Upgrade Macbook Air from 10.6.8 to El Capitan, or is that a mistake?
February 14, 2016 3:48 PM   Subscribe

I have a Macbook Air that is happily chugging along on OS 10.6.8 (Snow Leopard). Obviously, I haven't upgraded the OS in, well, ever, which hasn't really been a problem. However, lately, I'm starting to get little issues here and there, where I can't use a particular app or software because my OS doesn't meet the minimum requirements, etc. My biggest concern about upgrading is whether my computer has enough oomph to handle the newer, bigger OS or if it will just get bogged down.

My setup (Macbook Air 13", late 2010 edition) meets the minimum requirements for El Capitan, but just barely. The year/model is right, I've got 2GB of memory, and, while I don't have enough storage space right now, I can make that happen. (I only have ~6GB free out of 120 GB, which makes *no* sense to me, except for the fact that I suspect I've misunderstood iPhoto and as a result have 2 copies of thousands of photos on my HD. But getting to the heart of my storage space problem is a question for another day...)

I'm mostly worried about that 2GB of memory. It's an Air, so upgrading the memory is not an option. 2GB technically meets the requirements, but I've seen some commentary online that suggests 4GB is better.

Anyone out there running El Capitan with a similar setup? Any suggestions, recommendations or warnings?

FWIW, I also have an iPad Mini 2, which I just upgraded to iOS 9. I don't sync it much with my computer, but I've also just gotten a new full-time job after a long time just occasionally consulting, so I'm conscious of the fact that I'm going to be relying on both the iPad and the Mac a lot more now, and performance is about to matter a lot more, too. I'm generally of the "If it ain't broke don't fix it" school of thought, but I don't know how to balance having a well-running machine that isn't up to date against having an up-to-date machine that runs slow or has other problems.
posted by leticia to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdotally, 2GB isn't going to be enough.
posted by humboldt32 at 3:51 PM on February 14, 2016 [9 favorites]

Yeah, 2 gig isn't going to be a happy experience. It will work, sort of, but it will be painful.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:29 PM on February 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Snow Leopard isn't receiving security updates anymore, so there are good reasons why "if it ain't broke don't fix it" is not the best attitude to take.
posted by zachlipton at 4:40 PM on February 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

How handy are you? You could replace the logic board using the instructions at ifixit.com, but you'd have to find your own part because they're out of stock.

You'd still end up with a five-year-old machine, however, and you can buy a more recent refurb from Apple or elsewhere.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 4:56 PM on February 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you upgrade it's might be miserable. Here's my setup:

I have a 2009 MBP with 4GB RAM and El Capitan. When "idle" with a few tabs open, it shows my memory usage at 3.1 GB. Opening up a few more tabs, running iTunes / iPhoto, or doing anything remotely complicated will max out my RAM usage. Starting iPhoto or iTunes is a "press the button and go get a sandwich while it loads" experience. Things like light browsing and editing documents work fine, editing photos is kind of laggy, and I won't bother trying to edit video or play games.

Also when computers are starved for RAM, it will start using the slower hard drive to act as more RAM. If you also have very little free hard drive space, things are going to get very slow.
posted by meowzilla at 5:23 PM on February 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you can upgrade to Yosemite rather than El Capitan, I'd say try it. I'm on Yosemite on a 5-year-old MacBook Air. I did El Capitan and it was a nightmare, forcing me to downgrade.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 5:23 PM on February 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Johnny Wallflower: Yeah, I'm not confident enough for that level of gefingerpoken. Thanks for the link,though!

So far, most comments are confirming my suspicion that while I could do it, it's probably not a great idea. I think the ideal solution is a new machine. That will have to wait a bit until the paychecks have been coming in steady for a bit. In the meantime, it's beginning to sound like I continue chugging along with the current beastie until then.

Not sure if just doing Yosemite is still an available option. Will have to check. Conrad Cornelius, how much RAM do you have?
posted by leticia at 5:28 PM on February 14, 2016

I've had a long string of bugs since upgrading. I always upgrade right away, and this is the first time I've regretted it. Since 1984.
posted by Capri at 7:04 PM on February 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Recent versions of OS X (10.9 onwards) have memory compression, so that amount of memory should actually be less of an issue now than it is with older OSs. Your machine will have an SSD too, which also mitigates the issue to some degree as the OS swaps the contents of RAM out to the HD when there isn't enough RAM and your HD is quite fast in relative terms. You should be able to roll it back if you do a full backup first anyway, so it doesn't have to be a one way process.

You have a bigger issue though, which is the lack of space on your HD. The rule of thumb is 10% or 10GB, whichever is the greater and it is especially important when you don't have much RAM because the HD gets used quite a bit.

I would probably go for Yosemite too as it seems to be less troublesome, but whatever you do, find some space on your HD. It will speed things up.

Something to remember about RAM is that it primarily affects how much you can have going at once. If you're diligent about quitting apps when you're not using them and not having too many tabs open in your browser you can get by with very little.

You probably do want a new machine, but in the meantime I wouldn't be afraid of trying an upgrade.
posted by mewsic at 8:07 PM on February 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

I’m using a “Late 2009” model iMac with only 4GB RAM and OS X 10.11 which was running 10.6.8 until last fall for a variety of reasons (partially for old PPC software that will not run on 10.7 and later). I was about as secure as possible given the lack of updates — i was using the current Firefox instead of the old version of Safari and had dealt with patches and workarounds for the few serious security flaws that affected 10.6.8 since Apple stopped supporting that system. For security reasons i do recommend that people update to 10.9 or later if they can.

