I want to buy a Mac, but I'm on a pretty tight budget. What's the best cheap Mac: a MacBook Air or a Mac mini?

If you're looking for a cheap Mac, the £399 Mac mini and the £749 MacBook Air are likely to be your top choices, with perhaps the £899 entry-level iMac also on the table. But which Mac offers the best deal?

There's a £350 difference between the entry-level MacBook Air and the £399 Mac mini, but there's a lot missing from the Mac mini - not least a mouse, keyboard and display. There's also a new entry-level iMac, which has a keyboard, mouse and 21-inch display, but at £899 it costs an extra £500 (far more than it'd cost to buy a budget monitor, keyboard and mouse).

So if you really are looking for a low-cost Mac, it's basically a toss-up between the Mac mini and MacBook Air. In this article we will look at the pros and cons of each of the cheapest Macs and will offer buying advice to suit your needs.

Once you reach a decision, you can buy the Mac mini from Apple's online store here and the MacBook Air from Apple's online store here.

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: The basics

The entry-level Mac mini and the MacBook Air used to have a lot in common a couple of years ago. But when the MacBook Air was updated in spring 2015, it gained a slightly faster 1.6GHz Broadwell processor. (The MacBook Air was updated again in April 2016, but the only change was that 8GB of onboard memory became standard for the 13in model.) The two Macs also previously shared the same integrated graphics card - the Intel HD Graphics 5000 -but now the MacBook offers the Intel HD Graphics 6000.

The Mini hasn't been updated since its launch in October 2014, so it's looking rather long in the tooth (although it still performs admirably).

You may decide that there is a better deal to be had if you purchase a more expensive version of the Mac mini, benefiting from the faster processor and larger storage options. The £569 Mac mini features a much more powerful 2.6GHz CPU along with an Intel Iris 5100 graphics card. This model was also introduced in October 2014, and we have been waiting for Apple to update the Mac mini, and it now overdue a refresh.

You can read more about the Mac mini and MacBook Air models here:

MacBook Air reviews

MacBook Air 13in review

MacBook Air 11in review

Mac mini (Late 2014) 1.4 GHz review

Mac mini (Late 2014) 2.8GHz review

Mac mini (Late 2014) 2.6GHz review

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: Specs compared

There are three standard Mac mini models and four MacBook Airs to choose from, plus a number of build-to order-options. Below we will weigh up the differences between each of the different models.

MacBook Air specs

The MacBook Air comes in two different sizes. There's an 11-inch model and a 13-inch model. The main and most noticeable difference is the screen size - 11.6in diagonal on the 11-inch MacBook compared to 13.3in diagonal on the 13-inch model. You'll notice that the aspect ratio is different too: the 11-inch MacBook Air is 16:9, like a widescreen TV, while the 13-inch is 16:10. This means there is a little more height in the 13-inch version, which might be beneficial.

Beyond that there is little difference between models other than the storage capacity and price.

Each MacBook Air now offers a 1.6GHz Intel dual-core i5 processor as standard, along with the Intel HD Graphics 6000 integrated graphics and 4GB RAM. The only choice is between the 128GB or 256GB of flash storage.

There are also a number of build-to-order options. You can choose to configure your MacBook Air with 8GB RAM at point of sale for an additional £80 - and we recommend that you do so if you can afford it. You can also swap out the standard 1.6GHz chip for a 2.2GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 chip for an extra £130. If you think you might need 512GB of flash storage then that will cost you £240 extra on the price of the 256GB model.   

Product

GHz

RAM

Graphics

Storage

Price

MacBook Air 11-inch

1.6GHz dual-core

4GB

Intel HD Graphics 6000

128GB SSD

£749

MacBook Air 11-inch

1.6GHz dual-core

4GB

Intel HD Graphics 6000

256GB SSD

£899

MacBook Air 13-inch

1.6GHz dual-core

4GB

Intel HD Graphics 6000

128GB SSD

£849

MacBook Air 13-inch

1.6GHz dual-core

4GB

Intel HD Graphics 6000

256GB SSD

£999

Read our MacBook Air 13in review and our MacBook Air 11in review.

