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How to prepare your Mac for Mountain Lion

Apple's next OS is due out in July, but when it comes time to upgrade will you be prepared?

In Apple's keynote address at the WWDC 2012 conference, developers received a "near final" developer preview of Apple's upcoming Mountain Lion OS to test their apps before the OS is released in July. As the release date for Mountain Lion draws nearer, Mac users have wondered what the requirements are for the upgrade and what they should do to prepare for it.

Apple has yet to release detailed specifications on the system requirements for Mountain Lion; however, specifications from its developer releases have suggested that most Intel-based Macs should be able to run the OS, provided they both contain 64-bit EFI firmware code and have ample graphics capabilities to support the graphics advancements in Mountain Lion. According to Apple's Web site, in order to run Mountain Lion your Mac must be one of the following models:

  • 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)

If your Mac meets these requirements, then the only other needed step before upgrading is to have at least Snow Leopard installed on your system. A number of people have wondered whether Apple will allow upgrading only from Lion or allow previous OS X versions to upgrade directly to Mountain Lion, and many have been preparing to purchase Lion in order to do this. Apple today answered this question by announcing that the OS will install over both Lion and Snow Leopard.

If you are still running OS X 10.5 "Leopard," because Apple is currently offering Snow Leopard as an upgrade, if your Mac meets the system requirements for Mountain Lion then you might consider upgrading to Snow Leopard so you will have access to the App Store and be able to install Mountain Lion.

As with past OS X upgrade announcements, current systems will not be shipped with the new software, but Apple will allow you to upgrade to the latest version for free when it is released. For others, Apple has been progressively reducing the price of its operating system software in order to make it very easy to upgrade. Starting with Snow Leopard, Apple offered the OS as a $29 purchase, but with Mountain Lion Apple is dropping the price even further to $19.

Most of Mountain Lion's features should work just fine on supported systems; however, as with prior OS versions that contained hardware-specific features, one enticing feature in Mountain Lion called "PowerNap" will not work on most current computers. PowerNap is a technology which, similar to the age-old Wake-on-LAN option for starting up systems via Ethernet triggers, allows the system to run in a very low power mode and yet be able to perform a number of background services such as backing up, installing updates, and syncing. This option prevents an immediate flurry of activity when waking from sleep, which can sometimes cause hangs and other odd hurdles.

As was seen with AirDrop and even with Wake-on-LAN, PowerNap requires specific hardware capabilities to work, and unfortunately these capabilities are only present on the second-generation MacBook Air and the new Retina Display MacBook Pro. This restriction does not mean current systems will have trouble running Mountain Lion, but simply that these features will not be available, even for those who have purchased some of the latest Mac models.

If you have decided you would like upgrade to Mountain Lion when it is released, installing and upgrading to it should be a breeze, but some options you might consider before upgrading are the following:

  1. Back up
    Backing up before applying any software update or upgrade is always recommended, and given the ease of doing so with the availability of Time Machine and system cloning tools, there is almost no reason to not have a good backup routine going. If you use Time Machine or another regularly scheduled backup tool, then you should be good to go. If you do not regularly back up, then be sure to attach your backup drive and run your backup routine before installing Mountain Lion.
  2. Check for current problems
    Current problems with your system can sometimes transfer odd behaviors to the new OS installation. It might be best to first tackle these, especially if you can't use aspects of your system such as not being able to authenticate yourself as an administrator, or if you are experiencing persistent crashes. For more minor issues such as slowdowns, you can run a basic maintenance routine by booting into Safe Mode (hold Shift at startup), and then using Disk Utility to check the hard drive for errors and fix permissions on the boot drive.
  3. Wait a few weeks
    Whenever a new OS is released, there is a lot of hype around it and people jump on board as soon as they can; however, it is not necessary to do this. Often it is beneficial to wait a short while and see if any outstanding bugs are being experienced by users. Generally, Apple releases a quick update or two following a major OS release, which address some known bugs that either could not be fixed before the final release or which only became known after the release.
  4. Prepare to back up the installer
    Starting with OS X Lion, Apple is no longer releasing the OS on DVD media. While the installation process through the App Store will download all the needed files in a disk image, it will remove these files after the OS is installed. While the OS will still be available through the App Store if needed, it may be useful to back up the OS X installer before performing the upgrade, which can be done either by copying the installer to another drive or by accessing the embedded disk image and burning it to DVD or restoring it to a secondary USB or FireWire drive. The instructions for doing this should be the same as that for OS X Lion.

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