How to Upgrade Install OS X El Capitan on Your Mac

Simple steps for performing an upgrade install of El Capitan

With OS X El Capitan (10.11), the upgrade install is the default method of performing an installation. That means the installer application will launch automatically upon downloading the OS from the Mac App Store.

As tempting as it may be to get on with the installation, it is a good idea to quit the installer at this point so as to take care of some important setup details.

OS X El Capitan Desktop
Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

What You Need to Run OS X El Capitan

Before downloading and installing OS X El Capitan, you should know whether your Mac is equipped to run the OS. Review the El Capitan minimum system requirements to learn what kind of hardware you need, as well as which devices support the OS.

Once you have determined that your Mac meets the requirements, you’re almost ready to proceed. First, you need to take steps to ensure that your Mac is ready to successfully install the OS and that you'll have a trouble-free installation process.

Back Up Existing Data

Make sure your current data is safely backed up. Installing a new OS will make major changes to your Mac, including deleting some system files, replacing others, setting new file permissions, and adjusting preference files for various system components and apps.

If anything should go wrong during the install process, it's your Mac that may end up losing critical data. The risk just isn't worth it, especially when a basic backup is so easy to perform.

Types of Installations Supported by OS X El Capitan

Gone are the days of complex install options, such as Archive and Install, which backed up your current system and then performed an upgrade install. Apple once again provides only two installation methods: the upgrade install, which is the process that this guide will walk you through, and a clean install.

  • Upgrade Install overwrites your current version of OS X, replaces any outdated system files, installs new system files, resets file permissions, updates Apple-supplied apps, and installs new Apple apps. There are more steps involved in the update process, but the one thing an upgrade install won’t do is change any of your user data.
  • Clean Install derives its name from the first step of the process: cleaning the target volume of any system or user data. This is usually done by first erasing the target volume and then installing OS X El Capitan. Using the clean install option will leave you with a Mac that is very similar to a brand-new Mac fresh out of the box. There will be no third-party apps installed, and no users or user data. When your Mac first starts up after a clean install, the initial setup wizard will walk you through the process of creating a new administrator account. The clean install option is an effective way of starting over, and may be a good method of installing a new OS if you've had problems with your Mac that you cannot resolve. Learn how to perform a clean install of OS X El Capitan here.

Even though the installer does not touch your user data, most major system updates include changes to Apple apps. It's likely that when you first run apps, such as Mail or Photos, the app itself will update associated user data. In the case of Mail, your mail database may be updated. In the case of Photos, your older iPhoto or Aperture image library may be updated. This is one of the reasons why it's a great idea to perform a backup before running the OS X installer; you can recover any needed data files that may be updated or potentially cause problems.

Check Your Startup Drive for Errors

You'll need to check your startup drive for errors and repair file permissions. You can check that your Mac’s startup drive is in good shape and that the existing system files have the correct permissions, by using Disk Utility to repair hard drives and disk permissions.

Once you complete steps in the above guide, we're set to begin the actual installation.

How to Download OS X El Capitan From the Mac App Store

OS X El Capitan Installer
The OS X El Capitan Installer will start automatically once the download from the Mac App store is complete. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

OS X El Capitan can be found in the Mac App Store as a free upgrade for anyone who is running OS X Snow Leopard or later. Should you have a Mac that meets the minimum system requirements for El Capitan but is running an earlier OS, you will need to purchase OS X Snow Leopard from the Apple store, and then follow instructions to install Snow Leopard on your Mac. Snow Leopard is the oldest version of OS X that can access the Mac App Store.

Download OS X 10.11 (El Capitan) From the Mac App Store

Use your web browser to navigate to the El Capitan upgrade page on the Apple App Store. Scroll down to step No. 4 and select Download OS X El Capitan. The download will begin. Once complete, the OS X El Capitan installer will start up on its own.

At this point, it may be a good idea now to quit the installer and create a bootable OS X El Capitan installer on a USB flash drive. This step is optional but can be helpful if you have multiple Macs to update; you can use the bootable USB flash drive to run the installer on any Mac.

Start the Upgrade Process Using the OS X El Capitan Installer

OS X El Capitan Installation Progress
The initial install of OS X El Capitan files can take from 10 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on your Mac model and the type of drive installed. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

At this point, you've backed up your data, checked that your Mac meets the requirements for running El Capitan, downloaded the OS X El Capitan installer from the Mac App Store, and (if needed) created a bootable copy of the OS X El Capitan installer on a USB flash drive. You can now start the installer by launching the Install OS X El Capitan app in the /Applications/ folder on your Mac.

  1. The installer will open displaying the Install OS X window. Select Continue.

  2. The license terms for OS X are displayed; read through the license if you'd like and select Agree.

  3. The Install OS X window will display the current startup volume as the destination for the installation. If this is the correct location, select Install.

    If this is not the correct location, and you have multiple disks attached to your Mac, select Show All Disks, then choose the destination disk from the available choices. Select Install when ready.

    If you're attempting to perform a clean install on another volume, you may wish to refer to the Clean Install OS X El Capitan guide.

  4. Enter your administrator password, then select OK.

  5. The installer will copy a few files to the destination volume and then restart your Mac. A progress bar will display, with an estimate of the remaining time. It may take a while.

  6. Once the progress bar is complete, your Mac will restart and begin the OS X El Capitan setup process, where you provide configuration information to set up your personal preferences.

OS X El Capitan Setup Process for an Upgrade Install

Setup iCloud Keycain
iCloud Keychain is one of the optional items that can be configured during the installation. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

At this point, the El Capitan installation has finished and is displaying the OS X Login screen. This is true even if your previous version of OS X was set to bring you directly the Desktop. Don’t worry; you can always use the System Preferences pane later on to set the user login environment to the way you want it.

Configure OS X El Capitan User Settings

  1. Enter your administrator account password, then press the enter or return key or select the right-facing arrow next to the password field.

  2. OS X El Capitan will ask for your Apple ID. Supplying this information will allow the setup wizard to automatically configure a number of user preferences, including syncing with your iCloud account. You don’t have to supply your Apple ID at this point; you can choose to do it later or not at all. But providing the information will make the setup process move more quickly. Provide your Apple ID password, then select Continue.

  3. A sheet will drop down asking if you wish to use Find My Mac, a service that allows you to locate your Mac using geolocation tracking; you can even lock and erase the contents of your Mac if it is stolen. You don't have to enable this function if you don't wish to. Select Allow or Not Now.

  4. The terms and conditions for using OS X, iCloud, Game Center, and related services will display. Read through the license terms if you'd like, then select Agree.

  5. A sheet will drop down asking you to confirm the agreement. Select Agree.

  6. The next step asks if you wish to set up iCloud Keychain. This service syncs your various Apple devices to use the same keychain, which contains passwords and other information you have decided to save in the keychain. If you were using the iCloud Keychain in the past and wish to continue, select Set Up iCloud Keychain. If you haven't used the iCloud Keychain service in the past, select Set Up Later and then follow our guide to set up and use iCloud Keychain. The process is rather complex, and you should have a good understanding of the security issues before proceeding. Make your selection, then select Continue.

  7. The setup wizard will finish the configuration process and then display your new OS X El Capitan desktop.

Try out the new operating system. You may find with a fresh OS that some things do not work quite the same way that they used to. OS X El Capitan may have reset a few system preferences to their defaults. Take time to explore the System Preferences pane to get things back to the way you like them.

If you'd like, return to some of the optional items you might have breezed past during setup, such as setting up iCloud and iCloud Keychain.