Downgrade Mac OSX Lion with Time Machine

Posted on July 27, 2011

Snow Leopard

Last days, I told you about my disappointment when I rushed at installing Mac OSX Lion only a few hours after it was released. Quickly, I decided to downgrade back to Snow Leopard. Hopefully, Time Machine is a very good piece of software that works pretty well for restoring your OS to the exact state of the desired date. Here is how to do it.

  1. Check that yo have saved/backuped all of your work and data you carried out since you installed Lion (USB sticks, DVDs, whatever)
  2. Insert your DVD of Snow Leopard and shut down your mac
  3. When starting your mac again, press the OPTION key and wait until it offers a list of volumes to boot from. Select the Snow Leopard DVD
  4. In the Installer, don’t go on the process of installation. Instead, click on the Utilities menu, then choose Restore System from Backup
  5. Check that you are connected to your time capsule:
    for networked time capsules, I recommend to link an ethernet wire instead of using wifi, it will be quicker. If you really can’t use a wire, then connect to your wifi access point via the Airport Utilities menu at the top left of the screen
    for USB time capsules (or external HDD), you don’t have to do anything special
  6. In the list, select your Time Machine volume
  7. In the list, select the date at which you want to restore your system to. Dates and versions of the system are indicated, so just take the most recent backup you’ve made on Snow Leopard before you installed Lion

Now you’re good for waiting several hours, depending on the size of your backup and the speed of your connection. You have the time to go and make a coffee. Wait and relax, and forget about how Steve raped you with 24 euros.

Some hours later, your mac will reboot and your system is back like before. Lion is just now an old bad memory to you, until the day you have no choice but to upgrade because major softwares will not be supported on Snow Leopard anymore.


NB: if you don’t use Time Machine, I guess you’re going to have much more troubles while downgrading from Lion (if not possible at all?). Probabilities are that you’re to make a new clean install of Snow Leopard. And that you start to use Time Machine, at last (sorry dudes).

About the author

Cyril Mazur is a serial web entrepreneur with experience in various fields: online dating, forex & finance, blogging, online advertising... who enjoys building things that people like to use.


  1. alan
    on August 1, 2011
    Cyril, thanks for recommendations. i will trying for downgrade my fucking lion to leo.
  2. Cyril
    on August 2, 2011
    Hi Alan,

    Good luck for downgrading, I'm glad it helps.
  3. Ricardo
    on August 2, 2011
    Hello Cyril,
    Thanks for the shared info. However, I have a question:
    Is it still possible to use this time machine method to downgrade even if Lion already made a backup using the same disk?
  4. Cyril
    on August 2, 2011
    Hi Ricardo,

    Yes you can. When you're in the installation process, you have a list with all the check points your time capsule has made, whether it was made with Lion or Snow Leopard.
    You can then select the last check point with Snow Leopard, even if there are check points with Lion made after.

  5. on August 3, 2011
    Installed LION OSX, then realized that Lotus Notes is still not on Lion Mode. panicked, then tried to Restore from reboot. Good thing that Time Machine is soo reliable. Was surprised that Snow leopard came back. I thought I was stuck with Lion for good.

    thanks for the tip. :) Waiting it out before I put the new cat in.
  6. bob
    on August 9, 2011
    This works very well, but there are some caveats that may come into play.

    I have a 2TB hard drive, and a 2TB backup use for TM. My drive is only about 700GB used, so the backup drive is big enough. However, there is a risk of losing older backups, since once the downgrade is complete, TM will do a new full backup.

    Here's the progression of what happened, for anyone interested. I've had the Mac since April 2010, and "up"(ha ha)graded to Lion on July 21 2011. All my backups were visible on TM, going all the way back to April 2010. I chose the one from July 20, 2011, just a day before installing Lion. This was on August 5.
    The restore was fine, and I had to go into TM to grab a bunch of files that I had added/changed between July 21 and August 5, since they got lost in the restore. No big deal.
    BUT, once TM did a new full backup of the restored system, it dumped all the old backups up to July 23 in order to make room for present and future backups. It's not a huge deal, but every so often I think of an old file that I deleted long ago, that maybe I should have kept. Bad organization on my part, but I could always reach into TM and grab it.
    As of yesterday, it had dumped more recent backups as well, and was now complaining about not having enough space. I figure it used 700GB for a full backup, then another 700 for...well, I'm not sure, but I suspect a more recent non-incremental backup. And now it didn't have enough space to do another full backup if it had to. This is where I don't know enough about TM to comprehend what exactly was going on.

