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Build a better Lion installer

TJ Luoma, @tjluoma

Apple now offers a US$69 USB installer for Lion. It comes on one of those tiny white USB sticks we first saw with the MacBook Air. I have not used one of the Lion installers, but I have one that came with my MacBook Air: it's only 8 GB, and (this is the really disappointing part) it is not rewritable. When you mount the drive in Disk Utility, it appears like a read-only DVD, not a USB drive, which means that the drive which came with my MacBook Air is now just as useless as my Snow Leopard DVD.

I assume that the Lion USB installer is also 8 GB and not rewritable (I haven't used one personally), which makes it a pretty bad deal. $70 for an 8 GB, read-only USB drive? If you haven't purchased Lion from the Mac App Store, subtract $30, but that still means you are paying $40 for an 8 GB, read-only USB drive.

For $40 you can buy a 32 GB USB drive from Amazon. Or, if you prefer tiny and easy-to-lose USB drives, you can get an 8 GB Verbatim "Tuff 'n' Tiny" drive for $15. Or grab a normal looking 16 GB USB drive for $20 (that's double the capacity for only $5 more).

But what if you want more than just a Lion installer? What if you want an installer and an emergency backup drive that you can boot from and actually use? What if you want something that will be far more useful than a drive you just stick in a drawer until you need to reinstall OS X?

Slip Streaming Away

For a moment, pretend that Apple had not released Lion yet, and you needed to reinstall Snow Leopard on a Mac, but all you had was an original Snow Leopard DVD from when 10.6.0 was first released. What would you do? Chances are that the process would be something like this:

  1. Install Snow Leopard 10.6.0.
  2. Run Software Update to download the latest Combo Pack for 10.6 and other important updates.
  3. Wait for it to download.
  4. Wait for it to install.
  5. Wait for it to reboot a few times.
  6. Run Software Update again to download the newest iTunes and other updates.
  7. Repeat steps 3-5.
  8. Reinstall your favorite programs.
  9. Try to find the registration information for the apps you purchased somewhere other than the Mac App Store.
  10. Try to find the installation discs for Microsoft Office or other programs which on CD/DVD.
  11. Start setting up the computer the way that you like it: (move the Dock to the left side pinned to the top, remove all the apps that Apple shoves into the Dock by default, change desktop picture, change a bunch of Finder settings, add my MobileMe information, change the Energy Savings, turn on Remote Login and VNC, and so on.)

Rather than give Apple $70 for an installer which will be out of date in a few weeks, I'd rather make my own installer that includes not only OS X with all the latest updates, but also installs my essential apps and preferences.

This is what is known as a "slipstream" and it's fairly simple to do. I would definitely recommend at least a 16 GB drive, but 32 GB would obviously make things easier.

DVD installers are dead. Long live USB.

Apple has made it clear that they consider DVD installers to be dead. The MacBook Air and Mac Mini have already dropped the SuperDrive, and the writing is on the wall for the rest of the Mac hardware lineup.

And good riddance. Will anyone miss them? I won't. For several years the first thing I have done with any CD or DVD installer is make a disk image of it, and use that for installing. Then I don't have to worry about finding the disc or making sure it didn't get scratched, or any of that nonsense.

Your Intel-based Mac can boot from a USB drive (heck, it can even boot from the SD card slot, if yours has one). So rather than make a DVD installer, we're going to make a USB installer. It's not difficult, and what you end up with is cheaper and better than what Apple will sell you.

  1. Buy Lion from the Mac App Store.
  2. Download Lion from the Mac App Store.
  3. Install Lion onto the USB drive.
  4. Boot from the USB drive.
  5. run Software Update to make sure you are up to date.
  6. Install essential applications, especially ones that you did not purchase from the Mac App Store. (For me, that list includes: Pages, Microsoft Office, LaunchBar, 1Password, TextExpander, BBEdit, BusyCal, SizeUp, QuickCursor, Default Folder X, Keyboard Maestro, Hazel, SlimBatteryMonitor, DropCopy, DiskWarrior, SuperDuper, and Dropbox.)
  7. Install your preferred browser and extensions. Customize your browser.

