Beginners start here: Managing Large Updates II

Sean McNamara
11 September, 2008
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As computer bandwidth allowances are increasingly swamped by large program and operating system updates, users have to become more savvy about how they manage the update process. Those users with huge bandwidth caps and only one or two computers on their network can feel smug that they’re relatively unaffected by such concerns — for the rest of us, it’s time to update our update procedures.

First and foremost, get to know your updates. If you can spare the time, utilise sites such as MacFixit, MacRumors and VersionTracker/MacUpdate to keep an eye out on updates as they’re released (and problems which might be arising from them). The built-in Software Update program will also warn you when new updates are available. However, for anyone with more than one Mac on their network, I recommend using the Apple downloads web page to download updates directly as they become available. You can use the update names in Software Update to make sure you’re downloading the right files from the downloads site.

Once on a site like the Apple downloads page, there can be a dizzying array of updates, as seen in the accompanying screenshot showing five separate, but similarly-named, security updates. The sorts of clues you need to use to figure which update to download for your machine are the type of CPU your Mac has (PPC or Intel), which OS version you have (v10.4 Tiger or v10.5 Leopard) and the size of the update compared to what you see in Software Update.

You can find out what sort of processor you have from the About This Mac dialog available from the top of the Apple menu. Intel chips are clearly marked as such, PowerPC chips are indicated as G3, G4 or G5. That dialog box will also indicate which version of Mac OS X you’re running as well.

So, looking again at those five security updates, I can see a Leopard one which matches the size of the update presented in the Software Update program, so that’s the one I’d go for. If I were to look at the updates which had the Intel label, I’d see they’re for Mac OS X v10.4 and Mac OS X Server v10.4, which I don’t run on my machine.

On the info page found by clicking on the name of the update, I get information such as the System Requirements, which I always read before downloading an update to make sure I’ve got the right one — otherwise I might be downloading hundreds of megabytes I can’t use.

For non-Apple software, the software updates are usually available from a Downloads page under the Support section of the software publisher’s web site. These pages often look similar enough to each other, but all have their own little quirks.

For example, the Adobe web site lists the updates available, but, unlike the Apple downloads page, they don’t show the size of the update on that page, only in the page with info about the update. Adobe also has a popup menu at the top of the page which allows you to fine-tune which updates you want to see by program.

Microsoft’s downloads page highlights the most recent and most popular updates, and presents a menu of programs at the bottom to allow you to find older updates not on the most recent list.

You’ll often find that third party publishers only occasionally release combo updaters — for example, to update an original release copy of Office 2008 to the current version, you need to download three separate updates with sizes of 180MB, 153MB and 160MB.

Once again, the software update/check for update functionality built into most programs these days will allow you to figure out which updates you need to download. Usually, if you need to download many stepped updates vs a single combo update, these update features in the program will help you to see that by whether there are skipped version numbers or not.

iPhone special notes. Apple doesn’t have a downloads page where you can download different versions of the iPhone’s OS. It also doesn’t release combo or delta updates — each iPhone release is a full copy of the OS, just like sending out a clean install of Mac OS X each time that OS is updated.

The reason for this is that because iTunes has a built-in iPhone Restore functionality (and Apple wants to ensure that a Restore gets you back to a clean version of the iPhone OS) it has to have the whole OS to Restore rather than just parts of it.

What this means is that if you have any more than one iPhone connected to more than one Mac, these updates will be downloaded multiple times to your Macs. Currently running at around 250MB, and with three releases in two months, these updates can also add up quickly.

At the moment, the only way to download these updates manually is to rely on sites such as MacRumors or iPhoneAtlas to publish links directly to the update files available on the Apple servers. This requires a little more trust in those sites than is required when looking at Apple’s pages, as you are relying on them putting the real link in, and not a link to some third-party nefarious link. iPhoneAtlas is a CNET site, which is part of the CBS company, and MacRumors has been around for a very long time and has a very good reputation in the Macintosh community, so I have no problems trusting them — but it’s a judgement call each user needs to make.

Over time, these sorts of bandwidth considerations may become moot, and we might be able to go back to just letting our Macs download whichever updates they want whenever they want. However, the size of updates has been increasing along with bandwidth limits, so we haven’t reached a point yet where everyone can just relax on this issue. And, in a country like Australia where the spread of generous caps and fast broadband is spotty at best, it will be some time before many Australian Mac users enjoy the sorts of access we city-livers enjoy — so I think it’s worth the effort to download updates manually, to keep a cap on how much bandwidth they use up. If you can hook up with some friends to share these large updates, you’ll spread the load even further.

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