I’ve been running MenuMeters for over a decade with its graph/menu for RAM usage enabled, so i’m very aware of memory problems. Also during the last few years i used an external drive to do test installations of 10.9, 10.10, and finally 10.11 (with my internal drive cloned over before install so it would be like i had done it to my “real” system).

The good of the newer systems is that the memory compression introduced in 10.9 does work well plus the system seems to be smarter about memory management (including VM) than 10.6.8. The bad has been that Spotlight in 10.11 is super-slow (to the point that i don’t use it as an app launcher anymore), grinding on the disk every time you invoke it much worse than 10.6 (not that Spotlight ever wasn’t disk intensive). I’ve rebuilt the Spotlight database and that has not fixed it; Spotlight is just a pig in the new system.

The biggest RAM problem i’ve had over the years is Firefox bloating in memory usage over time (even after closing tabs/windows, perhaps due to extensions i’m using), which can be “fixed” by quitting & relaunching Firefox. Every few days i restart the computer rather than just sleeping it to flush everything that has accumulated in RAM.

However, with my normal usage i would have found 2GB too little even on 10.6.8. Because i was comparing versions of the OS using 4GB i can’t say how 10.11 deals with having so little.

A huge issue for you is the lack of disk (well, SSD) space. Just to download and run the OS X installer will need more than 6GB free (I made sure i had over 20GB free for my real upgrade). Besides the OS install, the new Photos app will need plenty of scratch space when it updates your iPhoto library.

What tipped me over to upgrading was having to run the latest iTunes in order to sync with a new iPhone plus wanting to have OS X versions of the Reminders app, etc., to have everything sync between OS X and iOS. Despite the losing old PPC software compatibility and a few problems here and there, i am happy that i upgraded and like many of the improvements throughout the system that have been introduced since 10.6.
posted by D.C. at 11:39 PM on February 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Don't bother. I tried running Yosemite with 4 gb on a Macbook Pro and it would grind to a halt after having a few Chrome tabs open.

Your best bet is a new computer (or new-to-you computer).
posted by just.good.enough at 1:02 AM on February 15, 2016

I run it on an Air with 2g RAM with no problem at all.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:26 AM on February 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also: because I have a SSD it's fine. 2g with a traditional drive would suck.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:27 AM on February 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OK, now I'm wondering if I should try it, if rolling back in case of difficulty remains an option. I didn't realize that the Air having an SSD could make a difference.

I'm not clear if Yosemite is still available. It's not available on the app store, and apple.com's OS X page only offers El Capitan. I'm fairly new to the mac world (this MacBook Air was my first foray), so if anyone has any further guidance about upgrading to Yosemite instead of El Capitan, I would love to hear it.

Meanwhile thanks to everyone for all the feedback so far.
posted by leticia at 8:13 AM on February 15, 2016

You can roll back by reinstalling 10.6.8 from whatever media came with the computer + a pre-upgrade time machine backup.
posted by migurski at 8:16 AM on February 15, 2016

I didn't read the whole thing but maybe this will help you get Yosemite. 2 GB is still not a lot for Yosemite. I noticed an appreciable hunger for memory at the Mavericks upgrade, again anecdotally.

posted by humboldt32 at 9:13 AM on February 15, 2016

I have the same Air but with 4GB RAM and have no issues at all with El Capitan on this machine.
posted by terrapin at 10:44 AM on February 15, 2016

Also: because I have a SSD it's fine. 2g with a traditional drive would suck.

I'm on this team.

The newer versions of OSX are less ram-hoggy and way more SSD-optimized. Any ssd-equipped mac will likely run el capitan awesome.

Anecdotal, but el capitan has been the most stable version of OSX i've used so far. I have the(ugh) very first revision of the first generation of the retina macbook pro which was a crashfest out of the gate. I used to hard reboot the thing a couple times a month at least. I think i've done that once since i upgraded to el cap, and it's super smooth in general.

I generally upgrade when upgrades are out, and the only one i've regretted was lion on an older machine. YMMV, but i think apple has really started to care about performance on older hardware both with iOS and OSX. My 2009 mac ran mavericks very well. I've also serviced or set up software for clients on lots of older macs running the newer OS versions and it's mostly a positive experience.

RAM compression will help you more than the anecdotal thriftiness of 10.6, which borders on meme status with nerds. Another good point is using 10.6 isn't secure anymore. It has an ancient version of safari at this point, and hasn't really gotten any security patches in the computer-dog-years equivalent of decades. My work is actively trying to get clients/customers the hell off of it for that reason alone.
posted by emptythought at 2:41 AM on February 16, 2016

Response by poster: Hi everyone. Thanks for your continued feedback, as well as for patience with me. The new job is taking up all my time, and I basically only have a chance once a day to check in on replies.

Continued nths on the 2GB-with-an-SSD-shoud-be-fine theme are leading me to think I should at least give it a try, especially if I can roll it back if I'm unhappy with the results.

So, a couple quick follow up questions, if anyone's still willing to weigh in:

1) I'm in the process of backing up my photos online so I can move several GBs off of the mac to an external drive (while still having copies in 2 places). That'll take a few days to finish. But can anyone suggest how much free space should I be aiming to have before I attempt the upgrade?

2) In the event I want to roll back to my current status afterward, what's the basic process? No need to go into detail -- I'm sure I can find a guide with all the steps somewhere -- but it's not just a function of restoring my computer to a previous Time Machine backup point, is it?

Incidentally, the link shared by humboldt32 above led me to this page on apple.com, which has links to purchase previous versions of OS X. Not including Yosemite, of course, but just noting for future reference.
posted by leticia at 1:31 PM on February 16, 2016

« Older This hoodie is so insanely popular you have to...   |   Can I turn my phone into a weather station? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.