Setting up a Mac

So far this year I’ve set up three different Macs: I had to “nuke and pave”1 both my MacBook Pro and Mac mini, and I bought a new iMac and set it up. Going through this three times has forced me to think about the best way to go about it.2

Circumstances

There are several circumstances where you might have to set up a Mac from scratch. You buy a new Mac and need to set it up (yay!), you have some sort of failure and need to rebuild the machine to fix it (boo!), or you decide to voluntarily do the nuke and pave to give yourself a fresh start or eliminate the sort of cruft that builds up over time.

If you’re setting up a new Mac you’ve probably still got your old Mac, with access to all your data so you can easily copy things over, see what you have installed, etc. If you’re voluntarily reformatting your Mac, you can do some preparation ahead of time to back up your data and do things like make lists of installed apps. If your Mac went down hard and you have to reformat to get it working again, you have to rely on your backups.3

As it happens, I have one example of each. I decided to do the nuke and pave on my MacBook Pro because reformatting the drive from scratch seemed to be the only way to delete a Boot Camp partition I wasn’t using anymore.4 My Mac mini had been suffering some glitches and finally got to a state where it wouldn’t even boot successfully. Finally, I got the new iMac and had to set it up.

There are ways of avoiding a lot of the setup work in all these circumstances. You can restore from backup or use Migration Assistant to move your apps and files to your new machine. However, I prefer to use these sorts of circumstances as an opportunity for a fresh start.

Reinstalling and setting up macOS

A new Mac comes with macOS already installed, of course, but if you’re rebuilding an existing machine you have to get the OS on there. The easiest way to do this is to boot into the recovery partition (hold down Command-R while your machine boots). Use Disk Utility to reformat the hard drive and then reinstall macOS on it.

Then it’s just a matter of going through the standard macOS setup process: creating a user account, entering your WiFi password, signing into iCloud etc. It will offer to transfer data from another machine, but when setting up from scratch I prefer to handle this myself so I only get the programs and data that I want.

One thing I always make sure to do during setup is to turn on FileVault disk encryption. This is a great security feature with no noticeable performance penalty on a modern Mac. The one place where you will notice it is if you turn it on later on a larger hard drive, as your machine goes through and encrypts all the data on the disk. Better to turn it on up front so that everything gets encrypted as soon as it’s loaded onto the machine.

 

Installing Apps

Once the OS is up and running, the next step is to load my apps. One of the big advantages of setting up from scratch is that it’s a chance to give some careful thought to which apps I want to install. There’s no need to install something had on my old machine, but didn’t really use, or only tried once. One strategy for this is to “install on demand”; to wait until you actually need an app before you install it. If I don’t need FinalCut for another six months, I can wait until then to put it on. The problem is this adds an extra layer of friction when I need to use an app for the first time on this machine. With a laptop, it’s also possible that I might be on a slow internet connection the first time I need to use an app. I prefer to install the apps I think I’ll need up front, but I’m not going to just blindly reinstall all the apps I had on my old machine. I’ll assess whether I really use an app and how likely I am to need it.

One thing worth thinking about is now just “what apps do I use?”, but “what apps do I need on this machine?” My Mac mini was running as a home server, handling backups, Plex, and Drobo. Since I had been having some trouble with it I deliberately installed only the bare minimum of apps for that role when I set it up again. No need to install apps like Pages or Ulysses when I’m never going to do any writing on this machine.

Priority Apps

Rather than just going in and starting to download stuff, I have a couple of priorities. Setting up a new computer will involve entering a lot of passwords, so I absolutely need 1Password. I got my copy form the App Store, so the first thing I’ll do is log in to the store and download 1Password (my iCloud password is one of the few I actually have memorized, so I can get into the App Store and into iCloud to sync my passwords).

Setting up a new Mac also involves lots of repetitive typing. I’m going to have to put my email address in a lot of different things to get this Mac up and running, so TextExpander is a must. I haven’t upgraded to their latest subscription based version yet, so I have to make sure to download the old version 4 (it’s still available, but it’s not very prominent on their website).

