Installing OS X for the first time?
A guide to installation methods

There are a variety of methods for installing Macs:

  • Bootable CD/DVD discs
  • Bootable USB drives
  • Bootable Firewire drives
  • Bootable Thunderbolt drives
  • Installation over target disk mode
  • Installer partition on internal harddrive
  • Recovery partition
  • Internet recovery (netboot from Apple Servers)
  • Remote install OS X (sharing optical drive)
  • Not all of them are available for every Mac.

    Bootable CD/DVD discs

    Optical discs are the easiest way to install older Mac OS X operating systems (up to 10.4) or if you happen to have original discs. Newer Mac OS X releases are generally bigger than 4.7 GB, thus creating problems when buring them to DVD-R media:

    • DVD-R DL (dual layer) discs are expensive and hard to get in some places
    • Many DVD drives from older Macs have problems reading DVD-R DL media

    Bootable USB drives

    Bootable USB drives are the method of choice for all Intel-based Macs, especially those without an internal optical drive, which include all recent Macs. The installation is generally much faster than from optical media.

    Bootable Firewire drives

    Bootable Firewire drives may be used with both PowerPC and Intel-based Macs and it is the primary alternative to optical discs on older PowerPC Macs, as most of them cannot boot from USB drives but only from Firewire drives. Most recent Intel-based Macs are not equipped with Firewire ports anymore, due to the transition to Thunderbolt. The installation is generally much faster than from optical media.

    Bootable Thunderbolt drives

    Bootable Thunderbolt drives may be used with recent Intel-based Macs. The installation is generally on magnitudes than from any other media, including USB.

    Installation over target disk mode

    The target Mac may be placed in target disk mode by pressing the T-key on startup, while being connected to another Mac over a Firewire or Thunderbolt cable. The intaller is booted on this other Mac and the target Mac's harddrive is selected as the destination. This is a very useful alternative for installing on PowerPC Macs when no Firewire harddrive or optical disc is available. As the installation is run on another Mac, you must ensure that that the system requirements are met. See HT1661 - How to use and troubleshoot FireWire target disk mode or

    Installer partition on internal harddrive

    The internal harddrive is either placed in another Mac or the Mac is connected over target disk mode. A partition is created on the internal harddrive, onto which the installer disk image is restored and from which the Mac can later boot. The installation is faster and more reliable than from optical media, but reclaiming the space requires additional work.

    Recovery partition

    Starting from Mac OS X Lion 10.7, Macs have a Recovery partiton to reinstall Mac OS X that can be access by pressing Apple+R (or the Alt key) during system boot. The necessary files for installation are downloaded from Apple's servers, which requires Internet connectivity and usually also a sign-in to the App Store, with a Mac OS X purchase. For more info, see HT4718 - OS X: About OS X Recovery on Apple support

    Internet recovery (netboot from Apple Servers)

    Most Intel Macs introduced after 2011 can directly boot from Wi-Fi or Ethernet by connecting to Apple's servers, even when no Recovery partition exists on the internal drive, as this function is integrated into it's EFI firmware. The necessary files for installation are downloaded from Apple's servers, which requires Internet connectivity and usually also a sign-in to the App Store, with a Mac OS X purchase. May not be as reliable as from local installation media and is much generally slower. For more info, see HT4718 - OS X: About OS X Recovery on Apple support

    Remote install OS X (sharing optical drive)

    This method enables using another Macs optical disc drive for installation. It is primarily used by Macbook Air. This method has been deprecated by Apple with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. The Remote Install Mac OS X.app utility can be found on Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. See HT2129 - OS X: Reinstalling software using Remote Install with Leopard and Snow Leopard at Apple Support for more information.

    Now we are going to write the image to the USB flash drive.

    Intel-based Macs

    Intel-based Macs support these methods:

    There are a variety of methods for installing Macs:

  • Bootable CD/DVD discs
  • Bootable USB drives
  • Bootable Firewire drives
  • Bootable Thunderbolt drives
  • Installation over target disk mode
  • Installer partition on internal harddrive
  • Recovery partition - only with Mac OS X 10.7+
  • Internet recovery (netboot from Apple Servers) - only some 2010 and all 2011+ models
  • Remote install OS X (sharing optical drive) - only some models
  • As all Intel-based Macs have USB ports, but not all have other ports (Firewire, Thunderbolt), so using USB install media is easiest and most universal option.

    PowerPC-based Macs

    (Most) PowerPC-based Macs support these methods:

    There are a variety of methods for installing Macs:

  • Bootable CD/DVD discs
  • Bootable Firewire drives
  • Installation over target disk mode
  • Installer partition on internal harddrive
  • If your PowerPC-based Mac has a Firewire port, it is the easiest way for installation, especially if you wish to avoid burning a DVD-R DL disc for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Earlier Mac OS X versions conveniently fit on a single DVD or multiple CDs. For PowerPC-Macs without Firewire, using an optical disc or extracting the harddrive and creating an installer partition is the easiest option.


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