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Snow Leopard: Clean Install vs. Upgrade


“Install me fresh!,” says the OS X DVD

I recently grabbed OS X 10.6 to install on my Apple MacBook Pro, which is a few years old now. My laptop started out with Tiger (10.4), was upgraded to Leopard (10.5) and then I just upgraded it again to Snow Leopard (10.6). The upgrade went well, but there were some things that just felt a little broken. Connections to my Time Capsule were slow, the time to put the computer to sleep was long, blue tooth devices wouldn’t power down, and certain operations just seemed slower than I expected. I thought maybe I should do a fresh/clean install, so I went to the online forums for guidance.

I found tons of people advising others that an upgrade was sufficient and that a fresh install was overkill. Well, to those people I say this: you’re wrong.

I guess I should put some context around my claim. I think the real delineation is, do you actually use your computer or is it a glorified facebook checking machine? If the latter, sure, just upgrade. But if you’re like me you’re constantly doing something to your computer. Tweaking paths, installing package managers, aliasing commands, compiling things to /usr/local, symbolically linking files to avoid other issues, etc., … all of these things leave “artifacts” or whatever you want to call them. Over time, an upgrade just can’t account for all of the stuff you’ve done.

My recommendation is to clean install doing something like this:

  1. Create a Time Machine backup
  2. Optional: If you have tons of media, like music, movies, etc., I recommend you just copy those somewhere manually. Restoring them manually is very fast. If time isn’t a concern, then never mind and just use Time Machine for everything.
  3. Format your computer’s hard drive
  4. Clean install
  5. Connect to Time Machine and pull over any stuff you still want

My computer is way faster now with a fresh install. All of the oddities I had noted are gone. I also found that I only re-installed about 75% of the applications I had installed previously, which makes for a smaller footprint. Overall the only reasons I can think of why you wouldn’t want to do a fresh install would be if you make really light use of your computer, or if you simply don’t know how to go through the process of doing the install without losing valuable data. If neither of those are true then I would say it’s worth the one-time effort to get a clean system that no longer has months of junk scattered throughout the file system.

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This seems to be obvious to a windows user….so are the lines between the 2 operating systems becoming blurred? :) Ha bu na da!

I think one also has to weigh the possibility of some kind of disaster occuring doing a backup-wipe-clean install vs just an upgrade install. It’s non-zero and that’s enough for most people.

I just retired after 20+ years at Apple working on the OS X kernel and I do the upgrades both ways but I don’t have a strong feeling for one over the other. I usually just upgrade install, especially since drives are huge these days and I’m not often tight on disk space.

0 Votes  - +
Clean install by Anonymous

Hi, I have done both an upgrade from L to S/L and a clean install and I have observed a huge speed up. I like mark use my MBP 3,1 for development and as a result have installed, uninstalled and re installed many components and my machine was noticeably slower, even compared to my sons macbook.

I only wish i had taken some metrics before and after to compare.

Anyhow, go the clean install if you use your mac extensively is my opinion.

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Clean install by Anonymous

After I caught a nasty worm, I installed an anti virus software that cleaned my disc, but my PC’s performance and speed have visibly decreased. After using Clean Install my computer works just like before the incident. Thanks a lot for the help and explanations

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