Can an SD card startup disk be used on any Mac?

Last week, I posted a video on how-to create an SD card startup disk for the new MacBook Pros, the ones with the built-in SD card slot. I got several e-mail responses to that video, all of them asking a question similar to the one reader Gary Kampel asked:

I wonder if this can be done using an external card reader connected through the USB port on any older Intel Mac?

I didn't find anything in Apple’s online support that says that you can use an SD card as a startup disk on any Mac. The only Knowledge Base article that specifically addresses booting with an SD card is the article about the SD card slot on the new 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros.

I grabbed a few Macs out of Macworld Labs and did some informal testing. I took the same SD card I created in the video (the one that used the OS installation disc from the new 13-inch MacBook Pro) and tried to use it as a startup disk. I was able to boot only the MacBook Pros in the bulletted list below. None of the other Macs worked.

Then I reformatted the SD card and created a startup disk as I did in the video, but this time I used an off-the-shelf retail version of Leopard. I also applied the Mac OS X 10.5.7 Combo Update. I used a SanDisk MicroMate SD card reader that plugs into USB, and I made sure the SD card appeared on the desktop before using it as a startup disk. (I didn't do anything further than boot using the SD card. I did not try using any software, connecting to the Internet, running a benchmark, etc.) Here are the results of the Macs I tested.

SD card as startup disk: Success

  • 1.86GHz MacBook Air (June 2008)
  • 20-inch 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo iMac (April 2008)
  • 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo Mac mini (August 2007)
  • 15-inch 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro (June 2007)
  • 15-inch 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro (June 2007)
  • 15-inch 2GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro (February 2006)

SD card as startup disk: Unsuccessful

  • 2GHz Core 2 Duo white MacBook (January 2009)
  • 15-inch 1.67GHz PowerBook G4 (October 2005)

Many of Apple’s current laptops that are in our lab are unavailable for me to test at this moment. I’ll test them (along with more older Macs) and add to this list when the machines become available.

[Roman Loyola is a senior editor for Macworld.]

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