Restoring an older Mac. Tougher than you think.

MacBook Air
MacBook Air (Image credit: iMore)

I'm far too much of a fiddler. And in my fiddling I managed to completely FUBAR my beloved and venerable 2010 MacBook Air. I managed to successfully install GNU/Linux along side my macOS High Sierra installation; however, when I went back to reclaim the disk space used by GNU/Linux for my macOS install running APFS, I was met with a failed boot screen. Yikes!

If you have an older Mac and you perform Time Machine (or other) backups, sometimes that diligence might not be enough to get your system back up and running to an expected working state. The recovery process is more involved than simply restoring from Time Machine.

When backups aren't enough

In my previous life as a network and system administrator, I learned (the hard way) that backing up data is only part of the data protection process. In fact, backing up is the easy part. The hard part is system restoration. Just because you have your data ready on a remote disk to be restored, doesn't mean you have a computer ready for you to restore to.

Dealing with older hardware

Normally, if you have a modern Mac, an OS repair is a straight forward thing where you can reboot by pressing the Command-R keys at boot time and be presented with a series of tools to help you recover your Mac.

Following that, you can either re-install (not wiping your personal data), run disk utilities to repair a hard drive (my intention), or wipe your hard disk completely and do a fresh install. When that's done, you can restore from Time Machine as needed. So far so good.

Old begets old

What happens if you have no ability to start restoration utilities at boot time? Well, Apple has a built-in system that allows you to perform an internet-based recovery. "That's great," you say. And it is. Until we realize that the recovery mode from the internet will query your system and provide a version of the recovery based on when the system was released. Therefore, since my MacBook was from late 2010, it provided me tools that would only install and repair disks that work with OS X Lion.

macOS High Sierra now runs Apple's new file system, aptly named APFS. APFS isn't supported on OS X Lion. My disk utilities to repair my drive were now useless. So I was forced to wipe and install Lion from the internet recovery utility.

Starting internet recovery mode.

The good news is that getting to internet recovery mode is as easy as starting the regular recovery mode except with some extra steps.

  1. Shut down your Mac.
  2. Power you mac back on while pressing Command-Option-R until you are prompted to connect to a network.
  3. Select your Wi-Fi network and enter the password.

You'll now have to wait while your system downloads the recovery utilities from the internet.

Install OS X

You'll be happily greeted by a familiar (yet older looking) version of the repair utilities where you can restore from Time Machine, install OS X (not a typo since OS X was the default install on my 2010 Mac), or run Disk Utility (Again useless in my case since APFS was what my internal hard drive had running).

You'll be tempted to try and run a restore from Time Machine and your certainly free to try it out to see if things will automatically start working (and if your APFS volume is intact you may be able to). However, I had to do a complete OS X install.

You can follow our guide to install a fresh copy of OS X if you need help.

I strongly suggest to create an Install account rather than use your normal account name when preforming a fresh install so that when you come to the restoration process, you avoid any compatibility issues with having similar account names.

Once again, you'll need to wait a while while your Mac downloads the installation file from the internet.

Upgrade OS X

Once re-installed, you'll quickly want to upgrade to macOS High Sierra. Unfortunately, you can't. You need to first upgrade to a minimal macOS version of 10.8 and that would be macOS X Mountain Lion.

Searching for older versions of macOS in the App Store yields no results. But if you've downloaded and installed previous versions on your Mac, you can simply select it from your purchased apps list.

  1. Launch App Store.
  2. Select Purchased.
  3. Sign In to the App Store.
  4. Scroll down until you see an older macOS version such macOS X Mountain Lion.
  5. Click DOWNLOAD.

The installer will automatically start and you can follow the prompts or you can look at how to upgrade your macOS install by following our guide.

Upgrade to macOS High Sierra

Now we can finally go ahead and perform the macOS High Sierra upgrade on our older Mac.

  1. Launch App Store.
  2. Search for macOS High Sierra.
  3. Click DOWNLOAD.

Again the installer will automatically start and you simply follow the prompts or follow our macOS installation guide.