    Anyway, in the end I just erased the backup drive and started a new TM backup.

    And I can actually still find old files using a recovery program, but there's nothing really critical I'll need.

    So in a nutshell, once you restore, TM will do a full backup, so be sure you have enough space on your TM drive, or maybe even clone it first to preserve old backups, just in case you need them.

  7. on August 20, 2011
    Am thinking of downgrading as well. So slow. So colorless. Kind of useless. What will happen to all of my iWork files if I downgrade? Do you know? Pages/Keynote merged my edits into one file. Will I be able to access those?
  8. Cyril
    on August 20, 2011
    If you downgrade with Time Machine (restoring a previous state BEFORE you installed Lion) then you will indeed lose your iWork files you created by that check point. You shall backup them on a USB stick or so on. All the files you created BEFORE you installed Lion, however, will still be there.

  9. on August 21, 2011

    Thank you for letting me believe that I can go back to snow leopard and use my scanner again (with that being only one of the many reasons I want to go back using snow leopard).

    I still have a question: did you have any issue with recovering data backed up by lion?—files that would be missing in the previous snow leopard backup (I don't run time machine on a daily basis and my new lion backup has a lot of various new files)
  10. Cyril
    on August 22, 2011
    Hi Romain,

    Simply backup your files on a USB stick, external HDD or an online backup service. As simple as this.

  11. on August 24, 2011
    Hey Cyril,

    Good tips, followed your details and it worked like a charm. However I seem to have gained an extra 20GB of hard drive space on Snow Leopard. Not that I'm complaining as so far all my big libraries (iTunes and iPhoto) seem to be in tact. But I am curious as to what is missing and why I now have extra space. Has anyone else had a similar experience and / or could shed some light as to what may have caused this please?
  12. Cyril
    on August 24, 2011
    Hi Rocky,

    There is an option to ignore files and folders to backup in Time Machine, maybe have you forgotten about those files? I personally lost my movies collection this way (if I didn't backup them, it's well because I don't really give importance to them), but maybe you committed the same mistake?

  13. on August 24, 2011
    Thanks for your reply. I do in fact omit certain folders from TM backups so that is probably the reason. As I said my main concerns are my iTunes and iPhoto libraries which seem to be fine.

    Cheers fella!

  14. on August 27, 2011

    when I try to use my time machine with snow leopard and lion backups it says it is not possible because it's a backup drive of a newer version of mac osx…

    Anyone an idea to get around this?

  15. on September 30, 2011
    Ok, being an update freak i as well installed Lion and regretted it as hell!!! Now down to the thing.. My problem is not that much of data but applications. Since all of my work/projects are stored in ext HDs, i was wondering if theres a way somehow to downgrade or erase (?) to Leopard (of course) without loosing my applications.. Is it possible to copy the app folder somewhere, erase to Leo and paste when system is installed? Will apps still work?
    Thnx in advance
  16. Cyril
    on October 1, 2011
    Hi Vangelis,

    I'm not sure it will work 100% to simply copy your Applications folder, as applications happen to have components installed a little everywhere on the disk. In my opinion, you take the risk to have an incomplete system if you do so.

    Time Machine is really a bless for those who want to downgrade, aren't you using it?

  17. on October 8, 2011
    Hi Cyril

    Thank you for all the tips. I've installed Lion and want to go back to Leopard.

    But it's been ages (maybe a year or so) since I used my Time machine.

    My question is:

    If I run time machine now with Lion installed and then install Leopard - can I restore from Time Machine and use the latest save I made from Lion? In other words - Can You use Time machine with Lion and restore those files on a Mac with Leopard?

    Thanks in advance!
  18. Cyril
    on October 8, 2011
    Hi Anders,

    The answer is: no, you can't. Time Machine really takes snapshots of your system that you can restore to that precise snapshots. If you install Snow Leopard from scratch, you will have to manually restore every file or folder, and every application.

    However, one good thing to do is to take a snapshot of your Lion system before you install Snow Leo, so that you could recover in case you mess it up.

