Apple’s Macs aren't exactly cheap, but there are some lower-priced options available.
Here we will look at the Mac mini, MacBook Air and the entry-level iMac, and ask whether they are really a good deal or if you can get a better deal elsewhere.
Mac mini (1.4GHz, 2014)
The cheapest Mac is the Mac mini (reviewed here: Mac mini 1.4GHz review) which you can buy new from Apple for £479. That is a lot cheaper than any other Mac Apple sells - that’s close to half the price of the entry-level MacBook Air, which costs £949.
However, there are a few reasons why it isn’t as great a deal as it may seem.
First of all, the Mac mini hasn’t been updated since 2014 and still uses the ageing Haswell processor from that year. Where Apple has changed the spec of the Haswell processor in the MacBook Air from 1.4GHz, to 1.6GHz, and now 1.8GHz, as we will discuss below. The processor in the entry-level Mac mini remains at 1.4GHz.
The entry-level Mac mini also has just 4GB RAM, less than any other Mac, and a 500GB hard drive. The only other Mac with a hard drive is the entry-level iMac and that model offers 1TB of storage.
The lack of an update has led to rumours that the Mac mini’s days are numbered. However, speaking at an event in April 2017, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, Phil Schiller, said that the Mac mini remains an important product to Apple. He failed to say more than that, but it at least put on hold concerns that the mini Mac would soon be laid to rest. For more information about what could be in store for the next generation Mac mini read: Mac mini news and rumours.
Another thing to consider is the fact that the entry-level Mac mini will actually cost more than £479 if you need to buy a monitor, keyboard and mouse. All you get in the box is the computer and its power lead. Other Macs include other peripherals but the Mac mini doesn’t.
This Mac is still considerably cheaper than any other Mac sold by Apple, though. Should we really expect more from a Mac that costs less than £500?
Actually you can get a Mac mini for less than the price of the entry-level model. At the time of writing you could pick up a refurbished 1.4GHz Mac mini for £399. That's exactly the same machine as the one sold as new, but it has been refurbished by Apple, meaning that it’s maybe been returned as faulty at some point, and subsequently fixed by Apple, or perhaps it is an ex display model.
The history of the machine might concern you, but it shouldn’t because Apple will sell it with a year’s warranty.
If you don’t think the 1.4GHz, 4GB RAM Mac mini will be sufficiently powerful to meet your needs there are still some low-cost options. There is a Mac mini with a 2.6GHz Haswell processor, 8GB RAM, and a 1TB hard drive, for £200 more. This £679 Mac mini model is certainly a good deal when compared to the MacBook Air, which costs £270 more and has a slower 1.8GHz processor. The Air does have a screen though.
The entry-level iMac is similarly specced, with it’s 2.3GHz processor, 1TB hard drive, and 8GB RAM. It costs £370 more at £1,049. Is £370 a reasonable price to pay for the addition of a screen, mouse, keyboard, and of course newer components (the iMac was updated in June 2017). We think that it is.
Finally we have one more Mac mini to look at. The £979 Mac mini offers 2.8GHz processor, 8GB memory, and a 1TB Fusion Drive. That Fusion Drive means it will run a bit faster because the Fusion Drive combines flash memory with the hard drive so that frequent operations can be done quickly.
The interesting thing about this model is that it has an identical price to the entry-level MacBook Air. It also has some interesting build-to-order options including a 3.0GHz dual-core i7 processor, 1TB SSD and 16GB RAM. If you added both of these options it would no longer look like such a bargain, with the price soaring to £1,849.
But is £1,849 a good price to pay for a Mac mini with these specs? As we will explain below, you can buy a 3.0GHz quad-core i5 iMac with 8GB RAM and a 1TB hard drive for £1,249. For starters, that processor is a newer Kaby Lake generation processor. It is an i5 rather than an i7, but it’s also a quad-core rather than a dual-core.
You can bump up the RAM in that iMac to 8GB for £180, and a 1TB Fusion drive could cost you another £90, so that’s a grand total of £1,519. And you get the mouse, keyboard and monitor.
We’ll look at the iMac in more depth below, but as you can see, the iMac definitely beats the Mac mini offering as it stands. (Although we are tempted by the refurbished option).
13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015)
- Buy from Apple
We’ve touched upon the MacBook Air in passing above, here we will look at it in a bit more detail.
