I might like to try installing again. I rebooted and did so, this time choosing the upgrade option, in case the problem had been a lack of disk space.

This was where things started to go wrong. The install died with a kernel panic part-way through. This normally only happens on Macs when there’s a hardware problem, but can be caused by other things. Clearly my disk was not at all happy. Unfortunately, it had died after replacing a fair chunk of the OS, which meant that the system wouldn’t boot any more. I ran the disk utility that’s on the install DVD, and it was unable to repair the disk. Mmm. Time to make use of the backup I did last night.

A quick aside on my backup system. I use the excellent ‘SuperDuper‘ utility to create a bootable clone of my laptop hard drive on an external firewire hard disk. The only downside about this type of backup as compared to tapes etc is that you have no history; you can get back to the last backup, but not to any state before that, so if something went wrong and you cloned it, you’re in trouble. My solution to this, other than occasionally sticking bits of important stuff on DVD, is to use two external drives. One of them holds a clone of my system made in the last week or two, and the other dates from a week or two before that. I simply alternate between them when making clones. A single 160G external firewire drive costs around 70UKP now and will store two complete copies of your laptop drive. I promise you, it’s money well spent!

Anyway, I held down the option key while my Mac was rebooting and it gave me the choice of using either of the two firewire drives, so I chose the current backup and in a few moments was looking at my normal environment again – everything running perfectly, just from a different disk. Trust me, when you have been told about catastrophic disk failure, and then can get your whole world back with a quick reboot, you will bless the day you bought those drives!

I could then run DiskWarrior, and try to repair my internal drive. It found lots of things wrong, and offered to repair them, but even it had problems, and when DiskWarrior can’t fix a drive, it’s time to reformat it. So I resigned myself to an afternoon of ‘housekeeping’, deleted the partition and reformatted, then rebooted from the Tiger DVD and did an install, all of which went smoothly this time.

But this was where I was in for a pleasant surprise. As part of the install, Tiger has the facility to copy your settings over from another machine using the firewire connection, making it very easy to move to a new Mac. What I didn’t know was that I could do the same from another partition or drive, and I still had my Firewire drives plugged in, so it gave me the option of copying my home directories, user settings, applications and network configuration from the backup drive I had just been using! This took a couple of hours, because it involved copying 55GB which was being indexed by Spotlight on the way over, but, sure enough, not long afterwards, there was my login window with the accounts appropriately restored.

I did have some teething troubles. iCal refused to start, which turned out to be because a long time ago I had installed BurnoutMenu. I thought I had uninstalled it, but some rogue plugins were still hanging around. It’s a lot easier to find bits of applications if you’ve got Spotlight to help you search!

The Mail compose window wouldn’t open until I installed the latest Xcode – I guess my old Xcode had left some Frameworks lying around that were confusing things. And there are some other apps still with minor issues.

Mmm. Not the best OS install so far, which is a pity, because it’s well worth doing for the new features. But I don’t blame the disk problems on the installer; I think they were there beforehand.
Anyway – I’m getting there… I probably should have just done a clean install and copied stuff by hand after all!

Just a big thank-you from Southern Japan. Your initial experiences armed me with caution. I am now the proud driver of Tiger on my Powerbook – thanks to an external FW drive clone (superduped!) that saved my bacon. An uncannily similar experience to yours, despite extra precautions. In my case, thanks to your post, forewarned was forearmed! Cheers!

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© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser