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Can You Trust an Upgrade?

On Monday afternoon, Apple released a fixer-upper to address screen distortion and flickering problems with some 27-inch iMacs. So far, the response has been mixed. Some who had the problem report that the symptoms are gone, while others still report them. I never had the problem, but ran the update anyway without any adverse impact.

In its release notes, Apple also suggests: “If your screen remains black after applying the updater or if you continue to experience image corruption or display flickering after successfully completing this update, contact AppleCare or an Apple Authorized Service Provider.”

This makes it clear that they don’t expect the firmware update to address all of the problems, but it’ll be up to the repair centers to deal with the rest. It may require replacing your iMac’s flat panel display or the entire computer, and that’s up to your dealer. I suppose if you just bought your iMac, getting another will be easier, particularly if you bought it direct from Apple, but a fix is a fix.

Now it’s also true that firmware upgrades are rather draconian in nature. It’s not as if you can back out and reinstall the older version, as you can with an OS or app upgrade (although I suppose it is possibly in some cases), so if the upgrade fails, your Mac is toast. That said, I haven’t heard any complaints so far, except from the people for whom the fix isn’t successful. I also notice that the number of reports of troubles in Apple’s discussion forums has dropped considerably in recent days, which seems to indicate that fewer and fewer people continue to experience problems with their new iMacs.

Make no mistake about it! I’m one of those inveterate early adopters. I tend to install most everything that comes my way in terms of a needed upgrade, particularly because I want to speak about them in a knowledgeable fashion on the radio show or in a Night Owl post. While a few upgrade files from third-party products haven’t fared so well, I have not encountered any difficulties with Apple’s products, even in the dark days of System 7 where mediocrity ruled.

My hard-worn advice, however, is for you to observe caution unless the update contains a critical fix that is seriously impacting your workflow. It’s usually a good idea to check the various troubleshooting sites — or even Apple’s forums — to see if there are any reports that the update breaks more than it fixes. Even if the file shows up in Software Update, you aren’t forced to run it. You can simply wait for those responses to pour in and accept the installation later on.

Understand, however, that someone, somewhere, will report a problem with just about anything that’s released. On occasion, it’s not so much a defect in the update as with a single or small number of systems that have had an unknown number of changes or ongoing abuse. There’s really no way to know, as the messages are usually not clear about such matters, so it’s best to look at a number of comments before you decide something is fatally flawed.

While there are some folk remedies in preparing for an upgrade, what you should do is pretty simple. You can’t really do anything about a firmware update that might, in a rare circumstances, brick your Mac, other than to have a backup on an external drive or network share in case the computer requires repair to undo the damage.

When it comes to software updates, performing a backup first ought to be sufficient. Unfortunately, Time Machine, while a great idea, doesn’t really give you an rapid way to roll back an entire system should the update fail. Individual files or applications, however, can be restored. Maybe that’s the feature that Apple ought to consider for 10.7. There was actually a third-party utility that promised to perform a rollback in the days of the Classic Mac OS, but it never worked properly.

Nowadays, you can use your Time Machine or a clone backup to restore your Mac completely, but it can take several hours to accomplish. But a recent backup is far better than no backup.

You may also want to run the Verify Disk function in Disk Utility to make sure your hard drive is healthy. But repairing disk permissions is of questionable value. If you do have a permissions issue, it would previously manifest itself by being unable to launch or properly use an application or open a file. Just doing so won’t cause any harm, but it won’t really make the update process any safer.

If you wish to run Repair Disk Permissions after the update, I suppose that won’t hurt either, though there’s little chance it’ll make a failed update suddenly function. As to those various repair utilities, such as Cocktail and Leopard Cache Cleaner, there are things they fix that might help make your Mac run more reliably, particularly if you have done lots of system tweaks. But I would check the documentation first to make sure that you are running fixes that will really make a difference.

In the end, I remain pretty confident when it comes to Apple. They certainly screw up from time to time, and maybe more than we like. But if something breaks, they will usually do the right thing and make the needed repairs to your hardware or software.