Should I buy an Apple laptop (MacBook Air, MacBook Pro or MacBook) or an iMac, Mac mini or Mac Pro desktop computer? What are the pros and cons of Apple's laptops and desktops? We answer your questions below! 

If you are trying to decide whether to buy a Mac desktop or a MacBook laptop (also known as a Mac notebook) you've come to the right place.

In many ways, most Macs are broadly similar when it comes to price and specs, each category of Mac often offers a range of specs similar to another Mac category, but in other ways, Mac desktops and MacBook laptops can be very different. For example, Apple's Mac desktops usually ramp up to higher-spec models when compared to Mac notebooks, so if it's the most powerful Mac you need then a desktop is probably going to suit you best. However, many of the Mac desktops still use older hard disks rather than the flash storage that the laptops use - which can slow them down in typical operation. Plus, desktop computers chain you to a desk; while Apple's MacBook laptops let you roam free.

In this feature, we look at Apple's Mac desktop and MacBook laptop range of computers and help you work out which option is right for you.

Wondering which 13in MacBook is best for you? Read: MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro comparison review, 13in Apple laptops compared

See also: Should I buy an iMac or Mac mini? and Which MacBook buying guide

Mac laptop or desktop: Apple's desktop computer range

Apple currently makes three different models of desktop computer:

  • iMac: The most famous Mac is the all-in-one iMac with its built-in display (either 21.5-inch or 27-inch). At the top of the lineup are three 27-inch iMacs with 5K Retina displays, although there is also a smaller 21.5in iMac with a 4K display. Read more about the iMac here.
  • Mac mini: The diminutive Mac mini needs a separate screen, keyboard and mouse but has a wide range of connections including HDMI making it perfect as a Home Entertainment device plugged into your TV. It's also Apple's cheapest Mac starting at £399. Read more about Mac mini here.
  • Mac Pro: Finally, there is the Mac Pro, which offers incredible speed in a cylindrical design. There are two models available: a 3.7GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon powerhouse and a 3.5GHz 6-Core behemoth. Both feature dual AMD FirePro graphics cards and lots of build to order options. Read more about Mac Pro here

Prices start at £399 for the Mac mini (although you'll need to factor in the cost of a screen, keyboard and mouse if you haven't got them handy) and £899 for the iMac (the iMac 5K Retina Display starts at £1,449). You can also get 21.5in 4K iMac for £1,199 too, if you’re suited to a smaller screen. The Mac Pro starts at £2,499.

See also: iMac reviews | Mac mini reviews | Mac Pro reviews | Mac desktop reviews

Plus: iMac with Retina 5K display review | Retina 3.3GHz iMac 27in review | Mac mini 2.8GHz review | Mac mini 1.4 GHz review | Mac Pro 3.5GHz review  | Apple Mac Pro Quad-Core/3.7GHz (Late 2013) review 

Mac laptop or desktop: Apple's MacBook range

Apple's laptop/notebook range is more popular than its desktop range (Apple sells more laptops than desktops). Apple has four different Mac notebook models to choose from:

  • MacBook Air: The MacBook Air is Apple’s cheapest laptop and most popular model, with its super-light and super-small design (either 11-inch or 13-inch screen). It’s no slouch, though, and the latest model offers a tremendous amount of battery life (up to 12 hours according to Apple).
  • MacBook Pro: The MacBook Pro is the closest Apple has to a more traditional laptop. There are three versions available; the standard 13in MacBook Pro, a Retina 13in MacBook Pro or a Retina 15in MacBook Pro. The standard 13in MacBook Pro has a 500GB 5400-rpm hard drive, while the retina display MacBook Pro’s feature a newer flash storage system (also found on other MacBooks). Read more about the MacBook Pro Retina. The standard 13in MacBook Pro is also the only Mac still being sold with a built-in optical SuperDrive (CD/DVD writer), although you can purchase an external Apple DVD Superdrive to go with other Macs. This Mac has not been updated by Apple since 2012, we're kind of surprised people still buy it, at £899 it's not even the cheapest option. (See: Is it worth buying an Apple USB SuperDrive?)
  • Retina MacBook: At the beginning of 2015, Apple introduced the new Retina MacBook, an even thinner and lighter MacBook than the MacBook Air - but with a higher price, and a lower spec. It comes in gold, silver and space grey, just like the iPhone. A new model was released in Early 2016.

