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 since that's a very high-end Mac, with a very high price, we'll leave that model out of this article for now.
First things first, when deciding between the iMac and Mac mini there is one particularly important thing to note. Apple last updated the iMac back in October 2013 while the Mac mini hasn't been updated since October 2012.
Why the delay with the update to the Mac mini? Perhaps Apple isn't bothered with its lowest-priced Mac. Or maybe Apple has something big planned for the Mac mini. Either way, expect an update to the Mac mini soon. If you are considering buying one right now, it may be unwise as a new model may be just around the corner.
That said there are still reasons why the Mac mini may be a better choice for you than an iMac.
iMac verses Mac mini: specs compared
The iMac is an all-in-one desktop computer with an integrated display. There are four standard versions of the 2013 model to choose between, with two sizes available: a 21.5-inch and a 27-inch (that's a 21.5- or a 27-inch screen measured diagonally).
The standard processor is an Intel quad-core i5 (Haswell) and ranges from 2.7GHz to 3.4GHz. It comes with 8GB RAM as standard (configurable to 32GB) and a 1TB hard drive as standard (configurable to 3TB or a range of SSD options or a Fusion Drive, which combines an SSD and a hard drive).
The low-end iMac has an Intel Iris Pro graphics card, while the other models offer a dedicated NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics card with its own 1GB memory on most models (2GB on the high-end model, configurable to 4GB). It comes complete with an Apple Wireless Keyboard and Magic Mouse.
In terms of ports the iMac features an SDXC card slot, four USB 3 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, Gigabit Ethernet and a Mini DisplayPort output.
You can read our review of the 2013 iMac here.
The 2012 Mac mini fits inside a tiny 20cm square box that's less than 4cm deep. There is no monitor included, as there is with the iMac.
This box is sold in two basic configurations and a server model. The CPU has a slower clock speed than the iMac, starting at 2.5GHz dual-core or 2.3GHz quad core. You may be wondering why the more expensive model seems to have a slower processor. It doesn't and there are two reasons why: first the processor this time is an i7, while the 2.5GHz model is an Intel i5. The other reason is the more expensive model has a slower clock speed because it has four cores, rather than two. That's four cores spinning at 2.3GHz, as opposed to two cores at 2.5GHz. Note that, these processors are inferior to the new generation of Haswell processors found in the iMac.
The Mac mini can be bought with either a 500GB or 1TB hard drive and comes with 4GB of RAM across the board, configurable to 16GB. It comes with an integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics card.
The Mac mini with OS X Server model features a 2.3GHz quad-core i7 processor, and two 1TB hard drives for 2TB of storage space. It also ships with Apple's server software installed.
When it comes to ports, the Mac mini has two things 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.
The other port that the Mac mini includes that the iMac doesn't is a FireWire 800 port. The Mac mini and the old MacBook Pro are the only Macs that still feature this port.
Other ports on the Mac mini include Gigabit Ethernet, one Thunderbolt port, four USB 3 ports, and an SDXD card slot.
Read our 2012 Mac mini review (updated in October 2013) here.
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. However, if you wanted a FireWire port or an HDMI port the Mac mini offers one. It is unlikely that the new Mac mini will offer a FireWire port, so you may wish to buy one before an update happens.
iMac versus Mac mini: upgradability
One thing that’s also worth bearing in mind is that the 2012 Mac mini is much more upgradable than the 2013 iMac.
The Mac mini wins here because you can upgrade both the hard drive and the RAM of the Mac mini, and of course you can attach any display you want. iFixIt.com gave the Mac mini a reparability rating of 8 out of 10 in its teardown. It is possible that if Apple announces a new Mac mini model it will not be as easy to update.
The 2013 iMac on the other hand is not for the faint hearted. The if you aren't prepared to pull your Mac apart, you may be wise to fully spec out the iMac at 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 27-inch iMac is easier though. We explain how to add extra RAM to a 2013 iMac in this article. According to iFixit's teardown of the 27-inch iMac it is possible to replace the hard drive and CPU, but you'd need to cut the adhesive.
The Mac mini is certainly a friendlier Mac if you want to make sure you can upgrade it down the line. If you buy an iMac (especially the 21.5inch model) then you’re more likely to end up using that specification of 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: display options
The iMac comes with an integrated display. The display is of good quality, it features 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 glossy by some, particularly those who didn't want to look at their own reflection luckily the 2013 model remedied this and is a pleasure to look at. 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 able pick up a separate monitor for less than £250. 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.
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 display to the price of the lower-cost Mac mini it doesn't look like such a cheap option.
iMac versus Mac mini: which is best value
The Mac mini is Apple's cheapest Mac at £499, but as we noted above, that price doesn't include a monitor, or a mouse and keyboard. Add the price of the cheapest monitor and keyboard and you are looking at around £650. However, the iMac has far higher spec than the Mac mini so it's not really fair to compare the £499 Mac mini with the £1,149 iMac.
If you were to buy the best spec Mac mini available currently - the server version, available for £849 - and then add a cheap monitor, you'd be closer to the price of the entry-level iMac. How would these models compare?
The £849 server version of the Mac mini has 2TB of storage, 2.3GHz quad-core i7 chip, and 4GB memory (you could upgrade to 8GB RAM for £80, bringing the price to £929).
The iMac, in comparison, offers a 2.7GHz quad-core i5 (Haswell) chip, 8GB RAM, and a 1TB hard drive for £1,149. While that is more than twice the price of the cheapest Mac mini (£650 more), it's just £300 more than the server version of the Mac mini (which offers twice as much storage).
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, the server version of the Mac mini offers twice as much storage as the iMac and costs, if you bump up the RAM in the Mac mini, £929, £220 less than the iMac. If it's the maximum amount of storage that you are after, then this isn't a bad deal (although we'd still recommend waiting for Apple to upgrade the Mac mini before spending any money).
If it's cheap you are after, it's worth considering the £849 MacBook Air which has 4GB memory, 128GB flash storage, and a dual-core 1.3GHz i5 Haswell processor. It's £350 more, but, of course, it does incorporate a screen. That 1.3GHz processor might sound worse, but as we noted before, the new generation of Haswell processors are much better, and you might likewise be concerned about the small storage size, but Flash storage is significantly faster than a hard drive, and we think the benefits far out weight the disadvantages (just buy an external storage device).
1) Wait for Apple to update the Mac mini, as soon as it does we will update this article.
2) If you want a media centre for your living room, the Mac mini is a good option, especially if you opt for the one with 2TB of storage.
3) The iMac is double the price of the Mac mini, but it does include a monitor, and the specs better (for now)
[Wondering whether to buy a MacBook or a Mac desktop? Find out if you should buy a Mac laptop or Mac desktop here.]