Setting up a new Mac: the tenth transformation

Andy Ihnatko, Macworld
11 May, 2011
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I’ve had 10 PowerBooks and MacBooks, starting with the PowerBook 100 I bought way back in the 90s. Each has been named “Lilith”. And while Lilith might look different and behave differently, it’s always actually the same computer. Lilith just regenerates into a new form every few years.

I’m perfectly fine with the fact that only Doctor Who fans seem to innately understand and support the process. Doctor Who fans are cool.

That said, a MacBook doesn’t immediately become Lilith the moment I buy it. It’s actually a month-long process and until it’s complete, the machine holds the title of Lilith Presumptive until it’s ready to assume the full duties and responsibilities of The Mac I Work On From Four To Eighteen Hours A Day, Every Day.

Here’s my process for buying and setting up a new machine:

1) Before I leave the store, I open the box and make sure the computer is actually in there. Many of the big chain stores have an employee bonus-incentive scheme known as ‘replace a $2,000 item with a $7 ceramic floor tile of similar weight in the warehouse’. It’s not likely (especially if you buy at an Apple Store) but it’s one less thing to worry about when you get home.

2) When I get it home, I fire it up and check the display for blown pixels and light leaks. When you buy a $350 netbook you can forgive an LCD that’s less-than-prime. But a MacBook or an iMac should be perfect.

3) I make my formatting decisions for the internal drive. It might occur to you to partition your drive for dual-booting, or to apply FileVault encryption to the whole volume. Better to make those choices before you fill up the drive instead of after you’re all moved in.

4) I run Software Update to make sure my OS is completely up-to-date. It seems like a critical firmware update is always released sometime in the first few weeks or months after a new model comes out.

5) I run the hardware nonstop for a hundred hours. If there’s a defect in your machine, you can often force the failure to happen in days instead of months by stressing the hardware. I turn off all sleep modes and have it transcode a bunch of movies, to keep the gears grinding.

At this point, if I have a ‘keeper’, I start the process of making this machine ‘mine’.

6) I plan for loss and theft. I take it apart and inscribe my name and contact info to the inside of the case, on parts that can’t be swapped out. I add a secret mark or two to the outside case. I photograph all of this stuff. If the machine is stolen – and remember, if you lose it and someone finds it and fails to return it, then that person is a thief – and recovered, there’s a clear way for me to claim it even if the serial number has gone missing.

7) I personalise the outside case. I travel a lot and if I didn’t somehow make Lilith look different from all the millions of identical MacBooks that Apple made from 2008 to 2011, putting it on a conveyor belt with three or four other travellers’ notebooks at the airport would make me ungodly nervous. I’d be so on-edge that the security personnel would confer for a moment, wave me off to the side, and then swap their brisk patdown-type rubber gloves for something surgical-grade.

8) I install my fonts and my core apps and Dropbox, and copy Lilith’s System Keychain onto Lilith-Presumptive so that I have all of my passwords and certificates.

I could just clone my old MacBook’s drive onto the new one’s via a backup-and-restore, or the Migration Assistant. In hours, Lilith-Presumptive would have all of Lilith’s files and software.

But it’d also contain all of the cruft it’s accumulated over the past few years. All of the applications I played with for a few days and then never launched again; all of the system extensions for hardware that I haven’t used in more than a year.

No. Starting again from scratch is the only way to ensure a stable new Mac. I can name about a half a dozen applications that I know I can’t do without: Scrivener, Keynote, Pages, Aperture, OmniOutliner, and (oh, damn it all, yes) Skype. I install fresh, up-to-date copies.

There’s no discipline involved. If I need software, or if I miss a system enhancement, I install it. But after a month or so, I’ve trimmed my Applications folder down to just the software I actually use.

So what makes Lilith Lilith? It seems to be the difference between ‘a’ MacBook and ‘my’ MacBook. Lilith-Presumptive’s drive contains facts without knowledge; experiences without experience. But then I know it’s Time for Lillith to regenerate.

9) I copy my iTunes Library onto the new MacBook. I configure for good, and copy over an archive of the old Lilith’s mailboxes. The new machine is suddenly the one I sync my iPhone and iPad from, and the one that holds years’ worth of emails.

Finally, I copy over my Documents folder, at which point the Archbishop of Canterbury has lowered the Lilith Crown upon the new MacBook’s head. This folder is the genetic throughline that connects practically all 10 of my PowerBooks and MacBooks: at some point, this same folder has existed on every one of them, with almost completely the same content. Ten times now, I’ve copied it from the old Mac to the new one.

With this final hour or two of work, Lilith-Presumptive becomes Lilith: the One True MacBook that I stare at for the majority of my time on Earth.

What happens to the old Lilith? An elegant, grateful retirement. I can never give away or sell any of the old Liliths. They’re the most personal things I own. They also carry about two years’ worth of accumulated food crumbs and arm hairs. Eww.

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