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Can I attach a USB external drive to a Mac and boot from it?

Specifically, will I be able to install Snow Leopard from an external USB DVD drive on a modern Intel Macbook?

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Mac 101: Yes, Intel Macs can be booted from an external USB drive

Since the release of the Intel Mac computers, and with Mac OS X 10.4.5 or later, you can start up from an installed system on a USB hard disk. Here's the Apple support document that tells you how to do it.

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Right, and it seems to work as well as any firewire volume I have used, too. I have a USB volume where I run a full clone backup (using SuperDuper, highly recommended) and I occasionally boot from this to test that my backups are good.

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