  19. on October 11, 2011
    I've got the same problem like Anders :( So it's not possible to copy some files from the lion-backup to snow leopard? I won't be able to access the backup and drag music files,... to snow leopard??

    Thanks for the information! :)
  20. Cyril
    on October 11, 2011
    Hi Simon,

    If you make the decision to restore your system to a previous date, I am not sure that you could still access the data posterior to that date. (someone can confirm?)

    My guess would be that you should backup your music files to another location while downgrading your system, and then copy them again back. If the only modified files are music or movies, then it's no big deal IMHO. It's rather more complicated if you installed softwares or edited professional documents in the mean time...

  21. on October 23, 2011
    Did an apple update which totally fucked up my computer. since i am using time machine i thought I can just restore the old drive. BUT guess what i can only restore to the last update which was like 5 min ago. fuckin crap!! second time this shit happen!!
    Any idea what to do?
    My country have NO Mac support what so ever
  22. Cyril
    on October 23, 2011
    Aouch Johnny, first time I hear that problem, I had always been able to restore to any point in the past from my Time Machine.

    What is your country by the way, which doesn't provide any Mac support?

  23. on December 2, 2011
    OMG, Please please help me.
    I upgraded to Lion earlier this evening and I am still up at 3:17am trying to undo the major damage this did to my computer. Had no idea it didn't support MS Office 2004, can't open my docs.

    Here's what I did.

    Downloaded Lion and installed it.
    Tried to open Mail, iCal, Address Book, & Safari -NOPE
    Opened Launch Pad and was able to open all above from there and info was intact
    Made aliases of the above and put on my desktop - like I had before and they worked

    No access to any of my files or the structures of my files in many categories - lt gray
    If I go to the Hard Drive I can open some files but not everything.

    The lights on my WDigital Hard Drive - I've been backing up forever using Time Machine - are on but show NO activity since Lion installed??

    Major Questions:
    If I follow your directions to remove Lion and reboot with Snow Leopard will all my
    file structures be intact, i.e., the way I stored everything in folders in my hierarchy??
    Will I be able to open my Excel and Word files?

    Thank you so much. Finally going to bed. Hope I can fix this without a call to Apple or
    a trip to the local Apple store.

    Judi Rubin
  24. Cyril
    on December 2, 2011
    Hi Judi,

    Theoretically if you have always been backing up with your Time Machine, then you should be able to go back to your previous system with the procedure I describe and keep all of your files (providing that all of your files are backed up).

    Good luck for it!

  25. on January 17, 2012
    OK, I've tried almost everything with a brand new imac coming from the refurb store. As it was my first iMac (only got a Macmini server and a few MBP) I was'nt able to find a TM Backup. So here is how I did it :

    1. Find a copy of the MAC OS X (Snow Leopard) Installer which use to come with your brand new mac before 2011 1st of july (Lion release date). Have a look to to check the proper version. Burn a DVD if it comes from the net.

    2. Connect the new mac with Lion in target mode (press "command-T") when you switch it on to another Mac you have.

    3. Launch the Utility Disk manager and erase the new mac HD.

    4. Insert the Mac OS X (SL) DVD in your new iMac

    5. Switch it "off" and Switch it "on" back, in normal mode this time.

    6. Follow the installer process.

    Hope it will help you.

    Best regards in France
  26. Cyril
    on January 17, 2012
    Nice walkthrough Laurent, thanks :)

  27. on January 22, 2012
    You are absolutelly right.
    This OS is plain bad.
    I had to change to lion because I had no choice.
    I was obligated to buy a new computer.
    Now I'm getting my copy of snow leopard and erasing this crap from my daily work.
    I hate losing time, and surely I do not expect performance to be that bad.
    Apple still believe that brands are religions.
    Nop, I'm not that kind of believer...

  28. on February 1, 2012
    This is a nice summary, but given the target audience & the level of experience you're aiming at - I think you really should mention what you probably think is the obvious...

    That this technique will lose all your data or anything you've done or updated since installing Lion.

    Anyone who needs 7 steps just to restore a TimeMachine backup will not necessarily be clear on this. I hope you can add it to the beginning of the tutorial.

  29. on March 11, 2012
    I'm confused.

