Is your Mac getting a little long in the tooth? Has Apple announced that the new macOS will leave your Mac behind? Fear not, for you still have options like soldiering on, installing a new version of macOS against Apple’s will, or ditching macOS entirely.
Apple Decides When Support Ends
Apple has no official written policy on what happens when your Mac is no longer supported by major operating system upgrades. These upgrades happen once per year, normally around October, and they have a new name like Catalina, Mojave, or Big Sur.
macOS is designed first and foremost for Apple’s latest computers. As modern machines become more powerful, there comes a point when older machines simply aren’t up to the task anymore. At that stage, these machines are potentially “stuck” on the last compatible major release forever.
This generally happens once the machine is seven or eight years old. As an example, the 2021 macOS Monterey update drops support for several machines that were compatible with the previous version (Big Sur). These include iMacs from 2014, the 2013 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, and 2015’s MacBook.
Do Old Versions of macOS Get Updates?
Apple’s track record suggests that the company will update the latest version of macOS plus the previous two versions. The two older versions will continue to receive occasional software updates, which mostly focus on security fixes. The latest version of macOS will get more comprehensive updates like performance tweaks and bug fixes.
The latest release will get brand new features like overhauls to apps like Safari or Mail or changes to the way that macOS works. When Apple added Night Shift to macOS in the 10.12.4 update, older versions of macOS like 10.11 and 10.10 didn’t get this feature.
Sometimes, Apple will update versions of macOS that fall outside of the two-year cutoff. In November of 2020, Apple issued a security update for macOS High Sierra, even though it was three versions behind the latest release (Big Sur) at the time. Apple can make calls like this based on how many people are still using the software and how severe the security issues are.
A glance at Apple’s register of security updates reveals that this doesn’t happen too often. This suggests that many other “minor” security issues could go unaddressed for Mac users on older versions of macOS.
So if you find yourself in this situation, what should you do?
Option 1: Keep Using an Outdated Version of macOS
Your first option is to carry on using your outdated Mac regardless of software status. You will still get security updates for the first two years, and your Mac should continue to function like it always has outside of any hardware issues you might face.
But there are problems with this approach. If you use an iPhone or iPad, you could lose the ability to connect it to your Mac when you update to a newer version of iOS. This makes it impossible to perform local backups or transfer files via a USB connection.
As time goes on, you might start to lose software support, too. Some apps could require a newer version of macOS, just as iPhone and iPad apps require a minimum version of iOS. This could result in apps that you’ve purchased via the Mac App Store not updating or working at all.
If you use Safari, keep in mind that your browser will stop receiving updates outside of security fixes. This might result in web pages not rendering correctly or in web apps that refuse to work. If you’re determined to keep using your Mac at this stage, we’d recommend a third-party browser like Firefox, Chrome, or Edge.
Option 2: Install an Unsupported macOS Release Anyway
Apple doesn’t share why it decides to exclude a Mac from a major release, but performance likely plays a big part in the decision. If a new version of macOS might make performance significantly worse, Apple could decide to drop support for that model.
But what if the internet knows better? This appears to be what many have concluded with the rise of macOS “patcher” apps that make it possible to install unsupported versions of macOS on your old Apple hardware.
This really got started with dosdude1’s Mojave Patcher and Catalina Patcher in 2018 and 2019, respectively. These tweaks required that you download the right version of macOS, format a USB stick, and create your own install medium that ignored Apple’s restrictions on eligible models.
For macOS Big Sur, Patched Sur makes the process much easier. You can use the app to evaluate whether your Mac is suitable, download the right version of macOS, configure a USB drive, and create your install medium. You can then update macOS using Patched Sur by running the “post-install” app that’s included with each release.
At the time of writing in June 2021, macOS Monterey isn’t even in public beta, so nothing like Patched Sur exists for it yet. The most promising project for the latest release is the OpenCore Legacy Patcher, which also supports Big Sur. To learn more, check out the macOS Monterey on Unsupported Macs thread over on the MacRumors forums.
While installing the latest version of macOS will improve your support in terms of software updates, macOS features, and so on, there are drawbacks, too. The main one is performance, since many models were excluded for this reason. A note in the Patched Sur readme states: “If you have anything older than a 2012/2013 Mac, it’ll be terrible.”
You might have issues with discreet GPU switching, which means that some Mac models won’t be able to use their more powerful graphics chips after the update. This is catastrophic for performance, as documented in the Patched Sur Supported Macs document:
“No graphics acceleration” is a tremendous, almost exponential, slowdown that SHOULD NOT be ignored. For instance, consider a simple task, simply minimizing a Safari window:
- Late 2012 13″ MacBook Pro: <1 second
- Early 2011 13″ MacBook Pro: 14 seconds
- Late 2009 13″ MacBook: 25 seconds
You might also lose wireless networking, but this can likely be fixed with a few of Patched Sur’s post-install patches. If you decide that an unsupported version of macOS isn’t for you, you’ll need to source the right disk image, create an install medium, and reinstall macOS from scratch to fix it.
If you decide to go ahead with the installation, make sure that you make a Time Machine backup first.
Option 3: Install Linux (or Windows)
Ditching macOS isn’t ideal if you bought your Mac with Apple’s ecosystem in mind. You’ll lose access to apps and services that work in tandem with your Mac, like tabs that sync between devices and seamless integration with iCloud. You’ll also miss out on Apple technologies like AirDrop, iMessage, and AirPlay.
It’s worth taking a look at what you use your Mac for on a daily basis before taking this step. If you decide that you’d rather get more mileage out of your existing hardware regardless of which operating system you have to use, consider a desktop-ready version of Linux.
For an old Mac, Linux makes the most sense. A user-friendly release like Ubuntu will have excellent support for common bugbears like wireless adapters and trackpads, which often trip up Mac and MacBook owners. You can choose to run Linux from a USB drive or even dual-boot Linux with macOS, just in case you need Apple’s platform occasionally.
Option 4: Retire Your Mac
Eventually, regardless of how long you try to delay it, it will be time to retire your Mac. But there are many ways to sunset your trusty computer that don’t involve a landfill.
To start with, Apple will likely give you some money off a new Mac thanks to their trade-in scheme. Head to the Trade in with Apple website and select your model to see how much Apple will give you for it. In the worst-case scenario, Apple will only offer you a free recycling service.
Even if your Mac is no longer receiving operating system updates, it might still have a resale value on the second-hand market. Apple computers (and other gadgets) are sought after, so head to eBay, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace and see what similar models are selling for.
One of the better ways of retiring your Mac is to use it as a server. Even an outdated version of macOS is stable enough for running a media server like PLEX, hosting network files using SMB, or acting as a network Time Machine backup location.
For best results, prevent your Mac from accessing the internet at all. If you do this, you won’t need to worry too much about the security implications of running an outdated version of macOS. If you don’t use your Mac for things like browsing the web, you won’t be exposed to some of the most common security problems.
Time to Upgrade?
If you’re coming from a Mac that’s no longer supported, it might have been a while since you bought a Mac. The latest models use ARM-based Apple Silicon systems-on-chip that use a different architecture to the Intel Macs that came before them.
Read more about how Apple plans to support legacy software and new universal binaries that work across macOS, iOS, and iPadOS.