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Apple’s new OS upgrades go deep

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A few weeks ago, Apple introduced significant upgrades to its operating systems for is mobile devices (iOS) and its Macintosh computers (MacOS). The features introduced in the new operating systems were minor, commanding few headlines, but the changes were weighty enough to demand bug fix upgrades within a week of their initial release.

iPad users most visibly got a dock for their apps. Mac users appear to have received a new desktop picture, an improved image organisation and editing app and really fast file copying.

If you’ve been waiting for drag and drop, a compelling feature of the Mac since, oh, 1984, well it’s now here on iOS. Less groundbreaking is the new Files app, which is just a more cohesive interface between iCloud and apps that are linked to it.

It bears no resemblance to the much more useful (and admittedly dangerous) app of the same name on Android.

All the major changes for both systems were either under the hood or revealed themselves through extended use. Long term users with compatible hardware were particularly hard hit.

While mobile devices were warning of incompatibility in older software quite specifically for almost a year (I knew that most Disney digital books wouldn’t run on the new version of iOS months before).

Apple is no longer supporting 32 bit apps on iOS 11 and an update will break 187,000 apps (roughly 8 per cent) still being offered on the company’s App Store.

Macs, unfortunately, offered no such counsel.

Mac users with legacy software turned to, an online database that tracks the compatibility of software running on all of Apple’s devices.

There were a disturbing number of apps with no reports at all as late as three weeks after the release of 10.1.3, codenamed High Sierra.

There are only two computers at my office capable of running the new system so I decided to do a nuke and restore on one, backing up my installation with Time Machine, the incremental backup system that Apple has made part of its core OS.

The new system reformatted the machine’s solid state drive (SSD) and install a pristine copy of the new system (by default, the OS does the update in place).

It was a lot more work than the straightforward update most opt for, but the big change in High Sierra is a completely new drive formatting and file access system called Apple File System (APFS), which replaces HFS Plus, introduced in 1998, which displaced the earlier HFS of 1984.

Filesystems are very low-level attributes, normally invisible to the end user but they are the underpinning of a stable computer.

Then, I restored my data and apps using the Time Machine backup and expected all to be sparkling glory.

A new file system is a major change on any platform, and I hoped to avoid problems by letting Apple’s usually quite clever installers manage the process.

I was wrong.

High Sierra ignores apps that don’t work if they didn’t come from Apple’s own App Store and I still run a few of those.

In addition, there was a bit of low level cruft in my system, the legacy of updating the same basic OS installation for more than 15 years.

Newer users will probably have none of these problems, but some proved mortal after the upgrade and required long sessions of searching out old uninstallers and rummaging around in parts of the Unix subsystem that Apple wisely keeps hidden from its users.

After the first two disastrous weeks, during which the computer would randomly freeze and restart every few hours, a combination of updates to scruffy apps that Apple won’t allow on its store and deletions brought things back under control.

If you started using a Mac in the last five years or scrapped an older installation totally to start again using only blessed software from the App Store, little of this will be relevant to your High Sierra experience.

If you’ve been on the Mac for a while and have grown used to dragging along your whole installation with each major update, High Sierra is a bit of a wake-up call and demands a reassessment of all your non-Apple software.

Two old preference panes, one from Akamai left over from the old days of media stream buffering and SmartSleep, which improved wake responsiveness on pre-SSD Macs seem to have been the chief offenders in my fortnight of challenges.

They are also a reminder that old, forgotten installations, carried forward faithfully through careful backups, can eventually became deadly weeds, choking your Mac’s performance.


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