In the last week, two friends have found themselves in Apple update purgatory — updating to the latest system updates has introduced vexing problems outside their control.
In one case, his sole credit card disappeared from the Wallet app on his iPhone, with a message that he’d reached the maximum number of cards. In the other case, the friend’s iPhone XR has turned into a sluggish mess, taking 30 seconds just to start up the camera.
One option is to take the problem to Apple and get it diagnosed, but that can sometimes mean waiting days or longer just to get a Genius Bar appointment (assuming an Apple Store is close enough to be convenient). Apple phone support is also an option, but that doesn’t guarantee a speedy result, either.
It’s important to remember that in most cases, these are the outliers. I updated on the day iOS 12.2 was released and experienced no issues on my iPhone XS. But Apple’s updates go out to millions of devices and computers, so even if a statistically small number of updates go wrong, that’s still a large number.
So, in this column I want to offer some upgrade advice to help prevent problems where possible, and tips on what to do if they occur.
Turn automatic updates off. Apple really, really wants you to enable automatic updates, because it helps bring the latest updates — notably security updates — to the most people.
But even with a pretty good track record overall, I still turn off this option on my Apple devices. I’d rather wait a day to see if any show-stopping bugs are present (like the time I updated my iPhone while in a coffee shop, and the update completely killed the ability to send or receive calls).
On an iPhone or iPad, go to Settings > General > Software Update, Automatic Updates and turn the setting off.
On a Mac, open System Preferences > Software Update and turn off the option “Automatically keep my Mac up to date.” If you click the Advanced button there, you can fine-tune the options, such as alerting you when an update is available and downloading it in the background. I do keep the “Install system data files and security updates” option turned on for security purposes.
On Macs running versions earlier than macOS Mojave, the updates are available in the App Store app; go to System Preferences > App Store to turn off the automatic update feature.
Backup before updating. Even if an update seems to be well-received by most people — i.e., you don’t see widespread reports online about problems — it’s always possible your device could be the anomaly, as happened to my two friends. The best way to deal with this possibility is to make a backup of your iPhone, iPad or Mac before running the update. That gives you a version of your software to revert to just in case.
On the Mac, I recommend creating a bootable duplicate, which is an identical copy of your computer’s internal hard disk on a separate drive that you can use to start up the Mac if needed. Buy an external drive that matches the capacity of your internal disk; bus-powered USB drives can be had for under $100.
Then, use a program such as SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner to create the duplicate. These applications reliably copy the hidden system files and permissions needed to make the external disk bootable. You can’t just copy all your files to the external disk by hand in the Finder.
Even if you have an active Time Machine backup, I recommend making a separate duplicate before any software update. If something goes tragically wrong, as happened to me last year, you can boot from the duplicate and use that to attempt to repair the updated installation (using the Disk Utility application) or wiping the updated disk and restoring the duplicate to it.
The same advice applies to an iPhone or iPad. Connect the device to your computer and open iTunes. If you normally sync your device via iTunes, connecting it to the Mac will create the backup.
If you instead sync to iCloud, I still advocate making a manual, local backup. Select the device from the sidebar or the device icon that appears below the playback controls, and in the Summary section, click the Back Up Now button.
Make sure the Encrypt Local Backup options is enabled and you choose a password, because that retains Apple Wallet and other sensitive information such as any stored health data.
Although an iCloud backup is helpful (it’s how I sync my devices), you’re reliant on downloading vast amounts of data if you need to restore your device. With a local backup in place, it’s significantly faster to wipe the device and reinstall your data if needed.
Hopefully, of course, you don’t have to resort to these steps after an update, but it’s always best to be prepared. Again, speaking from experience, it’s preferable to lose a few hours restoring a device or Mac than several days rebuilding everything from scratch.
Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More Practical Mac columns at st.news/practicalmac.