Mac mini specs

Apple updated the Mac mini range at the end of 2014. This box is sold in three configurations. The cheapest Mac mini has the same 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and integrated graphics chip (the Intel HD Graphics 5000) as the MacBook Air and the entry-level iMac. It also features a 500GB hard drive. It is essentially the same specs as the £899 iMac, but costs just £399, that's a saving of £500, more than enough to buy a separate monitor and keyboard and mouse.

The other Mac mini models offer quite a boost from the entry-level model, although they lag behind the now discontinued 2012 Mac mini. Read more about the comparison between the 2012 Mac mini and the 2014 Mac mini. Also read about how the Mac mini compares to the iMac.

The 2.6GHz dual-core i5 Mac mini, offers 8GB RAM, a 1TB hard disk, and Intel Iris Graphics. It costs £569. It is possible to upgrade the RAM to 16GB at point of purchase. There are also options for configuring the Mac mini with flash storage or a faster i7 processor.

The 2.8GHz dual-core i5 Mac mini, offers 8GB RAM, a 1TB Fusion Drive (combining a hard drive and flash storage), and Intel Iris Graphics. It costs £799.

These two Mac minis are comparable to the processors inside the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, but you can expect the faster flash storage in the MacBook's to give those models a boost. 

Product

GHz

RAM

Graphics

Storage

Price

Mac mini

1.4GHz dual-core

8GB

Intel HD Graphics 5000

500GB hard drive

£399

Mac mini

2.6GHz dual-core

8GB

Intel Iris Graphics

1TB hard drive

£569

Mac mini

2.8GHz dual-core

8GB

Intel Iris Graphics

1TB Fusion Drive

£799

Read our 2012 Mac mini review (updated in October 2013) here and our 2014 Mac mini review here.

Here's everything you need to know about shopping at an Apple Store or Apple's Online Store.

Buying advice

Given the similarities of the specs back in 2014, it was no surprise that the Mac mini's processor and graphics performance was similar to that of the MacBook Air. However, now that the MacBook Air has seen an upgrade and the Mac mini hasn't (yet) the MacBook Air is now the faster machine.

In our tests the entry-level 2014 Mac mini scored 5401 points in the multi-core speed Geekbench 3 processor/memory test.

Back in April 2015, Geekbench 3 indicated an average score for the 13-inch MacBook Air of 2912 points in single-core mode, and 5821 points multi-core. In 2014 the equivalent model scored 2777 and 5400.

The 11in MacBook 2015 model scored averaged results of 2898 points in single-core mode, and 5818 points in multi-core mode in Geekbench 3, that compares to 5392 points for the 2014 11in MacBook Air.

It's not only the processor that should speed up the MacBook, we would expect the MacBook Air to be speedier than the Mac mini thanks to its faster flash storage.

Read next: Should I buy a refurbished Mac? and How to buy a cheap Mac

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: Storage

The storage options vary quite dramatically for the MacBook Air and Mac mini ranges.

The Mac mini features a 500GB hard drive at the entry-level, a 1TB hard drive at the mid-range, and a 1TB Fusion Drive at the high end. You can add a Fusion Drive to the entry level Mac mini, but it's a hefty £200 extra.

See also: Should I upgrade to a Fusion Drive when buying my Mac?

The MacBook Air offers the choice of a 128GB or 256GB SSD - this flash storage is considerably faster than the old-fashioned hard drive in the Mac mini.

However, the Fusion Drive option in the top-of-the-range Mac mini gives you the best of both worlds - the addition storage offered by a hard drive combined with the faster flash storage.

