Mini-Tutorial: When software updates don't work (system cannot see or install updates)

Mini-Tutorial: When software updates don't work (system cannot see or install updates)

"Grayed-Out" Software Update menu item Generally, Software Update can be universally accessed via the Apple menu. In some cases however -- sometimes after a major system update -- the Software Update menu item appears in a grey shade indicating that it cannot be selected

The most consistent workaround for this issue has been clearing of system caches -- a task easily accomplished with a tool like Panther Cache Cleaner.

Unable to apply updates Some users are presented with a permissions error referring to the directory: "/tmp/501/TemporaryItems/com.apple.SoftwareUpdate." when attempting to check for new updates, install updates, or launch the Software Update application.

There are a number of causes for, and solutions to this issue.

Moved applications First, if you have moved any Apple applications from their original locations inside the "Applications" folder, Software Update may not be able to locate them. Make sure to leave Apple-installed applications where they are originally installed.

Permissions repairs Next, try using Apple's Disk Utility (located in Applications/Utilities) to repair permissions, then try running Software Update again. This works for a high percentage of afflicted systems. Failing this, try starting up from your Mac OS X CD/DVD and repairing permissions again.

Deleting Receipts In some cases, the issue can be resolved by deleting one or a handful of files inside the Mac OS X Library folder. Try deleting the "receipt(s)" that corresponds to the application or Mac OS X version you are attempting to install (i.e. iPhotoUpdate403.pkg or MacOSXUpdate10.3.8.pkg). The receipts are located in /Library/Receipts, and appear as .pkg files (these files tell Software Update whether or not a specific update has been installed).

Modifying permissions A somewhat more tedious process involves using the tool BatChmod to modify folder permissions for the "/tmp/501" directory implicated by the error message mentioned above. Use the Finder to search for names containing 501 or 502 (depending on your error message) with second criteria both visible and invisible then drag the enclosing invisible Temp folder on to the BatChmod icon and select the 'Apply Ownership and Privileges' then press apply 'Apply' button.

tar missing (Developer Tools uninstalled) In some cases, applications critical to Software update -- in particular tar and pax may be missing from your Mac OS X installation. In order to make sure that these applications to indeed reside on your startup drive, you may want to try an Archive and Install process, restoring these critical components that may have been otherwise damaged.

This problem can occur, for instance, if you previously installed XCode and then used the XCode Tools uninstaller. The uninstaller may mistakenly break the tar utility, causing Software Update to fail. Reinstalling the XCode Tools from the Panther CD can cause this issue.

Logical link broken In other cases, the logical link for the /tmp directory may be broken. Entering the following commands through the Terminal application (located in Applications/Utilities on a standard Mac OS X installation) usually resolves this problem (note that you will be asked for your administrator password):

  • sudo mv /tmp /tmp_old
  • sudo ln -s /private/tmp /tmp

WaitingFinally simply waiting and trying the update again at a later time has proved successful for a number of users.

Of course, if the update is available from Apple's software download page, you can obtain the appropriate installers via this route until you can solve the issue with Software Update.

Like what you've found in this tutorial? Get more troubleshooting guidance (updated daily) by subscribing to MacFixIt Pro.

Resources
  • Panther Cache Cleaner
  • BatChmod
  • software download page
  • subscribing to MacFixIt Pr...
  • More from Tutorials
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