Run each app at least twice. (Why twice? Because some apps wait until the second time you launch them to ask you if you want to automatically check for updates, or prompt you for some other action.) Customize your apps to your normal settings and preferences.

When you are satisfied with the setup (don't be surprised if it takes a full day to get the computer configured just the way you like it), clone the USB drive to your main computer drive, and boot from it. Now tuck the USB drive into a pocket in your laptop bag.

When OS X 10.7.2 is released, install it on your computer as usual, and use it for a few days to make sure no problems crop up. If it seems stable, insert your USB drive and boot from it. Run Software Update, and then run the essential apps you installed to see which of them need to be updated.

Repeat for each "point oh" release of OS X.

When Mac OS X 10.8 comes out, you will have a "clean but customized" installer ready. If you've ever avoided doing a 100% "clean install" because you thought it was too much of a hassle, or if you've ever avoided using Migration Assistant because you wanted to avoid bringing over files, preferences, and applications that you don't use, this is a "third way" which should avoid the worse parts of both and keep the best parts. No more having the fiddle with dozens of basic settings (no translucent menu bars, ever!!!) with a new installation, and no worrying that some installer left random files on your Mac from that one app you tried two years ago.

The USB drive also serves as an emergency drive which you can keep with you in your laptop bag. If you use Disk Warrior or some other disk repair tool which needs to be run off of a separate drive, the USB drive will work for that too.

Drawbacks and Caveats

You may have already noticed a potential drawback to this solution versus Apple's official installer: if you have multiple Macs, it would be safest to use a different USB drive for each one of them.

What I Did But Am Not Recommending That You Do: I made a USB installer with my 2010 MacBook Air, and the used it to install Lion on my 2008 MacBook Pro. So far I have not seen any problems, but that should not be taken as canonical evidence that any USB installer made on any Mac can be used with any other Mac. In fact, my experience is statistically insignificant considering all the different variations of hardware out there.

I created the USB installer, and then used SuperDuper to create a Disk Image of it. You can do that in Disk Utility, but I used SuperDuper, because it claims to be smart enough to know what Apple recommends not cloning. (CarbonCopyCloner may also do the same thing. I've been a satisified SuperDuper user for years, so that's what I recommend.) I also saved the disk image on my Drobo, so if something ever happens and I need to go back to a "clean install" of 10.7.1, I can do so easily. The MacBook Air is my main computer, so that was the one I wanted to make sure I used for the clone image. If problems crop up later with the MacBook Pro, it will be less of a disruption to wipe that drive and reinstall Lion. If that happens, I'll buy another USB thumbdrive to use exclusively with it. Your mileage may vary. Caveat Emptor. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

This deal is getting worse all the time... (aka "More thoughts on the Apple Lion USB installer")

If you buy the Lion USB installer and do not buy Lion through the Mac App Store, what happens if you lose the USB installer?

Maybe you thought: "Oh well, no big deal, I'll just use Lion Recovery." Wrong! Better re-read the fine print on Apple's USB Lion installer: "When you install OS X Lion using the USB thumb drive, you will not be able to reinstall OS X Lion from Lion Recovery. You will need to use the USB thumb drive to reinstall OS X Lion." If you lose the USB drive, prepare to spend another $30 to download Lion from the Mac App Store, or $70 to buy another easy-to-lose, read-only USB installer from Apple.

Look, Apple obviously felt that they had to offer a USB installer, but they clearly don't like it, and they have done everything possible to dissuade you from using it: they waited a few weeks after Lion was released before releasing it, they made way more expensive than it needs to be, and are making it less useful than downloading Lion from the Mac App Store. You can take a hint, right? This is one of the few times in life when making something is not only cheaper than buying in a store, but it's much better too.

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