Can You Handle macOS Sierra? Okay, But Can Your Mac?

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, Apple will release “Sierra,” the latest iteration of their popular Macintosh Operating System (macOS). And for the first time in my life as a Mac user, I will not be upgrading my Mac to it.

sierra

Nice view, isn’t it? Shame I won’t be going. (Source: TechRadar.com)

I can hear the gasps now. “Is this a form of protest?” “It can’t be about money, isn’t Sierra going to be free?” “Are you abandoning Apple and going back to Windows? Is Windows 10 really that good???”

In order: No, this is not a protest. Indeed, it’s not about money; and even if they did charge for it, I believe in paying for good software. And finally, no, I am neither abandoning Apple, nor is Windows 10 that good—and stay tuned for a future blog post about that topic.

You see, I won’t be upgrading to Sierra, because Apple won’t let me. And it’s possible they won’t let you, either. (Apologies in advance: this is going to be a long post. To skip the history lesson, and to get to how this may affect you, click here.)

Some backstory: my first Mac was 2002’s Power Mac G4 (Mirrored Drive Doors). Compared to the PC it replaced, it was like going from a boxy white van to a luxury sports car. It came equipped with one of the earliest versions of the revolutionary-for-its-time Mac OS X (pronounced “ten,” as it’s the Roman numeral), 10.2, “Jaguar.”

g4

The Power Mac G4 Mirrored Drive Door. (Source: Apple-History.com)

A quick word about naming: Apple’s naming system for OS X took after big cats from 2001’s 10.0, “Cheetah” until 2012’s 10.8, “Mountain Lion.” In 2013, they switched to California landmarks, with 10.9, “Mavericks.”

Every time Apple issued a new OS, I would buy it, sometimes waiting in line outside the Apple Store for the privilege. And these weren’t free updates, back then (circa 2003); 10.3, “Panther,” cost a cool $129 in the US. Every other year, I would upgrade: to the aforementioned “Panther” (2003); “Tiger” (2005); and “Leopard” (2007); each for $129 a pop. And I was happy to pay up, if it extended the usability of my Mac and kept it current with all the latest features.

maccats

Apple’s “Big Cat” Operating Systems, from “Cheetah” to “Mountain Lion.” (Source: MacWorld.com)

This was the reality of my life as a Mac user, until the G4 succumbed to old age and exhaustion in 2008. I had gotten my money’s worth out of that Mac, due in no small part to the OS upgrades, so I was eager to move forward and start the cycle anew.

In early 2008, I bought Apple’s top-of-the-line tower, the Mac Pro. Weighing in at over 40 lbs., this thing was massive. If my last Mac was a luxury sports car, this was a Humvee. I had no doubt it would handle anything I threw at it, not least of which OS upgrades.

macpro

The Mac Pro tower. (Source: MacTracker)

The best thing about my Mac Pro tower was its upgradability. It initially shipped with 2 gigabytes (GB) of memory—more than adequate for the time—and a 320GB hard drive. But the magic of this model was its room to grow over time. With its eight memory slots, it had the capability to support a maximum of 32GB of memory! That’s still on the high end today, but in 2008, it was an absurd amount.

For hard drive upgrades, I wouldn’t have to touch the drive that came with the computer; there were three empty drive bays in a row next to it, to which I could add new drives for my data. Were I feeling adventurous, I could even put in a new drive with an entirely different OS on it. This was the dawn of “Boot Camp,” which let Macs natively run Windows for the first time. A dedicated hard drive for that purpose made a lot of sense.

Finally, the Mac Pro’s tower form factor kept it competitive with Windows PCs from makers like Dell. I could add component cards as new standards were introduced, so I could augment the computer’s capabilities beyond its original design. For example, the Mac Pro shipped in early 2008 with USB 2.0 ports. November of that year would bring USB 3.0, capable of speeds about ten times as fast as the USB 2.0 standard. Luckily, several third-party manufacturers would jump on the opportunity to sell USB 3.0 upgrade cards for Mac Pro towers.

macproinside

So much room for activities! (Source: EveryMac.com)

As you can imagine, over the past 8 years, I’ve upgraded my hardware as needed (and sometimes, as not needed): my memory is now at a healthy if not outrageous 10GB. I have two hard drives running in tandem: a super fast Solid State Drive (SSD) for my OS, and a large Hard Disk Drive (HDD) for my files. I’ve added cards for USB 3.0 and Serial ATA ports. I even upgraded my graphics card to support Apple’s 27” LED Cinema Display, which requires a Mini DisplayPort connector, not standard in my Mac’s model year.

