When Should You Install Major macOS or iOS Updates?

When Apple releases a major update to the Mac operating system, called macOS, or the operating system used on iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches, called iOS, clients often ask me when or if they should install these updates.

Before, I get to my specific recommendations about installing major updates, I want to emphasis two points.

Major updates typically introduce change. Apple will redesign how things look, they will add or remove features. So, please only install major updates when you have time to go through the learning curve and adjust to the changes.

A major update is different than a minor update. Major updates are typically changes in whole numbers, while minor updates are typically changes in either the first or second decimal place. For example, upgrading your iPhone’s operating system from iOS 7.2 to 8.0 is a major change because their is a change in the whole number, from 7 to 8. Upgrading your iPad’s operating system from 7.2 to either 7.2.1 or 7.3 would both be examples of minor updates since the only changes are in the first or second decimal place. To add a bit more detail, the change from 7.2 to 7.3 would be bigger than the change from 7.2 to 7.2.1. These minor updates typically do not make things look different or add new features. Instead, they typically fix bugs, improve performance  and/or improve security. Thus, most of the time, I recommend installing minor updates soon after they are released, but taking time to think about and plan for a major update.

Apple has broken this rule about whole number updates being major updates. In 1999 they introduced an operating system named OS X. The X is a Roman numeral so it’s pronounced Oh S Ten. Confusingly, they really named it “OS X version 10.0 Cheetah.” That’s a mouthful, isn’t it. Each subsequent major update of the operating system received a new number and a new moniker, but the numeral increases were not whole numbers. For example, the first major update was named “OS X version 10.1 Puma.” Thus, Puma was the first major update. This major update’s version number only changed from 10.0 to 10.1. Thus, for the Mac operating system either a change in the first decimal place or a name change signifies a major update. To advance several years, in 2013, Apple released “OS X version 10.9 Mavericks”. [Update: November 2016 – To add to the confusing names of their operating systems Apple decided to change the name from OS X to macOS. Thus, the current version of the Mac operating system is called “macOS version 10.12 Sierra”. This is the twelfth major update since OS X 10.0 Puma.]


While specific recommendations vary on a case-by-case basis, here are my general recommendations about installing major operating system updates for Macs, iPhones and iPads.

1. Remember the adage, If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

If your Mac or iPhone or iPad is working well, why take the risk of messing things up by updating the device’s operating system? Maybe you could skip this update for a while. I want to emphasize that it is typically only prudent to skip a major update for a while. My brief recommendation is that your Mac should, at most only be one or two major versions behind the current version.

2. Don’t install major updates immediately after it’s released. It’s not worth the risk.

Instead, wait about a month until Apple has released a couple of minor updates to the major update. These minor updates typically fix the most egregious bugs that were discovered by some of the people who immediately installed the major update.

For example, in the fall of 2013, Apple released iOS 7 on September 18th. The next day they released iOS 7.0.1. About a week later, on September 26th, they released iOS 7.0.2. Then, a month after the initial release, on October 22nd, they released iOS 7.0.3. By waiting a month, you could get iOS 7 after 3 rounds of updates had been released, which addressed many of the problems that had been discovered early on.

3. Research compatibility.

Before you upgrade your Mac’s operating system, for example, build a list of the applications that are essential to you. Add to this list all of your peripherals like your scanner and printers. Then research these products to make sure that they will work with the new version of macOS. I use Roaring Apps’ web site as a starting place to determine if an application will work with a new version of macOS. When I don’t find the answer at the Roaring Apps web site then I’ll do a search for something like “Is Photoshop CS 6 compatible with macOS Sierra?”. I use Apple’s printer and scanner compatibility information web page which lists many printers and scanners.

4. Make sure you have a full backup that you have tested.

For most users, I recommend having redundant, automated backup systems in place. The primary backup would be a full backup of their Mac, performed by Time Machine, stored on an external hard drive. This is often supplemented by either a second Time Machine backup stored on a second, separate hard drive or an online backup of user data performed by CrashPlan. Before you install an update to your Mac’s operating system, please make sure you perform a Time Machine backup and that you have reviewed that backup to make sure you see that everything on your Mac has been backed up. Before you upgrade your iPhone or iPad, please connect it to your Mac and manually back it up to your Mac. Then, make sure you back up your Mac, using Time Machine, to an external drive so you have a safe copy of this backup. This way, if you don’t like the update or it has a problem you could downgrade your Mac or iPhone. Downgrading is not a quick or easy process, but it can be done.

I hope you find these recommendations helpful and prudent, and that they help you to enjoy your experience on the leading edge of technology without getting hurt by the bleeding edge.

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