Prices start at £749 for a MacBook Air, £899 for a MacBook Pro and £999 for a MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The Retina MacBook starts at £1,049.

See also: MacBook Air reviews | MacBook Pro Retina reviews  | MacBook reviews 

Plus: 11in MacBook Air review | 13-inch MacBook Air (early 2015) review  | Non-retina MacBook Pro review | 1.1 GHz Apple MacBook (Early 2015) review |  2.7GHz 13in Retina MacBook Pro review | MacBook Pro 15in 2.2 GHz review   |  MacBook Pro 15in 2.5 GHz review

Mac laptop or desktop: The main difference

Comparing a desktop to a laptop throws up some pretty straightforward differences. The first being that a desktop is clearly designed to sit on a desk, while the laptop is designed to be carried around with you, or, as the name suggests, used on your lap (we think the reason why in the US laptops tend to be referred to as Notebooks is because companies are worried about being sued by people with burned laps - do be aware that having your laptop in your lap may not be the best place for it).

The Mac Pro and Mac mini will also need an external monitor, and while the iMac has an integrated display, you still need a separate keyboard and mouse – although these are supplied when buying an iMac. Laptops, in contrast, have the keyboard, trackpad and monitor contained within a package small enough to carry around.

It may sound like we're stating the obvious, but it's worth noting because it means that there are extra expenses to be factored in when purchasing a desktop that you might overlook when comparing prices with Apple's laptop range.

Mac laptop or desktop: Wi-Fi and Interenet

All Macs feature Wi-Fi, but the portable nature of a laptop doesn't doesn't just mean that you can take the computer to a local coffee shop - a MacBook can be moved into meeting rooms for presentations, and if you're at home you can move from the desk to the couch and carry on using your computer.

It's worth noting here that some Apple laptops don't have an Ethernet port, so you can only connect them to the internet, or your network, wirelessly. It's worth making sure you won't be putting the IT guy at work out too much if you can only access the network over Wi-Fi. Luckily you can buy adapters that make it possible to plug into the local network if Wi-Fi isn't an option.

Mac desktop or laptop: Display

The iMac with Retina 5K display

Apple prides itself on its Retina displays, first introduced on the iPhone the pixels on a Retina display are said to be packed so tightly together that you cannot actually see them with the naked eye - hence Retina.

Among the MacBook ranges two models offer Retina displays. The 12in MacBook and the Retina MacBook Pro, available in 13 and 15in versions. 

Currently, three of the 27in iMac models offer Retina displays for extra pixels, along with a single 21.5in iMac with a Retina 4K display – the other two iMacs available feature standard 1920x1080 sRGB displays.

As for screen sizes there are laptop screens to suit everyone: the screen on the MacBook Air starts at 11-inch, then there's the 12in Retina MacBook and 13in MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro, and there's also a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro (there was previously a 17-inch model, but this was discontinued by Apple despite being popular with photographers and videographers).

With regard to the iMac, the screen size ranges from 21.5-inch to 27-inch. Mac mini users can choose any screen they like as it doesn’t come supplied with one, although this will incur extra cost.

Don’t underestimate screen size as a factor in productivity: this Apple study shows that large monitors provide productivity gains of between 50-65 percent.

However, you don't have to settle for the display that comes with your Mac - all Apple Macs can be plugged into a separate display - so if you have a gigantic 42in display that you want to use, go ahead and be super productive!

Mac laptop or desktop: Processor speeds and performance

In each category of Mac, there are entry level models that tend to share similar specs. For example, the £399 Mac mini sports a 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and the £899 iMac sports a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor at the entry level – the two did match until Apple updated the iMac range in October 2015, leaving the Mac mini as one of the least powerful Macs currently available.