cinemadisplay

The 27-inch Cinema Display (right), next to the Mac Pro. (Source: TurboSquid.com)

Along with those hardware upgrades, I made sure to keep the OS up to date. The good news is that when Apple released 10.6, “Snow Leopard” in 2009, they slashed the price to a mere $29 for a single-user license. With 2011’s 10.7, “Lion,” Apple stopped selling their OS upgrades on a disc in a box, altogether; this was their foray into selling the upgrade on their Mac App Store for $29.99. In July of 2012, they sold 10.8, “Mountain Lion,” for $19.99, an unheard-of price for an OS not named “Linux.”

Apple would double-down on the generosity by issuing their first “California” themed upgrade, 10.9, “Mavericks,” for free. And this wasn’t just “free to upgrade;” it was the full-fledged software, capable of being installed on a blank hard drive with no previous version on it. (Below, watch Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi, wow the crowd in 2013 by announcing the new pricing scheme.)

After “Mavericks” came 10.10 “Yosemite” in 2014, and 10.11, “El Capitan,” in 2015, each still free. I downloaded each with gusto from the Mac App Store and upgraded as fast as I could. Most recently, I used the DiskMaker X app to create a USB installation stick; I installed a new SSD in my tower; and I installed El Capitan directly from the USB installer onto the clean drive. There’s just no substitute for a fresh OS install on a clean drive, something I heartily encourage for computers as old as mine had become. And it had indeed become old, despite all my tweaks and upgrades.

diskmaker

DiskMaker X (click the logo for its site, DiskMakerX.com).

That’s the insidious truth of computers: eventually, no matter how many component cards you add; no matter how big or fast a hard drive you install; no matter how much memory you put in; there’s going to come a time when at its core, the Central Processing Unit (CPU) just can’t keep up with the latest software. Which brings us to the present.

In anticipation of Tuesday’s release of Sierra for free download, I went to Apple’s Sierra page on their website: http://www.apple.com/macos/sierra/

The headline there reads, “What can your Mac do now? Just ask.” This is in reference to the arrival of voice-interface Siri to the desktop (and laptop), when it had until now existed on every other Apple platform: iOS, watchOS, and most recently, tvOS.

The thing is, in my case, it might as well have said, “What can’t your Mac do now? Don’t ask.”

I took a good look at the system requirements for Sierra, and I was shocked at what I read.

“Chances are, your Mac can run macOS Sierra,” the page read, optimistically. “Mac computers introduced in late 2009 or later can be upgraded to macOS Sierra.”

I’m sorry, late when?

I couldn’t believe that my 2008 Mac Pro, which has handled El Capitan so masterfully, would have any trouble meeting Sierra’s requirements. Scrolling down, I found the “Mac Hardware Requirements” list:

• MacBook (Late 2009 or newer)
• MacBook Pro (Mid 2010 or newer)
• MacBook Air (Late 2010 or newer)
• Mac mini (Mid 2010 or newer)
• iMac (Late 2009 or newer)
• Mac Pro (Mid 2010 or newer)

For the record, there have been nine Mac Pro models since the line debuted in 2006. Mine was the third model, and Sierra won’t work on anything older than the fifth model, released only two and a half years later.

I am must admit, I was in denial upon reading this news. After all, when the first Macs with Intel chips came out in 2006, ingenious programmers found a way to run Microsoft Windows on them, not at all sanctioned by Apple or Intel, to say nothing of Microsoft! But within mere months, Apple would include official support in the form of Boot Camp, allowing Windows to run on Macs on its own, without emulators or virtual machines. Perhaps this enterprising spirit would help me to run Sierra on my obsolete er, “vintage” Mac Pro?

Indeed, there is a method for shoehorning Sierra onto unsupported Macs, thanks to the fine folks at dosdude1.com (a URL that honestly, doesn’t instill the most confidence, but hey, beggars and choosers…)

I was preparing to run this patch. I was even going to go out and buy a new SSD for it, as I didn’t want to endanger my current El Capitan installation by running this potentially shaky upgrade on top of it. But then I gave things a second look.

TrustedReviews.com is where I found the dosdude1.com link in the first place, but they placed this warning before the link:

All the usual caveats apply: installing macOS Sierra on an unsupported computer could bork it (and your data), as well as likely voiding your warranty.