You might be thinking that Apple just updated the MacBook Air. Apple did twerk the processors back in June 2017 at WWDC, but this wasn't an actual update. The processors might have been bumped from 1.6GHz to 1.8GHz, but they are the same Haswell processors found in the Mac mini. (Read our review of the 1.8GHz MacBook Air here)
Like the Mac mini the MacBook Air hasn’t been updated for a few years. The last time the skinny laptop was updated was 2015, and it’s not so skinny anymore. When the even thinner and lighter Retina MacBook joined the line up back in 2015 many thought the the MacBook Air’s days were numbered, and Apple’s refusal to update it beyond a slight bump to the processor seems to confirm that. We have this article about the future plans for the MacBook Air: MacBook Air rumours and news
However, the MacBook Air is still with us. Should you grab one while you still can?
What do you get for your £949? The MacBook Air comes with a 1.8GHz dual-core processor with Turbo Boost to 2.9GHz, 8GB RAM, and a 128GB SSD.
If you were to consider the new Retina MacBook you could get 1.2GHz dual-core processor with Turbo Boost to 3.0GHz (note that’s the newer Kaby Lake rather than Haswell), 8GB RAM, and a 256GB SSD. That would cost you £1,249.
That extra £300 gets you the superior Retina display (that’s 2304-by-1440 pixels compared to 1440-by-900 pixels on the Air). And twice as much storage. The processor might sound slower, but it’s newer - and if you notice the Turbo Boost, it’s really in another league.
Just to emphasis what a good deal the MacBook can look like in comparison to the MacBook Air, if you wanted the same 256GB storage in the MacBook Air it would cost £1,099. Just £150 more. Don’t fall in to the trap of thinking that the MacBook Air processor is better because the number is bigger.
Also, we help you decide between Apple's MacBook laptop ranges and Apple's Mac desktops here. Plus, if you are wondering how the 13-inch MacBook Pro compares to the 13-inch MacBook Air read this: MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air comparison review.
21.5-inch iMac (2017)
- Buy from Apple
The next cheapest Mac is the 21.5-inch iMac starting at £1,049. This time round you are getting a reasonably new machine - Apple did update it in June 2017 (read our review of the 2017 21.5-inch iMac here). However, there are a few things about it that are worth bearing in mind before parting with your cash.
The first is that the entry-level iMac is not the same as the next iMac in the range. The key difference is the fact that it doesn’t have a Retina display. A 4K Retina display will cost you another £200.
Actually that extra £200 would be money well spent in our opinion, but if £1,249 is really pushing the budgetary boundaries, and for the sake of this article we will assume it is (if it isn’t and you are considering which iMac to buy then read this: Which iMac. Incidentally, Apple sells a number of Macs at the same price point of £1,249, so we have a comparison of those models here: Best value Macs: £1,249 Macs compared
The £1,049 iMac might not offer a Retina display, but you will find a 2.3GHz dual-core processor, 8GB RAM, 1TB hard drive, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Neither the MacBook Air or the Mac mini offer Thunderbolt 3, because it’s such a new standard. Thunderbolt 3 is the same as USB Type-C, so there should soon be lots of peripherals on the market that connect using the new super-fast standard.
It goes without saying that the 2.3GHz processor is better than the one in the MacBook Air, and it’s also superior to the 2.6GHz processor in the £679 Mac mini.
However, as there was with the Mac mini it’s well worth a look on the Apple Refurbished store because you may find a previous generation iMac model available there for less. For example, you can get a 21.5-inch 1.6GHz iMac which was originally released in October 2015 (same time as the MacBook Air models). It has 8GB RAM and a 1TB hard drive and costs £809. So less than the cheapest iMac you can buy right now.
That said, it’s not as cheap as you think. When it launched that model cost £899, but Apple increased the price to £949 in October last year due to currency fluctuations. So that’s just £90 off the original price. Still, it’s a better deal than buying a current generation MacBook Air at £949 as the specs, bar the hard drive versus SSD, are so similar.
While we are looking in the refurbished store, there ’s a 21.in 2.8GHz quad-core iMac available for just £939, just £130 more. That model is in a different league to the 1.6GHz model. We’d say that if you wanted a Mac for less than £1,000 that is without a doubt the one you should get. You can find more Macs on Apple’s Refurbished Store here.
If it’s a brand new Mac you are after, then don’t consider the Mac mini or the MacBook Air because the current models are old. If your heart is set on one of these machines then wait until September or October 2017 as there is a chance that Apple will update them.
The other thing that might happen in the not too distant future is the price of the MacBook could come down making that Mac laptop the best low cost Mac you can buy.
You could buy the entry-level iMac, but we think that you’d be better off spending a couple of hundred more to get the next model up, assuming you can afford it.
For now though, if you really want a cheap Mac, our recommendation is to find yourself one on Apple’s Refurbished Store.