Apple uses its App Store to distribute its software, like new Mac operating systems. It’s convenient, but sometimes it can take a while for a download to finish. And if you have multiple Macs, it’s inefficient to download the new OS to each and every Mac.
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That’s why I like to make a bootable external drive for the sole purpose of installing the Mac operating system. When I need to tend to a bunch of Macs, it’s much faster to use a bootable drive instead of going to each Mac, launching the App Store, searching for the operating system, downloading it (after entering my Apple ID), and then running the installer.
- Turn on the Mac and continue to hold down the power button until you see the startup options window. It displays all bootable volumes (which should be your installer and the internal drive on your Mac), and a gear icon labeled “Options”. Select the volume with the bootable installer, then click Continue. The macOS installer opens.
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Make a bootable installer drive: The quick way There’s a free app called Install Disk Creator that you can use to make the installation drive. It has been updated to support High Sierra.
You can create a bootable USB flash drive with the macOS Sierra installer that’s now available. The installer software will take up nearly 5GB of storage space. Here’s how to create a bootable macOS Sierra installer drive.
Download the macOS Sierra installer
Launch the App Store app, then look for macOS Sierra in the store. (Here’s a link.) Click on the Download button, and your Mac will download the installer to your Applications folder. If it automatically launches after download, quit the installer.
If you’ve already upgraded your Mac to Sierra, the installer is removed from the Applications folder. You can download it again if you go to Purchased in the App Store. Look for macOS Sierra in the list of apps that you’ve bought, and click on the Download button. If it automatically launches after download, quit the installer.
Get an external drive
You can use a USB flash drive or a hard drive with room for the installer software. I’ve used different drives with success, including a VisionTek 120GB USB 3.0 Pocket Solid State Drive ($83 on Amazon) and an old 8GB Iomega Micro Mini Hard Drive.
Don’t worry if the drive isn’t formatted for the Mac. The drive will be reformatted automatically as part of the process. Change the name of your drive to Untitled; you need to do this for the steps below.
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The quick and easy way
The process detailed below involves the Terminal. If your really don’t want to use Terminal, there are a couple of free apps you can use.
- Install Disk Creator is a straightforward way to create a boot disk. I was able to make a macOS Sierra external USB boot disk in a few minutes, and the installation worked without a hitch. Also works with older versions of OS X.
- Diskmaker X is a popular app. It also supports older versions of OS X.
Use the Terminal to create a boot disk
So you have your external drive, and the Sierra beta installer is in place. Now you’re going to use Terminal to create a boot drive. If you’ve never used Terminal before, don’t worry. This is pretty easy.
Here are the steps to create a macOS Sierra beta boot disk. (Apple also has these instructions.)
- Connect the external drive to your Mac. (In the Terminal command you will use, I use
Untitledto represent your external drive. If your drive is named something else, you need to change
Untitledto the name of your drive.)
- Launch Terminal (/Applications/Utilities/Terminal.app).
- Copy the following:
sudo /Applications/Install macOS Sierra.app/Contents/Resources/createinstallmedia --volume /Volumes/Untitled --applicationpath /Applications/Install macOS Sierra.app
- Go back to Terminal and paste the copied code at the prompt.
- Terminal will ask for a password. This is your user password. Terminal doesn’t display characters when you type it in. Hit Return.
- Terminal will tell you that it will erase your drive. To confirm that you want to continue, type Y and hit Return.
- You’ll see that Terminal erases your drive. When that part is done, your Mac may ask you if you want to use the drive for Time Machine. Click Don’t Use.
- Terminal will copy the installer file to your drive. This will take a few minutes.
- After copying, Terminal is done. You should see Terminal display a “Copy complete” and Done notice. You can quit Terminal and your drive is ready for use.
How to boot from the installer drive
- Plug your external drive into your Mac.
- Power up (or restart) your Mac. Press down on the Option key while the Mac boots.
- After a few moments, your Mac should display the Startup Manager, which will show you the available boot drives. Click on the external drive and hit Return. (You don’t need to select a network to proceed.)
- Your Mac will display an OS X Utilites window. If you want to install Sierra and leave the data intact, select Install OS X. If you want to start over and wipe out the data, you need to go into Disk Utility to reformat the internal drive first, and then install macOS Sierra.
You set your Mac or Macbook which disk to start up from when more than one startup disk is connected. This works for USB drives including the NinjaStik
For 2018 to 2020 Macs with the Secure Boot T2 Chip, see the 2020 Macbook Pro Boot from USB instructions.
A “startup disk” is a volume or partition of a drive that contains a bootable operating system.
You can set your Mac to automatically use a specific startup volume, or you can temporarily override this choice at startup.
- From the Apple menu choose System Preferences.
- Click the Startup Disk icon in System Preferences, or choose View > Startup Disk.
- Select your startup disk from the list of available volumes.
The next time you start up or restart your computer, your Mac starts up using the operating system on the selected volume.
Temporarily change your startup disk with Startup Manager
Startup Manager allows you to pick a volume to start from while the computer is starting up.
Use these steps to choose a startup disk with Startup Manager:
- Turn on or restart your Mac.
- Immediately press and hold the Option key. After a few seconds, the Startup Manager appears. If you don’t see the volume you want to use, wait a few moments for Startup Manager to finish scanning connected drives.
- Use your mouse or trackpad, or left and right arrow keys to select the volume you want to use.
- Double-click or press the Return key to start up your Mac from the volume you selected.
If you have an optical drive connected to your computer, you can insert an installation disc to see it in Startup Manager. You can also attach FireWire or USB external hard drives that contain an operating system to add to the list of startup volumes.
Startup Manager automatically adds bootable volumes as you connect them.
Restart in OS X from Boot Camp
If you have started up your Mac in Windows using Boot Camp, you can use the Boot Camp system tray to switch your startup disk default back to OS X.
- In Windows, click the Boot Camp icon in the system tray.
- From the menu that appears, choose Restart in OS X.
Start from OS X Recovery
You can also start your Mac from OS X Recovery or Internet Recovery if your Mac was manufactured after 2011.
To start your Mac from the Recovery System, use these steps:
- Start up or restart your computer.
- Hold down the Command and R keys on your keyboard until you see the Apple logo appear onscreen.
If you don’t see a volume listed
If you don’t see the volume you want to start your computer from, check the following:
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- If you’re using an external drive, make sure it’s connected and turned on.
- Make sure you’ve installed an operating system, like OS X or Windows on the drive you’re trying to start from. Volumes that don’t contain a valid operating system aren’t listed in Startup Disk or Startup Manager.
- If you’ve installed an operating system on a drive but it isn’t listed, the volume you’re trying to start from might need repair. If the volume contains OS X, start your computer from OS X Recovery and use Disk Utility to repair the volume, or reinstall OS X on the volume using the Recovery System.
- Depending on the Mac you are using and the version of OS X that is installed, the Recovery System volume (Recovery HD) might not show up in Startup Manager. Press Command-R during startup to start your Mac from the Recovery System.
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For 2018 / 2019 Macbook Pro with the Secure Boot T2 Chip, see the 2018 Macbook Pro Boot from USB instructions.