My TextExpander snippets are synced via Dropbox, so that’s my next stop. I’ve got a fairly big Dropbox folder, so the whole thing will take a while to sync. Rather than waiting on that, I use the selective sync settings to sync only the TextExpander folder at first, so it downloads right away. Once I have that, I’ll go back in and sync the rest of my stuff.

Finally, I am used to using window management software to the point where I find it painful to do without it (especially on Macs with large displays, like the iMac, or the external 24” I use with my MacBook Pro). Magnet is my current weapon of choice in this area, and it’s the next thing I download.

Other Apps

With the foundation in place, I start going through my list of purchased apps in the Mac App Store and downloading deciding for each one whether I wanted it on that particular Mac. Mostly this is a simple process of asking myself “how likely am I to need this app”. I did run into a few tricky situations where I had a Mac App Store version of an app, but then had a newer version outside the App Store (either because the developer stopped offering it in the App Store, or because I was able to get upgrade pricing by using the non-app store version). There were a couple of instances where I downloaded the old version from the App Store, then realized that I had a license for a newer, non-app store version.5

After getting the App Store downloads going, I brought up 1Password and started going through the software licenses I have stored there. If I want an app on this machine I’ll go to the developer website and download the app from there.

Most of my apps are either in the App Store or have a license in 1Password. The trickier ones to remember are those that aren’t in either of those places. These are mostly free utilities of various types, or apps that go with particular pieces of hardware like my Drobo or ScanSnap.

Syncing Data

The advent of cloud services has made setting a computer up from scratch much easier than it was in the past. Most of my data automatically gets synced over to my new machine without much action on my part.

The vast majority of my data lives in Dropbox, that’s taken care of already. I keep my photo library in iCloud, but I like having a local copy on my machine. I’ll launch the Photos app and tell it to start downloading my pictures. I keep a few documents for my OmniGroup applications in their OmniPresence cloud storage system, so I’ll download the OmniPresence client and get those synced over.

There is some data I prefer not to keep in the cloud (tax returns and the like). I fire up my old Mac or connect a clone backup of the old hard drive and copy these things over from my Documents folder.

The tricky bit are the important bits of data that don’t live in the cloud or in my Documents folder. Things like Hazel actions and Automator scripts. Hazel in particular is a bit tricky since it really prefers that you export your actions on the old computer and then import them on the new one. When the old Hazel installation just got paved over that’s kind of hard. In one instance I ended up booting my MacBook Pro from a clone backup6 so I could launch Hazel and export all my actions.

Backing Up

Given how important my backups were when I had to unexpectedly repave my Mac mini, getting things backed up is a priority. Going through my whole backup strategy is an article in and of itself, but I’ll lay out my backup priorities with a newly set-up Mac.

Step one is Time Machine. This is the easy button when it comes to backing up a Mac and it’s a good first step.

Next up is my online backup service, Backblaze. They have a neat feature called “inherit backup state” where you can just point your computer at an existing online backup. This is great if you have lots of data already backed up in the cloud. Unfortunately, I found it a bit hit or miss. When I reformatted my Mac mini it didn’t work, so I had to start the process of uploading all my data to the cloud from scratch.7 It did work fine on my MacBook Pro, and I was able to point the new iMac and the Mac mini’s backup.

The last step is to clone the hard drive to an external disk. The key here is not to immediately reuse the same disk you were backing up to before. Keep that one on the shelf for at least a couple of months. You’re likely to run in to some bit of data that you need and forgot to transfer over during this process. Hard drives are cheap, pick up a new one.

Conclusion

Setting up a Mac from scratch is a bit of work, but it’s a good thing to do every once in a while8. It’s an opportunity to get rid of some cruft and rethink how I do things. I figure if I do it right, the time I spend will pay dividends down the line.


  1. Reformat the hard drive and reinstall everything. 
  2. As is often the case, there’s a Mac Power Users episode that’s a good reference for this. 
  3. You do have backups, right? 
  4. Even after booting into the recovery partition and using disk utility from there I couldn’t get rid of the Boot Camp partition. 
  5. Mailplane and OmniOutliner 
  6. Running macOS off of an external spinning hard drive is sooo sloooow. I should look into getting an SSD for my clone backups. 
  7. Particularly painful given that the Mac mini has a couple of terabytes of external storage hooked up to it. 
  8. Three times in three months was a bit much though.