Thinking of buying a new Mac? Trying to decide between the portibility of the MacBook Air or the power of the iMac? You've come to the right place. Read on for our iMac vs MacBook Air comparison that puts the iMac head-to-head with the MacBook Air to help you decide which is best for you.

Choosing a new Mac is both a delightful and terrifying experience. On one hand you have the promise of a sparkling new machine, with all the joy that entails, but conversely you also have to dabble in a spot of clairvoyance as you decide what your next few years of computing will look like.

Deciding on the right machine to meet your needs can be tricky. The Retina iMac is a stunning machine, but if you want to work on a novel in Starbucks it’s a bit of a handful. By the same token the 11-inch MacBook Air is supremely portable, but editing a Logic Pro project on it could quite possibly drive you insane due to the tiny screen real estate. It is indeed a challenge. Well, here at Macworld we always have your best interests at heart, so we’ve put together this guide to the comparative charms and compromises each machine affords a prospective buyer. 

If you're completely unsure of which Mac to buy you might like to read our complete Mac Laptop vs Mac desktop buying guide, our iMac buying guide.

iMac vs MacBook Air: Which one is right for you?

The first question we pose whenever someone asks us which computer they should buy is this ‘what do you want to use it for?’ It might seem somewhat basic, but before you start comparing the tech specs and prices of various devices you have to know what it needs to deliver to make you happy.

If you’re in the market for a general computer on which you can watch YouTube, Netflix, browse the web, keep up on social media, and write the odd report or two, then any Apple computer from the past few years will happily achieve all of this and more. In fact an iPad would be more than enough for these day-to-day activities, especially if paired with a bluetooth keyboard.

If you want to run more powerful apps, such as Photoshop, Logic, the full Microsoft Office suite, or manage your media collection through iTunes or iPhoto, then the larger storage capacities and power of the Mac range will definitely be your best port of call. Of course while iMacs offer beautiful screens and larger hard drives, MacBook Airs can also run external displays and USB (or Thunderbolt) storage devices when at home, doubling up their versatility. Among the less expensive models the power difference is also minimal, so the comparison between the two isn’t as unbalanced as you might first think.

In the end use your judgement to decide how you’re going to employ your device for the majority of the time, and the things that are the most important to you, then you’ll no doubt be happy with whichever machine you pick.

iMac vs MacBook Air: The current MacBook Air range

Apple has kept the MacBook Air range very simple in recent years. At the moment your choices are straightforward and really come down to the size of screen that fits your needs. The two variants – the 11in and 13in – both share the same 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and come in either 128GB or 256GB flash-storage options. Neither of comes with a full HD screen, so if you're looking for the Retina display you'll need to turn to the MacBook Pro range or Apple's new MacBook.

You can buy the 11in Air with 128GB of storage for £749 or 256GB for £899, and the respective 13in alternatives are each £100 more, at £849 (128GB) and £999 (256GB). On the Apple website you can also use the built to order options to upgrade the CPU in any of the machines to a 2.2GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 for £130. This is a decent upgrade, but we'd advice you leave this and increase the amount of RAM instead, as it can't be upgraded later and could become restrictive far quicker than the existing i5 CPU. Moving from 4GB to 8GB costs £80, and is something of an essential purchase if you want to really future-proof your device.

This option still applies to the 11in Air, but from April 2016 the 13in Air now, pleasingly, comes with 8GB RAM as standard. Check them out here.

A final build to order option offers 512GB flash-storage for £240.

If you're not planning to upgrade any of the MacBook Air components when you buy, you don't have to purchase from Apple. You'll also find the MacBook Air available from the likes of John Lewis, Currys and other third party retailers if you prefer.

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

iMac vs MacBook Air: The current iMac range

Things are a little more complicated on the iMac side of things. There are still two screen size options - 21in and 27in - but each model within those variants comes with a different CPU and graphics capability. You can also decide whether you want to cough up the extra cash for the Retina 4K display for the 21in model, while the 27in is now only available with the impressive Retina 5K display.

The base model is cheap for an iMac, coming in at £899. Its specs aren't bad either. It has a 1.6GHz dual-core, Intel Core i5 CPU, Intel HD 6000 graphics, and 1TB hard drive with 8GB of RAM configurable to 16GB for £160.

Spend a bit extra on a 21in model and you’ll move up to either a 2.8GHz quad-core, Intel Core i5 (£1,049) with 1TB a hard drive, 8GB RAM, and Intel Iris Pro graphics 6200. This extra horsepower would certainly make it a better choice if you want to play games or edit more effects-heavy home videos.

Better yet you could opt for the Retina 4K 21in iMac. This comes with a 3.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5  processor, 1TB storage, 8GB of RAM configurable up to 16GB, Intel Iris Pro Graphics 6200 and of course that incredible, crisp display. And quite reasonably, this beauty comes in at £1,199, so you're looking at £150 more for a bit of extra power and a significantly improved display.

Moving up to the 27in models you’ll find a 3.2GHz quad-core, Intel Core i5 with 8GB RAM and a 5K Retina display for £1,449 with AMD Radeon R9 M380 graphics and a 1TB hard drive or for £1,599 for a boost to AMD Radeon R9 M390 graphics and a Fusion Drive. Find out more about Fusion Drive here.