On certain devices, too, the workaround will kill your Wi-Fi functionality. These are the late-2008 and mid-2009 MacBook Air, early-2008 and mid-2008 MacBook Pro, early-2008 iMac and early-2008 Mac Pro.

Barring a completely successful installation, at best I was looking at losing wifi functionality (a nonstarter in this wireless age); and at worst, a “borked” computer.

bhswedishchef1920x1200

With all due respect, Chef, nobody wants a “borked” Mac. (Source: Benjamin Higginbotham, MacDesktops.com)

It was at this point that I stopped shopping for a new SSD (and the required bracket to get it to fit in one of the available drive bays in my tower). I made the decision not to invest any more money in this tower. In whatever remaining time it has left, I’m going to stop trying to soup it up; El Capitan will be its last OS upgrade. It doesn’t need any more memory or upgrade cards. When the time comes to sell it, I’ll take out my drives and install a clean drive with none of my data on it (always good advice before selling a computer). Until that point, I will continue to use it as I have been, without spending too much mental energy on keeping up with the proverbial “Joneses.” This computer has not only served me well day in and day out since 2008; it still serves me well, and I expect it will serve its next owner well, into the future.

“That’s great,” you’re saying. “Good for you for coming to terms with the ‘circle of computer life.’ But what about MY Mac???”

(And if you skipped to this point, welcome back.)

 Again, here’s Apple’s official list of Macs that can run Sierra:

• MacBook (Late 2009 or newer)
• MacBook Pro (Mid 2010 or newer)
• MacBook Air (Late 2010 or newer)
• Mac mini (Mid 2010 or newer)
• iMac (Late 2009 or newer)
• Mac Pro (Mid 2010 or newer)

This is the first place to start, but it isn’t the last. You see, once meeting Apple’s hardware requirements, there are still the software features in Sierra that your Mac may or may not run.

Below is a chart I’ve made, covering the six models of Mac (three notebooks and three desktops), based on the new features at https://www.apple.com/macos/how-to-upgrade/

sierrachart

The upshot of all this is, if your Mac is from 2013 or later, you’re in luck. Depending on what features you can live without, many models can go even older than that. The one model with tighter restrictions is the MacBook, and that’s only because Apple hadn’t made any new MacBooks between July 2011 and April 2015.

If you’re not sure which Mac you own, click the Apple icon at the top left of your screen, choose “About This Mac,” then choose “More Info.” If you still can’t tell from that point, contact me, and I can look it up for you.

Looking closer at the requirements for the Mac Pro to get the most out of Sierra, even if I were somehow able to get it to run on my tower, the best stuff only works on the redesigned Mac Pro cylinder from late 2013. And frankly, that’s a pretty major upgrade ($2,999 at its cheapest) just so I can run the latest OS from Apple.

siblings

The compact, new Mac Pro cylinder (left), next to its big brother. (Source: MacWorld.com)

My next computer will likely be an iMac or a MacBook Pro, unless something amazing happens with the Mac mini line (and I’m not holding my breath). I’ll miss being able to upgrade the internals as needed, but Apple’s trend away from internal upgradability isn’t exactly new. Eventually, I predict everything will be sealed with no option to add or change out parts (much to the chagrin of DIY sites like iFixit). In many cases that time is already here: none of Apple’s laptops can have its memory upgraded anymore (the last being 2012’s MacBook Pro). Macs mini have been sealed since 2014; same for the 21.5-inch iMac. 27-inch iMacs and the Mac Pro cylinder can still have their memory upgraded, and it is even possible to upgrade the storage inside the Mac Pro—but Apple would encourage you to use the zippy Thunderbolt ports on all their models and add external storage, instead.

With external storage, to say nothing of cloud-based solutions like Dropbox and Apple’s own iCloud, I could foresee a future in which the files that make our computers unique are no longer kept in internal storage where the OS lives, but outside. When it’s time to upgrade, no longer would it be a question of, “can my hardware handle the software?” Instead, we would lease our computers, the way many of us have begun to do with our iPhones, through the iPhone Upgrade Program. When the new model comes out, featuring updated hardware and software alike, we can just turn in our old model, and pick up the new device, syncing it with our externally-stored files without missing a beat.

It’s strange to think of a future where we wouldn’t own our computers; but then, the future is always hard to imagine until it’s staring you in the face, telling you your computer is too old.

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