If you are on the market for a desktop Mac you may be wondering whether to spend your money on an iMac or a Mac mini. There's also the Mac Pro to consider, but that's a very high-end Mac, with a very high price. You can read more about the Mac Pro here.

Depending on your needs there is likely to be a desktop Mac to suit. We'll investigate this below.

You can read our review of the 2015 27in 5K iMac here and our entry level 2014 Mac mini review here.

If you aren't sure whether it's a desktop Mac or a Mac laptop that you should purchase, read this article: The best Mac of 2016, Mac buying advice.

Mac desktop versus Mac laptop: Buying Advice and Mac mini versus MacBook Pro

iMac versus Mac mini: specs compared

There are six different iMacs and three different Mac minis with a number of build to order options available. Below we will weigh up the differences between each of the different models. The iMac line was refreshed in October 2015, while the latest Mac mini was launched back in 2014. Read about the 2015 iMac refresh here.

iMac specs

The iMac is an all-in-one desktop computer with an integrated display. There are a mixture of sizes available: a 21.5-inch and a 27-inch (that's a 21.5- or a 27-inch screen measured diagonally) and you’ll find a variety of processor speeds (27in models feature Intel’s sixth generation Haswell chipsets while the 21.5in models feature fourth and fifth generation chipsets), hard drive sizes, graphics cards and RAM options.

There was a new low-cost 21.5in iMac model introduced in the summer of 2014 and updated in 2015, that offers a 1.6GHz dual-core processor with 8GB memory (not upgradable even at the point of purchase as it is soldered on), Intel HD Graphics 6000, a 1TB hard drive, and costs £899. A slightly better variation with a 2.8GHz dual-core Intel i5 processor and Intel HD Graphics 6200 is available for £1,049 too.

At the other end of the scale from the £899 iMac, the 27in iMac offers a 5K display throughout the range (it was initially a single model, but it was rolled out during the October 2015 refresh).

The standard processor in those models is an Intel quad-core i5 that ranges from 3.2GHz to 3.3GHz (although there is a configuration option of a 4.0GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7). Each iMac comes with 8GB RAM as standard (configurable to 16GB or 32GB at the high end) and a 1TB hard drive as standard with the exception of the most expensive model, which comes with 2TB (configurable to 3TB or a range of SSD options or a Fusion Drive, which combines an SSD and a hard drive).

The standard models offer the AMD Radeon R9 Graphics card – a step up from the Intel HD Graphics 6000 in the £899 model. However, with this said, the exact card varies between models (M380, M390 and M395). This dedicated graphics card has 2GB of memory on all models (configurable to 4GB) and is a step up from the 1GB of the last-generation iMacs.

In terms of ports, all the iMacs feature an SDXC card slot, four USB 3 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, Gigabit Ethernet and a Mini DisplayPort output. Each iMac comes complete with an Apple Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse.

Product

GHz

RAM

Graphics

Storage

Price

21.5in iMac

1.6GHz dual-core

8GB

Intel HD Graphics 6000

1TB hard drive

£899

21.5in iMac

2.8GHz quad-core

8GB

Intel Iris Pro Graphics 6200

1TB hard drive

£1,049

21.5in 4K iMac

3.1GHz quad-core

8GB

Intel Iris Pro Graphics 6200

1TB hard drive

£1,199

27in 5K iMac

3.2GHz quad-core

8GB

AMD Radeon R9 M380 with 2GB

1TB hard drive

£1,449

27in 5K iMac

3.2GHz quad-core

8GB

AMD Radeon R9 M380 with 2GB

1TB Fusion drive

£1,599

27in 5K iMac

3.3GHz quad-core

8GB

AMD Radeon R9 M380 with 2GB

2TB Fusion Drive

£1,849

Mac mini specs

The 2014 Mac mini fits inside a tiny 20cm square box that's less than 4cm deep. Unlike with the iMac, there is no monitor, mouse or keyboard included with the Mac mini.

Apple updated the Mac mini range at the end of 2014. This box is sold in three configurations.