The entry level MacBook Air used to offer the same 1.4GHz processor but it was updated in 2015 to a newer 1.6GHz processor and saw a slight speed bump thanks to that. The MacBook Air also benefits from an SSD, or Flash drive, which is faster than the standard hard drive featured in the 21.5in iMac desktops, the entry-level 27in 5K iMac, the entry-level and mid-range Mac mini and the standard 13in MacBook Pro.

There's not a big difference between the specs of the 11in and 13in MacBook Air models, the only real difference there is the storage and screen size.

If you are considering the difference between the 13in MacBook Pro Retina and 13in MacBook Air the differences are slightly more pronounced, but the price isn't hugely different. The entry-level 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display costs £999 while the 13in MacBook Air with less (flash based) storage costs £849. the Retina model not only has a better screen, it also has a better processor and more storage. 

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display starts with a 2.7GHz dual-core CPU at £999, which is comparable to the 2.8GHz 21.5in iMac, which costs £50 more at £1,049. The laptop does offer flash storage as standard, though, which will make it faster. And this iMac doesn't have a Retina display (although it does have a bigger display).

It's also comparable to the 2.6GHz Mac mini which costs just £569 - as you can see, you don't necessarily have to pay more to get a higher spec machine.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display has a more powerful 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, it costs £1,599. That's the same price as the 3.2GHz iMac with Retina 5K Display.

Then there's the Mac Pro, which starts with an even more powerful 3.7GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon E5, that costs £2,499, which isn't a lot more than the top of the range 3.3GHz iMac at £1,849.

Although, as you can see, there are areas of crossover between the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iMac and Mac mini, it's clear that you get a lot more processor bang for your buck on the desktop range. This isn't just a number on a spec sheet: the faster speed will make a lot of difference if you're using Photoshop and 3D imaging software or video editing. It also extends the lifespan of the machine, ensuring it'll be able to run newer software for longer. However, the desktop machines can be let down by the slower hard drives, if you can opt for the build to order fusion drives in them (fusion drives combine a flash and hard drive for the best of both worlds) we recommend you do.

Mac laptop or desktop: Graphic performance

MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Alongside the Intel processor in each Apple Mac sits a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). This is often referred to as a "graphics card" although they are not always separate cards. The GPU is primarily used to manage visual effects, and a good GPU enables games and other graphic intensive programs to run more effectively.

At the entry level, the Mac mini features the older Intel HD Graphics 5000 card introduced with Haswell in 2013, while the entry-level 21.5in iMac boasts slightly better Intel HD Graphics 6000. The MacBook Air also has the newer HD Graphics 6000. The MacBook Pro with Retina Display has a newer, and faster, Intel Iris Graphics 6100 card. All these graphics cards are integrated graphics cards, which means that they run on the same die as the main CPU and share the RAM with the rest of the computer.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display and second-cheapest 21.5-inch iMac (£1,049) both feature Intel Iris Pro GPUs. The Intel Iris Pro is the same system as Intel Iris but with 128MB of dedicated RAM that acts as a buffer to improve performance. The top-end MacBook Pro with Retina Display boasts Intel Iris Pro Graphics with an AMD Radeon R9 M370X featuring 2GB memory – putting it just beneath the graphical power of the entry-level 27in 5K iMac.

There's nothing wrong with the Intel HD or Iris integrated systems (they run most modern games) but if you are a keen gamer or work in a visual effects field, then you might want to consider a step up. The Intel Iris Pro offers a marked upgrade in performance, but if you work in professional 3D, video editing or are a keen gamer then consider getting a Mac with a discrete graphics system.

Apple also offers some discrete graphics cards in its Macs, usually from AMD. You'll find these in the top of the range MacBook Pro, the 27in 5K iMac range, and the Mac Pro. If you see AMD on your Mac, it's going to offer better performance.

The top-of-the-line 15in 2.5GHz MacBook Pro with Retina Display (£1,999) comes with an AMD Radeon R9 M370X with 2GB memory.

These all offer vastly improved graphics performance over Macs with Intel HD 5000/600, Intel Iris or Intel Iris Pro graphics.