    I bought Lion in Dec last year, and while I've never liked it, it's taken me this long to decide to downgrade. Time Machine is on constantly so that is no problem. But I'm confused.

    In the previous posts it think I read that, 1) downgrading to Sno Leo via the restart/opt key/Time Machine back up, I will lose the files that have been backed up in Lion, AND 2) that all the files from Lion will be on Sno Leo after downgrade. Perhaps I'm missing something.

    It seems like going through the last Lion Time Machine backup and trying to pick out and store the Lion files is onerous and chancy since I'm unsure, for instance, where my email files are stored. I can't determine if backing up just my User files will cover the new material.

    If I do the downgrade from the Sno Leo installation disc, will my saved Lion files be retained?

  30. Cyril
    on March 11, 2012
    Hi Beth,

    I apologise if my post is not clear enough... By using that procedure, your mac will get back to the exact state it used to be at the time of you last Snow Leo backup, so yes you will lose any file saved after that date.

    That's why the first step in my procedure is to backup all the files you saved AFTER your last snow leo backup, so that you can retrieve them later on (backup them in the cloud or in an external HDD, etc... anything, but you can't use Time Machine for that)

    My procedure is very useful when you take the decision to very downgrade to Snow Leo very quick (like a couple of days after you install Lion...). After one year, you may have made so many changes to your system that it will be very difficult to downgrade that way...

    I guess the best would be to make a clean install of your system (and don't forget to backup all of your data on an external drive before!). For your emails, if you're using IMAP it would not be a problem to get them back from your mail provider since it's synchronised.

    Good luck!

  31. on March 11, 2012

    Thank you for your prompt reply. I think that I was unclear myself. I downloaded Lion last Dec, just 3 months ago, so I haven't got a great lot to save.

    I hope you'll indulge me by answering a few more questions if you can.

    I have another external hd which I used for back up before I got this iMac and have used a storage since. It still has 87 gb of space. If I copy my user file which claims, in the Get Info box, to take only 525 kb of space (this low figure seems unlikely to me since there's a ton of photos in it), to this hd, will it contain my email, bookmarks, and other files which were in the easily accessible (!!!) Library folder before Lion? I've installed a few games since Dec, but nothing I couldn't reinstall after the downgrade.

    Thanks for your help
  32. Cyril
    on March 11, 2012
    Beth, every case and every installation are unique cases, I cannot guarantee you that all of your valuable data are in your home folder (especially if it says it weighs only 525kb!)

    For bookmarks, all decent browsers offer an export feature that will save your bookmarks to .xml file or such.

    For emails, it depends on your mail software... I believe there are tools also to export/import emails. And if you are using IMAP on a decent email service such as GMAIL, then there is probably a copy online that will be synchronised with your new installation as soon as you enter your credentials. You have to check first.

    But for all the rest, it really depends on what you personally did. And because I'm not you, I cannot guarantee that you will not lose something by just backing up your home folder.

    At worst (I mean, AT WORST) what you can do is to make a copy of your whole system (if it's less than 87 gb in all) before you downgrade, so that you are sure that you have a copy of all your data. Even if you will have a hard time recovering them, you know that they're here and it's just a matter of time to recover a specific file...

    If you can, ask help from a relative who is knowledgeable about macs!

  33. on March 12, 2012

    Unfortunately I am the only relative who knows anything about Macs in my family. My good friend who's owned Macs even longer than I, gave me only cautionary words. In essence she said downgrading is a chancy business.

    I feel I may be taxing your patience, but I have one last question which I posed before in the midst of all the other questions.

    If I downgrade by using the Sno Leo installation disc, will my Lion files be intact?

    Even if you don't know the answer to this, I want to thank you for your attention to my questions.

  34. Cyril
    on March 12, 2012

    If you install Snow Leopard using the installation disc, you will end up with a clean installation of Snow Leopard, meaning you will lose all of your personal data and softwares. It will be as clean as when you bought your iMac at the store.

    If you use the installation disc + the Time Machine backup, you will lose all the files you saved since your last Time Machine backup with Snow Leopard (i.e you will lose all the files you saved since 3 months ago).

    Good luck :)

  35. on March 13, 2012

  36. on March 15, 2012
    In my humble opinion, lion is superior in every way.

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