The cheapest Mac mini has a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and integrated graphics chip (the Intel HD Graphics 5000), not able to compete with the entry-level iMac. It also features a 500GB hard drive and 4GB of RAM. While the Mac mini beats the 2014 entry level iMac, its October 2015 update means it now leaves the Mac mini in its rear view mirror.  

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 here.

The 2.6GHz dual-core i5 Mac mini, offers 8GB RAM, a 1TB hard disc, and Intel Iris Graphics. It costs £569. It is possible to upgrade the RAM to 16GB at the 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 here and our 2014 Mac mini reviews here:

Also read: Mac mini or MacBook Air: the best low-cost Mac for your money

iMac versus Mac mini specs: Buying advice

In terms of specs, the iMac is a better deal than the Mac mini because it features more modern processors, more RAM, and better graphics. It also features an integrated monitor and comes with both a wireless keyboard and mouse. However, if you want an HDMI port, the Mac mini offers one.

iMac verses Mac mini: Storage

The storage options differ across the iMac and Mac mini ranges. While the Mac mini offers 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, the iMac offers a 1TB hard drive, a 1TB Fusion drive and a 2TB Fusion drive, respectively.

We’d say that the fact that you can pick up a Fusion Drive as standard on the £799 Mac mini is a point in its favour, or add £160 to the price of the mid-range Mac mini, or £200 to the £399 model, to upgrade to a Fusion Drive. We recommend doing so because having a Fusion Drive will make a huge difference to the speed at which your Mac operates.

You can add a Fusion Drive to the entry level iMac for £80 – we recommend you do that because with the Fusion Drive, this machine is as good as the next step up and will still cost less – read or review of the £899 iMac with Fusion Drive here. The Fusion Drive upgrade is also £80 across the other iMacs.

Here’s everything you need to know about Shopping at an Apple Store, Apple Online, and using the Genius Bar

Buying advice

The storage upgrade options are the same, but the starting price is so different that you can essentially get a pretty decent Mac mini for less than the cost of the entry-level iMac. 

iMac versus 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 iMac 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 iMac doesn't is a FireWire 800 port. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case as with the upgrade came the removal of the dated technology.

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 iMac are as follows: HDMI port, Gigabit Ethernet, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, four USB 3 ports, a headphone port, a Kensington lock slot, and an SDXC card slot.

Buying advice

Here again the Mac mini kind of has the edge because it has the HDMI port, which is great if you were hoping to attach it to your TV. Of course, the iMac doesn’t need to be connected to your TV because the screen is included. Which brings us on to our next point…

iMac verses Mac mini: Display options

The iMac comes with an integrated display, with 1080p 21.5in, 4K 21.5in or 5K 27in options. The 21.5in 4K iMac comes with a resolution of 4096x2304 while the ultimate 27in iMac comes with a 5K Retina display boasting an astonishing 5120 x 2880 pixels, that’s a total of 218 pixels per inch. Read: What is a Retina display.

The entry-level iMac displays may not be as ground-breaking, but they’re still of good quality. They feature IPS technology (in-plane switching), which makes a huge difference to the colour vibrancy and reproduction. Earlier models of the iMac were criticised because their display was considered too reflective by some, luckily the 2013 model remedied this and the Retina iMac went one step further, adding a special film that improves the off-axis viewing.

However, if you are a designer and need colour accuracy, you might be better off with another display – the good news is you can plug another display into the back of your iMac and have two displays.

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, depending on size and image quality. 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.

Read: Connect your Mac mini to a TV: turn a Mac mini into a media hub.

Buying advice

The key difference when choosing between the Mac mini and an iMac is the presence of the integrated display on the iMac. 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.

iMac versus Mac mini: upgradability

One of the best features of the 2012 Mac mini was the fact that it was more upgradable than any other Mac. On that model, it was possible not only to upgrade both the hard drive and the RAM, but crucially these could be updated at any time and using parts purchased separately, rather than being stuck with the upgrade options offered by Apple at the point of purchase.