The Mac Pro comes with two graphics cards: Dual AMD FirePro D300 with 2GB GDDR5 VRAM on each card (4GB in total) on the quad-core model and 3GB GDDR5 VRAM each (6GB in total) on the 6-core unit. These are impressive numbers, and that sort of power is needed if you want to edit 4K video.

Mac laptop or desktop: Storage

Mac laptop or desktop: MacBook Air

On the surface it appears that you get more storage for your money with a Desktop. Apple's Mac mini starts with 500GB while the entry level iMac boasts 1TB, and of course, higher range models have feature either 1TB hard drives or fusion drives.

The MacBooks and Mac Pro, on the other hand, come with smaller but faster PCIe-based flash storage.

The MacBook Air comes with 128GB on the cheaper 11-inch and 13-inch models, and goes up to 256GB on the more expensive models. Taking the 256GB storage to 512GB is an additional £240).

The 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display also comes with 128GB, 256GB or 512GB of flash as standard. The larger 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display features 256GB at the entry level and jumps up to 512GB at the high end. The non-retina model has a 500GB Serial ATA hard drive as standard.

It seems odd that the cheaper Mac mini and MacBook Pro (non-Retina) both come with larger hard drives than most of the more expensive Macs. This is because the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro with Retina Display, and now Mac Pro all come with Flash storage built into the logic board. This is much faster (between 5-10 times faster) than a traditional Serial ATA hard drive, while providing much faster performance. You can always buy a separate hard disk and plug it in - or get a network attached storage device and backup over the network.

You can upgrade to an SSD (Solid State Drive) hard drive on the iMac and Mac mini, although this costs £160 to upgrade for a smaller sized (but much faster performing) 256GB SSD. The Mac mini and iMac both offer the Fusion Drive as a £160 upgrade. The Fusion Drive blends SSD technology with a traditional Serial ATA space to offer a 1TB drive with higher performance. It’s an upgrade we highly recommend. There’s a speed versus space issue here but it depends on your function. If you’re going to be editing a lot of videos then the larger internal hard drive will make a lot of difference.

Mac laptop or desktop: Upgradability

Mac laptop or desktop: Mac mini

Apple computers are notoriously difficult to upgrade, and the latest range offers even more restricted computing than ever. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display both have soldered RAM and hard drives: they are basically non-upgradable, what you buy is what you’ll use forevermore. The MacBook Pro without the Retina Display still enables you to upgrade the RAM (up to 16GB) and swap out the hard drive. The iMac 21.5in is technically upgradable, but so hard to strip down that it might as well not be, but the iMac 27-inch allows you reasonable access to the RAM and hard drive.

The Mac mini used to be easy to upgrade, although the version introduced in 2014 isn't as upgradeable as the past models had been. However, it is possible to swap out the hard drive if necessary, although you can no longer easily upgrade the RAM. So be sure to buy the memory you need with this model.

The new Mac Pro is an interesting unit in that it replaces the one Mac with superb upgradability options with a radically new design. You can upgrade the RAM fairly easily, but you can no longer install PCI-Express cards into the Mac Pro and the SSD. However, the SSD isn’t soldered to the board as in a MacBook Air, instead, it sits on a card above the GPU. Tantalisingly you may be able to upgrade the graphics card down the line, although the CPU will be forever fixed.

See: Can I upgrade the new Mac Pro?

Upgradability is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there are size, weight and performance advantages to having everything soldered inside the machine. But you can easily extend the life of a Mac by updating the RAM and hard drive as prices fall. Again, the Mac mini and iMac 27-inch offer longevity.

Conclusion: Should you buy a Mac desktop or laptop?

It may sound trite but in the most cases it really does come down to ‘how portable do you want your computer to be?’. If you need a machine to carry around with you then the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro offer this feature.

But if you don’t need portability, you really get much more from a Mac desktop than just a bigger screen. The faster innards, and upgradability options (at least on models other than the 21.5in iMac and Mac mini) will allow you to buy a machine with more potential lifespan. And don’t underestimate the productivity gains of working on a large 27in display (especially one as beautiful as the new iMac with Retina 5K display).

The only thing that lets the average desktop down is the slower hard drive, so we recommend you upgrade to flash storage, or a Fusion Drive when you purchase it.

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