Both Aaron and I have recently decided to reformat our Macbooks and start from scratch. We have documented the process along the way; to make it easier to get up and running again, and here’s our little checklist of things you should do before you reformat your Mac.
- Reformatting your Mac requires careful planning.
- Backup your files, apps and settings on an external hard drive.
- Restoring should be quick and painless.
- Download the checklist in PDF format.
If you are planning to reformat your Mac, we recommend you save / bookmark this post. We also have a checklist for you to use that you can download here. Just print it out, tick each box and you’re good to go.
- External hard drive (we use this one and this one).
- Bonus: Dropbox , iCloud or any other cloud storage you use.
- OS X on USB drive.
- Optional: 1Password.
One thing to keep in mind is that reformatting is something you have to carefully plan. You might accidentally erase very valuable files like pictures and videos, if you don’t plan your reformat. Most of your time will be spent downloading files for preparation and transferring files to and from your external hard drive. The rest of the process fairly quick.
The restoration will consist mostly of reinstalling applications and transferring files from the external drive to your Mac. This should take no more than a couple of hours (depending how much data you have to transfer). We recommend you set aside an afternoon to fully restore your Mac.
Now let’s go over the process step-by-step.
1. Backup important files
The external hard drive is important for backing up your important files that you will be using again. Anything that is not stored in the cloud should be backed up on your external hard drive. A list of files is included below:
- /Pictures/ folder
- /Movies/ folder
- /Music/ folder (contains iTunes settings and data too)
- /Documents/ folder
- Database files (1Password, Devonthink, Bento, etc)
- ~/Library/Keychains/ folder (contains all your WiFi passwords and passwords used by other programs).
- Your Dropbox folder.
Here’s a quick guide to backing up your 1Password keychain. If you are not using 1Password, we recommend you start using it. It’s allows you to store sensitive information such as passwords, serials, licenses, etc in one encrypted database that’s quick and easy to access.
2. List of apps
The next thing you want to do is have a list of all the apps you frequently use. Write down the must-have apps (it’s usually around 20–25 apps from our experience). We have a list already of recommended Mac apps that we always refer back to.
Once you have your list, download the applications (the installer files) and store them on your external hard drive. When you finish installing OS X, you can then get up and running fairly quickly by installing your essential apps from the external hard drive.
3. Collect licenses and serials
A lot of your apps you have bought outside the Mac Appstore have licenses and serials. We highly recommend you take some time and collect all of them, and store them inside 1Password.
This will save you a lot of time reinstalling your apps.
If you have purchased apps through the Mac App store, you don’t have to deal with this problem. That’s one of the benefits of buying through the App Store – you don’t have to deal with serials. It’s all tied to your Apple ID.
4. Backup settings
The applications will take up the bulk of your time but it’s the finer details of specific settings you really want to back up. Almost every single must-have app you have has its own fine-tuned settings and you definitely want to save those.
Most apps will allow you to export settings but if one of your apps doesn’t, the easiest solution is to make screenshots of your settings and store those on your external hard drive.
Also, if you have any specific settings in System Settings, it’s worthwhile screenshotting (is that even a word?) those too.
5. List of widgets, snippets and plugins
Another important aspect of your favorite programs are its widgets, snippets and plugins. Make a list of them and back those up on your external hard drive too (put them in the same folder of your app).
- TextExpander snippets (storing via Dropbox is even better)
- Hazel rules
- OS X Dashboard widgets
- Your browser (Safari/FireFox/Chrome) extensions / plugins
6. Deauthorize iTunes
iTunes only allows you to use up to five computers to use stuff from your Apple ID. When you format your Mac and you forget to deauthorize your iTunes, as soon as you authorize your iTunes again it will think you’re using another computer. This means your count goes up which is not what you want. Before you format your Mac, always deauthorize your iTunes!
- Click iTunes Store on the left side of iTunes.
- If you’re not signed in to the store, click the Account button, then enter your account name and password.
- Click the Account button again (your Apple ID appears on the button), enter your password, and then click View Account.
- In the Account Information window, click Deauthorize All.
Restoring Your Mac
Up to this point you have backed up the essentials. Use your OS X USB Key or recovery partition to reformat and reinstall OS X. Assuming the installation went fine, the next process is to restore everything. Here’s a quick process outline:
- Install all the apps from your external hard drive (all your serials and licenses in 1Password will come in handy).
- Launch Mac App Store to download and install apps.
- Restore the settings, extensions and plugins of all your apps.
- Restore your System Settings.
- Restore all your files (pictures, documents, movies, 1Password keychain, etc).
- Run Software Update to update OS X.
One note about restoring your Dropbox folder. Make sure you first install Dropbox. Only after you’ve installed it, pause the syncing, copy the Dropbox files back and then resume syncing. This will avoid you having to re-download all your files. What will happen is that Dropbox will go through all your files and do a version check. Anything that is newer will be synced accordingly.
The last step is restoring your Keychain. Copy the keychain file on your external hard drive and copy it to ~/Library/Keychains/. Now you want to import that data. Launch Keychain Access (Applications > Utilities > Keychain Access), go to File and Add Keychain. Select the keychain file you just added and now you will have all your WiFi passwords back.
Quick and Easy
That’s it. You have now successfully reformatted your Mac in the most efficient way possible.
If you want to have a checklist for print, you can download one here in PDF format that we’ve created. If you know someone who is going to reformat the Mac, we would appreciate if you would refer them to this post and/or give that person this checklist.
Do you want to see more examples of our personal systems and workflows? We reveal them all on our Personal Systems seminar. It’s completely free and you’ll get to see the exact step-by-step systems and workflows that we personally use to be insanely productive. Register for the next available seminar here.
Photo by Travis Isaacs.