There's also a 3.3GHz quad-code i5 model with 8GB of RAM, a 2TB Fusion Drive AMD Radeon R9 M395 graphics and the 5K display for £1,849, so that's a hefty investment.

As with the MacBook Airs, you can upgrade various aspects of each iMac, including RAM, storage, and in some cases the CPU. We would definitely recommend upgrading to a Fusion Drive where possible, as the extra £80 spent will noticeably improve the day to day performance.  

You can also buy the iMacs from John Lewis, Currys, and other third-party retailers as well as Apple.

iMac vs MacBook Air: Comparing the choices

With computers being so powerful these days, it makes good financial sense to not overpay for features you’ll most likely never use. If your intended use for your device involves not much more than general media consumptions (watching films, listening to music), internet browsing, social media, and office-style productivity, then you should consider the entry-level models in both the iMac and MacBook Air line up.

While the MacBook Airs are still powerful laptops, they are intended more for day-to-day use rather than serious content creation, or computationally demanding task such as gaming. So, if these are your goals, then the more powerful iMacs will be a better fit, or indeed a MacBook Pro. If you’re into photography or videography then the colour rich, expansive screens, and larger storage, of the iMacs are a distinct advantage when it comes to reviewing and editing your media.

But, of course, if you’re a student, travel a lot with work, or don’t have a lot of space at home to dedicate to a desk, the MacBook Airs are amazingly light, and will get most jobs done with little fuss.

iMac vs MacBook Air: How the cheapest models compare

At first glance the £749 11-inch MacBook Air and £899 21-inch entry level iMac might seem a world apart, but they actually share much of their internal components. In fact the iMac has the same 1.6GHz dual-core, Intel Core i5 CPU as the MacBook Air, and also shares the same graphical capabilities. It’s no great surprise then that when we compared the iMac and the 11-inch MacBook Air in our labs we discovered that the MacBook Air actually managed to outperform its big brother in some areas including the Speedmark 9 tests. This is most likely down to the MacBook having flash-storage fitted, as opposed to the slower traditional hard drive in the iMac.

Essentially, at its core, the entry-level iMac is a MacBook Air with a bigger screen, bigger (but slower) storage, and a little more RAM. This means that you could turn either MacBook Air into an iMac just by plugging in a screen, mouse and keyboard, with the option of external storage. Admittedly all of this costs money, but you would end up with a desktop and a laptop for not much more than the price of the iMac itself.

This only holds true for the entry-level model though, as once you step up to more powerful iMacs the gap in power begins to show. There is still the factor of the hard drives in some of the iMacs, but the graphical prowess and CPU speeds are certainly a big improvement, easily ahead of the Airs and the slow entry-level iMac.  

iMac vs MacBook Air: Storage options

The tradeoff for the performance boost of the flash-storage in the MacBook Airs is actual storage space, as flash-storage remains expensive for higher capacity units. If you want to keep all your music, home videos, or music collection on your computer, then the Airs will fill up a lot faster than the capacious iMacs. Of course you can use an external USB hard drives, and they are quite affordable these days, with a quick look on Amazon showing that you can buy 1TB drives for less than £50. See our pick of the best external hard drives for Macs here.

iMac vs MacBook Air: Maxing out the specs

If your budget allows, then fully kitting out either an iMac or MacBook Air will get you a serious machine, and a noticeable difference in price. The 13-inch MacBook Air with the build to order spec of a 2.2GHz dual-core, Intel Core i7 CPU, 8GB RAM, and 512GB flash-storage comes out to a grand total of £1,449. Add Apple Care to that price and you come in at £1,648 for a very quick, lightweight, and capacious laptop.

You can configure a 27-inch with a 4.0GHz quad-core, Intel Core i7, 8GB RAM (as this is a user serviceable part, you can buy more RAM later from third party suppliers such as Crucial instead of paying Apple’s high prices), 512GB flash-storage (1TB is available, but the £480 price tag seems a little excessive) and even upgrade the graphics card to an AMD Radeon R9 M395X, all for £2,409. Apple Care will add a further £199 to the price.

At nearly a grand apart you would expect these machines to be different, and of course you’d be right, with the iMac being an absolute beast.

iMac vs MacBook Air: Buying advice

It’s pretty obvious that iMacs and MacBook Airs are built for different purposes, but if you’re considering the lower-end models then it’s worth nailing down whether you really want a desktop or a laptop, or both. If your intention is that the computer will sit on a desk all its life, then the iMac is the way to go, and we'd recommend opting for the 2.8GHz model if your budget allows. Better yet, upgrade the hard drive to the 1TB Fusion for £80 if you can.

If you want to keep your spending under £1000 though, and don’t mind a bit of non-Apple equipment, then the 11-inch MacBook Air, upgraded to 8GB RAM, is available for £829 and is easily the match of the base-level iMac. Add to this a third party display (around £80), bluetooth mouse, keyboard, external hard drive, and with a bit of shopping around you can have the best of both worlds for under a grand.