Keeping your Mac up-to-date may seem like a chore, but it’s an essential part of protecting yourself online. Apple and app developers patch security holes when they’re found—and they add helpful new features to macOS and your applications, too.
Beyond the usual security patches and app updates, Apple offers shiny new versions of macOS to Mac users every year—for free. We’ll explain how it all works. You can automate much of this process so that updates take care of themselves without bothering you, too.
How to Install macOS Updates
Apple releases a new major version of macOS each year, usually around October. In between major updates, supplemental patches are deployed to fix bugs, patch security holes, and sometimes add new features and support for new products. These patches are referred to simply as updates and recorded in the version number, with 10.14.3 being the third such update to macOS 10.14.
These updates make changes to the core operating system, first-party apps like Safari and Mail, and may include firmware updates for hardware and peripherals. You don’t need to worry about installing the wrong thing since Apple only provides updates that are relevant to your Mac.
If you’re using macOS Mojave 10.14 or a newer version of macOS, you can update your Mac by clicking on “System Preferences” in the dock then choosing “Software Update” in the window that appears. Or, click the Apple menu icon on the menu bar and select “System Preferences.”
You can also search for this option by pressing Command+Spacebar, then typing “software update” to in the Spotlight window that appears.
Assuming you’re connected to the internet, your Mac will check for any available system updates. Click “Update Now” to start the update process. Your Mac may need to restart before the process is complete.
If you don’t see a “Software Update” option in the System Preferences window, you have macOS 10.13 or earlier installed. You must apply operating system updates via the Mac App Store.
Launch the App Store from the dock and click on the “Updates” tab. Once the window has refreshed, you should see any updates listed as “macOS 10.xx.x Update” (depending on your version).
Click “Update” next to the relevant entry, or click “Update All” at the top of the screen to update everything. You may need to restart your Mac for the update to take effect.
How to Automatically Install Updates
Your Mac can automatically check for, download, and install various types of updates.
For macOS 10.4 Mojave or later, head to System Preferences > Software Update and click on the “Advanced” button to control automatic updates. For macOS 10.3 High Sierra or earlier, you can find these options under System Preferences > App Store.
Enable “Check for updates” to have your Mac automatically check for updates and put a notification in the top-right corner of the screen if anything is found. If you disable this, you will need to check for updates in this menu manually.
Enabling “Download new updates when available” will download any available system updates and notify you when they’re ready to install. You will have to manually install these updates by clicking on the notification or visiting System Preferences > Software Update.
Choosing to “Install macOS updates” or “Install app updates from App Store” will install system and app updates automatically. You won’t need to manually approve anything, though you may be prompted to restart your machine for the updates to take effect.
System data files are often only installed when you use a feature that relies on them. Some examples include speech recognition assets, improvements to your Mac’s text to speech capabilities, fonts, and dictionary definitions. Security updates are downloads that patch known vulnerabilities in your system, even if you are running an older version of macOS. These include updates for the XProtect anti-malware feature built into macOS.
We recommend leaving automatic updates enabled so that your Mac remains secure and all macOS features work as advertised. If you turn it off, you will have to install these updates manually via Software Update instead.
How to Upgrade macOS to the Next Major Version
Upgrading macOS is different from updating it because you move from one major version to the next. These updates are made available once a year and introduce more pronounced changes than regular patches. You can discover the latest version of macOS by visiting Apple’s website.
Be aware that it’s difficult to downgrade your Mac to the previous version of macOS. Make sure any software that you rely on is compatible with the latest version of macOS before you take the plunge. You may have to wipe your Mac and reinstall macOS if you need to go back. You could also fully restore your current macOS system state from a Time Machine backup—assuming you created one first.
Before installing updates for your core operating system, it’s always a good idea to have a backup to hand in case things go wrong. You can create a backup using Time Machine and a spare hard drive for free. You can also use third party software to create a bootable backup if you want.
The latest version of macOS will always be made available via the Mac App Store. Launch the App Store by clicking its icon in your dock or by clicking the Apple icon on the menu bar and selecting “App Store.”
New versions are often highlighted on the “Discover” tab (or “Featured” tab on older versions), or you can search for “macOS” to find the latest result.
Click “Get” on the App Store entry to begin the download. You may need to enter your Apple ID password or use Touch ID if your computer allows it. Major operating system updates can take a while to download.
Once the download is complete, the update process should automatically start. You can quit the installer and resume at any time by launching the “Install macOS [name]” application (where “name” is the name of the latest release). Upgrading your operating system can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours, and will result in multiple restarts while the update is applied.