Get your data restored

Finally, we're ready to restore our backed up data. If you back up using Time Machine, here's what you do.

  1. Launch Migration Assistant.
  2. Click Continue.
  3. Enter your Password.
  4. Click OK.
  5. Select to transfer From a Mac, Time Machine backup, or startup disk.
  6. Click Continue.
  7. Select your Time Machine backup location.
  8. Click Continue.
  9. Enter the Time Machine Password if needed.
  10. Click Connect.
  11. Select your Backup File.
  12. Click Continue.
  13. Select your Macintosh HD to restore to.
  14. Click Continue.
  15. Select The information you want restored. Select all for a complete restore.
  16. Click Continue.
  17. Allow any upgrades to occur if prompted such as iTunes.

  1. Click Continue.

Now you need to wait for the restore to complete which can take many hours depending on the amount of data to restore and how you're transferring that data whether it be via ethernet cable or Wi-Fi.

When complete, log into your restored account and delete the "installer" or "Setup" account if you created one earlier.

Your old mac is Restored! Any comments?

That's finally it. Your older Mac should now be restored to it's pre-FUBAR glory. Do you have any stories from the backup/restore trenches? Let us know in the comments!

  • Been there done that. It's a long tedious PITA, so why did Apple recently withdraw the ability to download full installers of older macOSes?
    Rather than this slow Internet Recovery process, it was much simpler to download a full installer and build a boot-and-install USB.
  • Don't forget target disk mode! I usually find it easier to get a machine back up and running by mounting it as an external disk to my laptop.
  • Recently tried to create a new partition on a system running Yosemite and use the Recovery HD partition to install Yosemite on it. It said, after trying to log in with Apple ID credentials that it wasn't available. Most folks would be stymied but I came prepared with a USB flash drive with 10.10.5 installer on it which did the trick. In the case above with the Macintosh HD running APFS and Time Machine not supporting it, you would have to erase the partition, going back to HFS+ AKA Mac OS Extended (Journaled) Also you cannot upgrade from Lion to High Sierra. You have to upgrade to at least to OS X 10.8 first.
  • I needed to complete a re-installation of Mac OS, but had changed my HDD to one from a secondary supplier - I was about to re-install from a Snow Leopard disk, but recalled there original Apple Disk, with a few subsequent updates, was in the box still. Swapped the original for the new, and was able to download the internet install.
  • Disclaimers - I use CrashPlan, not Time Machine. I was an admin/engineer for a long time, so I make assumptions about security process that many folks simply don't do. My use case is based on the need to use multiple computers and have them all essentially synchronized. Losing app and system preferences is the sacrifice, but I have not lost any other data despite multiple system/drive failures/crashes. Best advice I have is to separate "the user data" and "the apps" from the OS. Most of that is process rather than technology, but it's worth noting what's what. User data like photos, docs, etc. should be stored in your Mac profile, but you should endeavor to keep it in a central folder that can be synced to a cloud provider (I use Google Drive, but I have used others in the past). I also keep downloads of apps that require manual updates (like Little Snitch) or non-AppStore installs in a GDrive subfolder. GDrive is my synchronization method (NOT BACKUP) across multiple machines. I use CrashPlan to backup the user data, and I don't backup anything else. Get a copy of DiskMaker X and two 8-16GB USB drives and make yourself boot drives with Sierra or High Sierra. One of them is for the current OS you use, and the other is for your upgrade. When the next OS upgrade comes out (High Sierra), you use one to create a new install drive. If that goes badly wrong, you simply use the old one and reinstall the previous OS (Sierra). I mark them with p-touch labels. The data recovery process is often just using CrashPlan to restore a file that got overwritten/deleted. The bigger process for system recovery is booting with the USB drive, reinstalling the OS, reinstalling the apps, and then synchronizing the data from GDrive (or restoring from CrashPlan).
  • For crying out loud folks. Always have a USB or WiFi Time Capsule backup.