I'm planning to sell my old macbook that has a cracked screen, but I do want it to go with a fresh install. Obviously, I can't make a new installation using an external monitor since the external monitor won't work when booted from cd.

So my question is if it's possible to target (firewire cable and target disk mode) my old macbook's drive from my new mac when doing a fresh installation.

thanks in advance,

  • Are you installing from the restore disk that came with your mac or a retail version of the OS. The retail version has more drivers and would be better if the new mac isn't a perfect match for the old mac.
    – bmike
    May 11, 2011 at 12:42
  • Also - I've installed using an external screen all the time. You just have to know the key command to enter mirroring mode for the external display once the OS has booted. On some keyboards, you can press the F7 key, or Command-F1, as a shortcut to turn video mirroring on or off. This would be your best bet if you don't have the same model mac to run the install in target mode to ensure success on the driver installation.
    – bmike
    May 11, 2011 at 13:23

3 Answers 3


Overall, there are generally not huge problems using another mac to install the OS on to a target mode drive (same as installing to an external drive). The install will work fine and an OS will be present on the drive, but the areas where this will fail are:

  • Using a restore DVD on a mac that is a different model (retail OS discs have all drivers for macs requiring a lower build number than the retail disk - restore media have a very specific model's drivers only)
  • If the build level is incorrect, the mac may or may not boot properly - and some drivers needed for the mac that eventually runs the OS might not get installed.
  • If the installer selects the wrong drivers due to the machine running the install being different than the mac that eventually runs the OS - you may have some problems.

Basically, when a new hardware model is released (new thunderbolt, new logic board design, new battery technology in a portable) - that change is introduced into a separate OS build. I have never seen a public listing of these specifics broken down by model number, but over time these special builds generally get merged into the "main" OS.

Since retail OS DVD change versions maybe once or twice a year, there is a window of time where installing the OS from a machine of type A and running that OS on a machine of type B will have issues due to needed drivers being missing from the retail OS DVD. This chance is much larger if you are using the newest macs and installing across product lines (MacPro to Air / iMac to MacBook).

In practice, the core OS usually works and you can boot the mac and most of the hardware will work. Also, usually you can download the latest combo update and hope that it pushes updated drivers when it is run, but there is no guarantee that installing the OS on one mac will work for all other macs across the board.

People that run large installations and clone one image on to dozens or hundreds of different macs can attest to the ways this breaks certain hardware from time to time. Recently, iMacs wouldn't show a wifi card or produce sound when running an OS installed from anything but those new iMacs.

For older hardware - doing the install and running the OS - the chance of total success is very high. Stack the odds in your favor by ensuring the retail DVD you use has a build number higher than the minimum build for the model you have.

For 100% success, just make sure the mac doing the install is the same as the mac running the OS and use the DVD that came with the mac.

  • Hey man thanks for going out of your way for telling me that. That way, using carbon copy cloner wasn't going to do it either which I was thinking of doing. Cheers!
    – 0ye
    May 12, 2011 at 13:30
  • Indeed - Apple goes to such great length to hide driver dependancies (and really does a fabulous job merging code branches once things ship and stabilize), but the system to make macs easy still doesn't provide a universal image that will run all macs.
    – bmike
    May 12, 2011 at 15:37
  • Mike this is amazing! I have the same issue, I have working imac 2017 and broken display imac 2012 with harddisk wiped out, will the option of installing using Target Disk Mode will work? I assume lot might have changed between the two models, plus 2017 is 27" while 2012 is 21.5". See here
    – metron
    Oct 6, 2020 at 12:44

Yes I have tried this with both 10.5 and 10.6 and it works fine. Or you can try the Remote Install Mac OS X feature in the utilities folder.


I've done this with a Tiger install a few years ago and the Tiger had zero problems working later. I'm sure there shouldn't be any problems with Snow Leopard or Leopard. (Hint: tell us what version you want to install) ;)

On the other hand, you can always remove the drive from the old machine, put it in the new one, perform the install and put it back in the old one, unless you're using a specific DVD version that came with the machine instead of a pure/full OS X install DVD. If this is the case, the new machine will probably refuse to install with that DVD (no matter where the target drive is, for all the machine knows is that there's a "firewire" external drive connected). Install DVDs that come with Macs are usually tied to those models, so a MacBook OS X Install DVD won't install an iMac. (Mostly, tho there has been a few exceptions to these rules and some hacks, but nothing simple).

Since the driver-base for a full OS X DVD is the same regardless of the machine, the OS X installed on the new machine will perfectly work on the second one.

  • Just because the OS X DVD might have the drivers needed for a MacBook doesn't imply that running the installer from a MacPro (or even a newer model MacBook) will cause those MacBook specific drivers to be installed.
    – bmike
    May 11, 2011 at 13:18
  • If using an retail OS DVD, it will install whatever drivers the machine running the install has. But as you note bmike in your answer, this usually isn't a problem but may cause strange issues.
    – jmlumpkin
    May 11, 2011 at 13:27

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