Beginners start here: Managing large updates

Sean McNamara
14 August, 2008
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An ongoing topic of discussion for Mac users is the ever-increasing size of updates, both for the Mac OS itself and for third party applications like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite. There are a few snares for the unwary directly related to updates’ sizes, however, which are worth considering to make updates as painless an experience as possible.

Depending on which version of Mac OS X v10.5 you are installing the 10.5.4 update over, you could be presented with an update of either 88MB or 561MB. If you’re updating Microsoft Office 2008 from its original release, you’ll need three updates to get to the current version, and their sizes total almost half a gigabyte, so Apple’s not the only culprit in this game.

These sorts of file sizes can cause problems for a variety of reasons. For example, not everyone has an unlimited download allowance (and some users’ allowances are quite small) meaning they can go over their monthly allowance with just one update. Even those with generous download allowances can still use a significant proportion of those allowances if there’s more than one Mac sharing the connection. With some ISPs charging for data over your allowance, and others slowing the connection to a (relative) crawl once over-allowance, this can have a serious impact on your internet experience or bank balance.

I quickly tallied the core Mac OS updates (just the ones which move through 10.5.x versions) and Office 2008 updates — since November 2007, there have been near to 2GB of updates, and that’s not counting all of the ancillary updates such as those for security, QuickTime, Java, iTunes (to name but a few) and each time those are updated, it can be many tens of megabytes.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do the updates — it’s good practice to keep your machine as up-to-date as possible to ensure you have all of the bug fixes and security patches. And troubleshooters like myself will recommend you download the larger “Combo” updaters for Mac OS X so that you can, if you have to re-install, update any version of the OS to whatever the latest version is in one go.

So, how can you manage and minimise the impact of these updates if you can’t eliminate the need to acquire them? There are several things you can do:

Turn off the automatic downloading of updates. Mac OS X will try and make the update experience for you easier by downloading “important” updates in the background, so that when it tells you it has updates to install, they’re already downloaded and the installation process is quicker. However, this means you don’t get to choose when the download happens, meaning you may inadvertently go over your download allowance for any given month. This is especially true if you have more than one Mac on your network.

If you do turn off automatic downloads, you’ll need to know where to download your updates from. Apple, Microsoft and Adobe all have web pages you can go to to find and download their updates.

Turning off the automatic downloading of updates isn’t the same as turning off automatic checking for updates, which you’ll still want your Mac to do so that you are informed when there are updates to look for.

Avoid multiple downloads. If you download an update once, there shouldn’t be a need to download it for other machines on your network — use file sharing, thumb drives, external HDs or CDs/DVDs to move and install updates on multiple machines. It doesn’t hurt to keep the major updates to avoid having to download them again in case of a reinstall (and, perhaps, to help with the next tip).

Lean on download-rich friends. If you have a friend who has a generous download allowance, co-ordinate with them to acquire updates through them, or start an “update pool” where, perhaps, the downloading of updates is rostered from month-to-month amongst many users to spread the load. If you’re a member of a user group, check in on their discussion boards to see if others have updates you need but which you may not be in a position to download.

Download towards the end of your billing cycle: If your internet access is slowed once you pass your allowance, you don’t want to pass your limit early in your billing cycle by downloading just one update. Get to know your billing cycle and ISPs usage page so that you can judge the best time to begin the download. You might consider starting the download towards the end of your billing cycle to minimise the impact of any slowdown which may ensue.

If you do decide to download your updates manually, you’ll need to get more in touch with the update web pages of your software suppliers and the different versions you might be downloading.

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