Sadly, the 2014 Mac mini is not so upgradeable. Apple has decided to solder the RAM in place, as you will see if you read this article: Mac mini 2014 v 2012 model, comparison. You can still upgrade the storage on the Mac mini, so that’s one factor in that Mac’s favour.

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.

Attempting to upgrade the iMac is not for the faint-hearted. If you aren't prepared to pull your Mac apart, you may be wise to fully spec out the iMac at the point of sale. There are a number of build to order options, so if you think you will need more RAM or a bigger hard drive, or an SSD at a later date, you are advised to do that when you buy it. However, you will pay much more for the extra RAM and storage than you would if you did it yourself.

You can't add your own RAM to the 21-inch iMac without a lot of hassle. You'll need to take the iMac apart and cut through a lot of adhesive to get to the memory slots, which are hidden behind the logic board. So, unless you really like to get your hands dirty, you are stuck with Apple's base 8GB or expensive build-to-order options. As for other upgrades, don't even go there. The CPU is soldered to the logic board so it can't be replaced if something goes wrong. 

Upgrading the RAM in a 27in iMac is easier, though – at least for now. We explain how to add extra RAM to a 27in iMac in this article. The 27in 5K iMac scored 5 out of 10 for repairability on iFixIt. The 21.5in iMacs score even lower: 2 out of 5 for the entry-level 21in iMac

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.

If you buy an iMac (especially the 21.5inch model) then you’re more likely to end up using that specification of the machine from then on. Of course, this should be balanced against the fact that the iMac has better specs to begin with.

iMac versus Mac mini: which Mac is the best value?

The Mac mini is Apple's cheapest Mac at £399, but as we noted above, that price doesn't include a monitor, a mouse or a keyboard. Add even the cheapest decent monitor (around £150) and the cheapest Apple keyboard and mouse options (£40+ each), and you are looking at around £629. That makes it comparable to the £899 iMac, which has a better spec than the Mac mini. Of course to compare like for like you’d be looking at a more expensive monitor to go with your Mac mini – but you may already own that monitor… So in terms of the entry level iMac and Mac mini, it certainly looks like the Mac mini is the best value.

The iMacs and Mac mini’s are less comparable outside of this entry level category as the Mac mini features dual-core chips, while the iMac features quad-core processors. So even if you take the most highly specced Mac mini (the £799, 2.8GHz dual Core model) and compare it to the £1,049 2.8GHz iMac, the iMac has a quad-core processor and Intel Iris Pro Graphics, compared to the 2.8GHz dual-core processor and Intel Iris Graphics.  The one thing in that Mac mini’s favour is the 1TB Fusion Drive, which will help boost the speed of that model – however, it’s not very much extra to upgrade. The iMac will cost you £250 more than the Mac mini in this case, and another £80 if you wanted to add the Fusion Drive.

Beyond those two iMacs, there isn’t really a comparable model to the Mac mini range. 

Buying advice

We’d recommend the entry-level £399 Mac mini over the iMac if you’re looking for a budget no-thrills Mac, but beyond that it gets a bit murky.

If you are only considering the entry-level Mac mini, the price of the iMac is significantly higher. You could equip the cheaper Mac with a monitor, mouse and keyboard, and still have cash left over. There is no doubt that the Mac mini is the cheapest way to buy a Mac, however, it’s one of the lowest spec Mac ranges available.

If it's cheap you are after, it's worth considering the £749 MacBook Air which has similar specs as the entry-level Mac mini –4GB memory, a slightly better 1.6GHz dual-core Intel i5 processor, and Intel HD Graphics 6000. The real difference is storage, as the MacBook Air boasts 128GB of flash storage – which will make it faster than the Mac mini (and if you need the storage you can buy a separate hard drive). It also features an 11in display which may be big enough for your needs. That entry-level MacBook Air costs £350 more than the Mac mini.

Wondering whether to buy a MacBook or a Mac desktop? Find out if you should buy a Mac laptop or Mac desktop here.

Read our Mac buying guide and read: i5 or i7? Haswell or Broadwell? What is turbo boost? Here's how to choose the best processor for your Mac