We'd say that the fact that you can pick up a 1TB Fusion Drive as standard on the £799 Mac mini is a point in its favour, you can't upgrade the MacBook Air to a Fusion Drive at all. The most storage you can opt for in the MacBook Air is 512GB and that will set you back £240.

Buying advice

If you were prepared to pay £799 for your new Mac the Mac mini with the 1TB Fusion Drive for £799 may well be a better option than the entry-level MacBook Air with its paltry 128GB of storage. However, you could always buy yourself an external hard drive to store media files on that might fill up your limited storage, it’s pretty simple to run your photo and music library off of an external hard drive for example.

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: Ports

When it comes to ports, the Mac mini has one thing in its favour, it includes an HDMI port, which makes it really easy to plug it into your TV, making it the perfect choice if you wanted a media centre for your living room. You could use an adaptor to turn the Mini DisplayPort output on the MacBook Air into HDMI, but at an extra cost.

Prior to Apple's 2014 upgrade to the Mac mini we'd have been able to say that the other port that the Mac mini includes that the MacBook Air doesn't is a FireWire 800 port. Unfortunately that is no longer the case. The old MacBook Pro is the only Mac that still features this port.

Other ports on the Mac mini include Gigabit Ethernet, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, four USB 3 ports, the HDMI port, audio in and a headphone port, an IR receiver, and an SDXC card slot.

The ports on the MacBook Air are as follows: one Thunderbolt port, one USB 3 port, and a headphone port. Only the 13-inch model offers an SDXC card slot.

Crucially the MacBook Air lacks Gigabit Ethernet so you can only use this Mac wirelessley - unless you purchase a Thunderbolt or USB to gigabit adaptor (£25 each).

Buying advice

Here the Mac mini kind of has the edge because it has an HDMI port, which is great if you were hoping to attach it to your TV. The Mac mini also features faster Thunderbolt 2 ports, and Ethernet. However, the ports offered by the MacBook Air may be enough for your needs.

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: Display

The MacBook Air comes with an integrated display, with 11-inch or 13-inch options. Screen resolution is 1440-by-900 for the 13-inch and 1366-by-768 for the 11-inch model.

The 13-inch version of the MacBook Air has a display with the usual Apple MacBook aspect ratio of 16:10, a good balance between 16:9 widescreen for watching full-screen video, and a taller display that aids productivity. The 11-inch version of the 2014 MacBook Air features a 16:9 display. Unfortunately the display on both models stands out as the poorest performing display on any current Apple product. We measured only 63 percent of the sRGB colour gamut with our Datacolor Spyder4Elite display calibrator, for example, and viewing angles for the twisted-nematic (TN) glossy panel are limited. You can always plug in an external display and use your MacBook Air with that when you are at your desk.

The Mac mini doesn't come with a display so you will need to either use one you've already got, or purchase one separately. You can pick up a separate monitor for around £100. Or you could spend more than twice as much as the cost of the Mac mini and purchase an Apple Thunderbolt Display for £899.

As we mention above, you can also plug your Mac mini straight into your widescreen TV, making it ideally suited as a media centre in your living room. We wouldn't recommend working on a Mac that had a television screen as a monitor, though.

Buying advice

The key difference when choosing between the MacBook Air and a Mac mini is the presence of the integrated display on the MacBook Air - but, given the fact that this display is small and not as good as other Apple displays, you may find yourself factoring in the cost of an extra display anyway.

If you add the cost of a decent display to the price of the lower-cost Mac mini it doesn't look like such a cheap option, but you may want to factor in the cost of a decent display into the price of the MacBook Air too.

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: Portability

The 11-inch MacBook Air used to be the lightest Mac you can get, at just 1.08kg, but now the new MacBook is the lightest Mac at 0.92 kg. 

The 13-inch model isn't much heavier at 1.35kg. As a point of comparison, the iPad Air 2 weighs 444g - so the 11in MacBook Air is approximately the same weight as two iPad Airs.

