How to Prepare Your Mac for Using macOS Public Beta

Don't Jump Into the Public Beta of macOS Without Looking

Apple Beta Software Program

For most of OS X’s history, beta versions of OS X were reserved for Apple developers, who, being developers were pretty accustomed to working with software that tended to freeze, suddenly stop working, or even worse, cause files to become corrupt. This was just another day to a software developer. With the introduction of macOS, the beta process has not changed.

Developers know a few tricks for keeping risky beta software bottled up and away from their day-to-day Mac environment; after all, no one wants to see their system crash and take their work environment down with it. That's why it's common practice to run betas in virtual environments, on dedicated drive volumes, or even on entire Macs dedicated just to testing.

With Apple now offering a public beta of OS X or macOS every time a new version is released, we, as everyday Mac users, can also try out beta software, just like developers do. And just like developers, we should take a few precautions to ensure that our Macs can’t be affected by the beta version of OS X or macOS we plan to install and try out.

General OS X and macOS Beta Participation Rules

The rules for how you work with beta software are largely based on the degree of risk you're willing to take. I've seen people install early beta software directly on their Macs with no forethought at all, and live to tell the tale, so to speak. But I've seen many more who have done this, and only have tales of woe to tell.

Most of us are risk adverse, at least when it comes to our Macs, and that's the group for which these guidelines were written. I'm going to show you how to run beta versions of OS X or macOS with as little risk as possible to the main workaday version of your operating system and user data, while still allowing you to participate in the public beta program.

Tom’s Working With Beta Rules

Don’t even think about using your startup drive containing the current version of OS X and your user data as a target for installing macOS beta software. It’s a bad idea and one that someday you'll regret. Never, ever compromise the Mac you depend on every day.

Instead, create a special environment for the beta version of macOS. This can take one of two common forms: a virtual environment or a dedicated volume to host the beta version of macOS and any user data you wish to include.

Using a Virtual Environment

Running the beta in a virtual machine using Parallels, VMWare Fusion, or VirtualBox has a number of advantages, including isolating the beta software from your working version of OS X, thus protecting both the OS and your user data from any beta foul-ups.

The disadvantage is that developers of virtual environments usually don't support the beta versions of macOS, and may not be ready to provide you with assistance when the install of the beta version of macOS fails, or the beta causes the virtual environment to freeze up.

Still, with a little digging, or checking online forums, you can usually find a way to make the beta versions work in one or more of the virtual environments.

Using a Partition to House the Beta Version of macOS

By far the easiest method is to create a special beta partition, using Disk Utility to set aside a partition of drive space just for the beta software. You can even use an entire drive if you have an extra one available. Once the partition is created, you can use the Mac’s built-in startup manager to select which ​volume you will boot from.

The advantage is that the beta is running in a real Mac environment, not an artificial one provided by a virtual machine. The beta is likely to be a bit more stable, and less likely to incur problems.

The disadvantage is that you can’t run both your normal Mac environment and the beta software concurrently. There's also an ever-so-slight chance that a catastrophic beta issue could cause issues outside of the beta volume you created. This unlikely scenario could occur if the beta and the normal environments are housed in different partitions on the same physical drive. If a beta issue causes problems with the drive's partition table, then both the normal and beta volumes could be affected. To avoid this very remote possibility, you can put the beta on a separate drive.

Additional Beta Issues to Consider

One of the problems you'll likely face when working with a beta version of macOS is applications no longer working correctly. For instance, when Apple released the public beta of OS X El Capitan, it marked the end of support for Java SE 6, an older version of Java that's commonly used by some applications. Apple considers Java SE 6 so buggy and full of security issues that the OS doesn't even allow that Java environment to be installed.

As a result, any app that relies on that specific version of Java will no longer run under the beta of OS X.

The Java SE 6 issue is an example of a permanent change to the OS that affects any app going forward, however, the more likely type of issues you'll encounter are applications that simply no longer work with the beta version of macOS, but that problem will likely be fixed by the app developers at a later date.

The last major consideration when working with a macOS beta pertains to individual apps supplied by Apple. Apple often changes how its apps store data. The beta version of an app may convert your old data format to the new data format, but there's no guarantee that you'll be able to take the converted data back to your current version of OS X and the associated app, or even that you can use that data with the released version of macOS in the near future. It's possible for Apple to abandon a change during the beta period, and use a different system or revert to the older one. Any data that has already been converted is stuck in limbo. This is an example of one of the many risks of participating in a beta program.

Still Willing to Participate in a Beta? Then Back Up, Back Up, Back Up

Before you even download the macOS beta installer, create a current backup of all of your data. Remember, this backup may be the only way you have to return to your pre-beta environment should something go wrong.

This backup should include any data you have stored in iCloud because the beta will likely access and work with iCloud data.

Tom’s Beta Rules in Review

  • Don’t install the macOS public beta on your current startup drive.
  • Create a target volume for the beta, using a new drive partition or an entirely separate drive. As an alternative, you can use one of the virtual environments.
  • Clone your current startup data to the target location if you wish to work with your existing user data with the beta. Otherwise, use a clean install method if you just want to try the beta software by itself.
  • Create a current backup of your current startup drive before you start installing the macOS beta.
  • Don't use the beta for any day-to-day work. Betas by nature aren't reliable, and you shouldn't trust them for important work.
  • And finally, have fun exploring the new version of macOS before the official release.