Updating Your Mac App Store Apps
The Mac App Store makes it easy to find, install, and maintain software on your Mac. All apps featured in the App Store are approved by Apple and sandboxed by design, which means they are run in a secure environment that shouldn’t result in damage to your Mac.
Launch the App Store by clicking the icon in your dock, by clicking the Apple icon on your menu bar and select “App Store,” or by pressing Command+Spacebar and searching for it. Head to the “Updates” tab to see a list of available updates. You can opt to update each app individually, or click “Update All” instead.
If you want your Mac App Store apps to update automatically, launch the App Store, then click on “App Store” in the top-left corner of the screen. Choose “Preferences” and make sure “Automatic Updates” is enabled.
Updating Apps Installed Outside of the Mac App Store
Not all apps are available on the Mac App Store. If you have to install an app manually, it will need to be updated differently. Many apps include the ability to update themselves, like Google’s Chrome browser (which automatically installs the latest version) and Microsoft Office, which uses a separate application called “Microsoft AutoUpdate” to apply updates.
Most apps will automatically check for updates and notify you. You can force a check by finding the relevant menu bar item. Where this is located depends on the app you’re using, but you can check:
- Under “App Name” in the menu bar, then “Check for Update”
- Under “App Name” choose “About [App Name]” then “Check for Update”
- Under “Help” in the menu bar, then “Check for Update”
- Within the application itself. For example, in Chrome, click Chrome > About Google Chrome and use the updater here.
- Via a dedicated update application, like “Microsoft AutoUpdate” for Microsoft Office on Mac
If an app doesn’t include the ability to update itself, you may need to update it manually. First find out what version of the app you are running by launching it, clicking “App Name” in the top-left corner of the screen then choosing “About [App Name].”
Now head to the app’s homepage and check to see if there’s a newer version of the app available. If so, download it. While the download completes navigate to your “Applications” folder and find the app in question. Drag the app icon to the Trash in your dock. Be aware you may lose some app data.
How to Update Mac System Tools and Drivers
Generally speaking, you don’t need to worry about drivers if you’re using a Mac. Apple detects your hardware and provides you with the latest updates for your particular configuration. The exception is third-party drivers and system tools.
You might have a third party driver installed if you use a product like Paragon NTFS, which enables full write access to NTFS-formatted drives. These tools often install a kernel extension and an icon in System Preferences, usually at the bottom of the screen.
If you have any such system tools or third-party drivers installed, look for the tweak under System Preferences. There should be an option to “Check for Updates” or “Update Now.” You will likely need to authorize any changes using your admin password, then restart your Mac for changes to take effect.
How to Update Safari Extensions
If you have installed any Safari Extensions (like the Evernote Web Clipper or Grammarly) from the Safari Extension Gallery (macOS 10.13 or earlier) or the Mac App Store (macOS 10.14 or later), updates will be installed automatically.
If you’ve installed a Safari extension manually from another source, you’ll need to update it manually. To do this launch Safari, click “Safari” in the top-left corner of the screen followed by “Preferences.” If there are any updates available, they will appear in the lower-left corner of the window. Click “Update” next to each item as required.
Outdated Safari extensions can put your Mac at risk. Make sure you disable any outdated extensions for which no updates exist. It’s safe to assume an extension is outdated if it is no longer being maintained—for example, if it has not received updates in over a year. You will find this information on the extension’s website. Disable an extension by unchecking the box next to it under Safari Preferences > Extensions.
Update Apps with Homebrew
Homebrew is a package distribution system for macOS that allows you to install apps via the command line (Terminal). Any apps you install via Homebrew can be updated with a single command. You’ll need to install the Homebrew version of the app for this to work.
First, you must install Homebrew on your Mac. You can then use Terminal to search for apps to install using the following command:
brew search office
This will search for any packages that match the search term “office.” You install any relevant packages you find using the following command:
brew cask install libreoffice
You can now run a single command to update apps installed via Homebrew:
brew cask upgrade
This won’t work for apps that have their own in-built updaters, like Google Chrome.
Update Your Software and Stay Safe
Where possible, enable automatic updates and make sure to create regular backups of your Mac for ultimate peace of mind. Take the time to upgrade your computer once a year to the latest version, but make sure all of your software is compatible before pulling the trigger.
Installing software updates is the best thing you can do to ward off newly discovered security vulnerabilities. If you rely on an app that’s no longer being actively maintained, consider searching for an alternative that won’t put you at risk.