The 11-inch model measures 30cm by 19.2cm and is 1.7cm thin, tapering to 0.3cm at its edge. The 13-inch model measures 32.cm by 22.7cm and like the 11-inch model is 1.7cm thin, tapering to 0.3cm at its edge.

The 2014 Mac mini, on the other hand, is a tiny 20cm square box that's less than 4cm deep. You could probably happily carry the box in your bag, but you'd also need to drag around a monitor, mice and keyboard. If you wanted a desktop Mac that took up very little space the Mac mini is perfect though.

Buying advice

The MacBook Air is clearly the most portable when compared to the Mac mini. The Mac mini might be light but it's not really one to carry around - and it wouldn't be much use to you without a monitor.

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: Upgradability

One of the best things about the 2012 Mac mini was the fact that it was more upgradable than any other Mac. It used to be possible to upgrade both the hard drive and the RAM using parts purchased separately, rather than having to choose the upgrade options available from Apple at point of purchase.

Sadly the new 2014 Mac mini is not so upgradeable. Apple has soldered the RAM in place, as you will see if you read this article: Mac mini 2014 v 2012 model, comparison. However, there is still one factor in that Mac's favour: you can still upgrade the storage on the Mac mini.

iFixIt.com gave the old Mac mini a repairability rating of 8 out of 10 in its teardown. The new 2014 Mac mini features RAM that is soldered on, so it is impossible to update it at any time after purchase. iFixIt gave the Mac mini a 6 out of 10 this time round.

The MacBook Air ships with only 4GB RAM, you can boost this to 8GB for an extra £80 when you buy it and we recommend you do so because there will be no opportunity to upgrade the RAM at a later date because, as with the new Mac mini, the RAM is soldered on. As with the Mac mini it is possible to upgrade the storage - although doing so would void your warranty. iFixIt gave both the 2014 and 2015 MacBook Air a reparability score of 4 out of 10.

Buying advice

The Mac mini used to be the Mac for the kind of people who liked to tinker. Now that Mac is not as easy to upgrade down the line. You won't be able to touch the RAM as it is soldered on, for example.

The MacBook Air is similarly tricky to upgrade, although if iFixIt's rating is anything to go by, the Mac mini still has the edge.

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: Best value

The Mac mini is Apple's cheapest Mac at £399, but as we noted already, you'll have to factor in the cost of a monitor, mouse and keyboard. Add even the cheapest monitor (around £150) and the cheapest Apple keyboard and mouse options (£40 each), and you are looking at around £629.

The cheapest MacBook options is the £749 11-inch MacBook Air which features a 1.6GHz processor, 4GB memory, and a 128GB SSD. The entry-level laptop is almost twice the price of the entry-level Mac mini. For £50 more you could get the ultimate Mac mini with a faster 2.8GHz processor, 8GB memory, and a 1TB Fusion Drive.

Buying advice

The price of the £399 Mac mini, along with a monitor, mouse and keyboard is comparable to the £749 MacBook Air with its 11-inch monitor. That model has the same spec as the Mac mini and you will get a built-in display. However, the display you buy to use with the Mac mini is likely to be much larger than 11 or 13 inches, so we reckon the Mac mini will have the edge there.

If you had the budget for a £749 MacBook Air and already owned a screen we would recommend spending it instead on the 2.8GHz Mac mini which costs £50 more at £799 and includes 8GB memory and a 1TB Fusion Drive as standard. That’s presuming that you don't need a portable Mac.

The best value way to buy a Mac is possibly to purchase a second hand Mac. There are a variety of ways you can do this, check the Apple Refurbished store here, where Apple sells Macs that have been returned (if there was a fault it will have been rectified and the Mac still has a one-year warranty). You may also find a good deal on eBay or on Macworld's partner site mResell, which buys and sells old Macs, iPads and iPhones.

Reached a decision? Here's where to buy

You can buy the Mac mini, in its various incarnations, from Apple's online store here.

The MacBook Air is also available from Apple's online store here.