Whether to buy an Apple Mac desktop or laptop is a big question. After all, the price range is mostly similar, but Apple Mac desktops and MacBook laptops offer quite different features. Apple's Mac desktops often offer higher speced models when compared to laptops, but chain you to a desk; while Apple's MacBook laptops lets you roam free, but at what cost?
In this feature we look at Apple’s Mac desktop and MacBook notebook range of computers, and see which one is right for you. (This Should I get a Mac Desktop or Laptop feature was updated on 24 April 2014 to include new specs and pricing information.)
The Apple Mac desktop computers
Apple currently makes three different models of desktop computer:
iMac. The first and most famous is the all-in-one iMac with its built in display (either 21.5-inch or 27-inch). Read more about the iMac here.
Mac mini. The diminutive Mac mini needs a separate screen, keyboard and mouse but offers the latest power but is small enough to fit in a handbag and has a wide range of connections. Read more about Mac mini here.
Mac Pro. Finally there is the all-new Mac Pro which offers incredible speed in an all-new style of cylindrical design. There are two main models available: a 3.7GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon powerhouse and a 3.5GHz 6-Core behemoth. Both feature dual AMD FirePro graphics cards. Read more about Mac Pro here
Prices start at £499 for the Mac mini (although you’ll need to factor in the cost of a screen if you haven’t got one) and £1,149 for the iMac. The new Mac Pro starts at £2,499.
Apple Mac laptop range
Apple’s laptop range is more popular than its desktop range (Apple sells more laptops than desktops). Apple has three different laptop models to choose from.
MacBook Air. The MacBook Air is Apple’s 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). Read more about the MacBook Air here.
MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro is the closest Apple has to a more traditional laptop. Only one version is available (with a 13-inch screen). It has a 500GB 5400-rpm hard drive instead of the newer flash storage system found on the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The MacBook Pro is 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. (See: Is it worth buying an Apple USB SuperDrive?)
MacBook Pro with Retina Display. This super-high resolution display makes compatible apps (most Apple apps plus stalwarts like Adobe Photoshop) look amazing. The MacBook Pro models are available with 13-inch and 15-inch screens. Read more about the MacBook Pro Retina here.
Prices start at £849 for a MacBook Air, £999 for a MacBook Pro and £1,099 for a MacBook Pro with Retina Display.
Apple desktop vs laptop features
Comparing a desktop to a laptop throws up some pretty straight-forward differences. The first being that a desktop (especially the iMac) is clearly designed to sit on a desk; the laptop is designed to be carried around with you (or, as the name suggests, used on your lap), these are often referred to as notebooks, particularly in the US.
All Macs feature Wi-Fi (known as AirPort), but the portable nature of a laptop doesn’t doesn’t just affect your ability to take the computer to a local coffee shop, a MacBook can be quickly 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.
Having said that there are also a number of key differences between an Apple MacBook and Desktop.
Screen size. The screen on the Apple MacBook computers starts at 11-inch and goes up to 15-inch (there was previously a 17-inch model, but this was discontinued by Apple). On Apple iMac computers the screen size ranges from 21.5-inch to 27-inch. Don’t underestimate screen size as a factor in productivity: this Apple study shows that large monitors provide productivity gains of between 50-65 per cent.
Processor. The MacBook Air starts with a 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor; whereas the Mac mini starts with a 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 (but that is a much older Intel processor since the Mac mini hasn't been updated in over a year). The 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Pro with Retina Display also sport dual-core Intel processors. When you move up to the the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display you get a quad-core Intel CPU. Apple iMac computers also come with quad-core Intel i5 or i7 CPUs, while the Apple Mac Pro has a quad-core or 6-core Intel Xeon E5 (which is a workstation class processor).
Although there’s some areas of crossover between the MacBook Pro 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 nicety: 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.
Graphics. 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 seperate cards these days. 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, MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro all have Intel HD Graphics. These are all integrated graphics cards that run on the same die as the main CPU and share the RAM with the rest of the computer. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display and the entry level 21.5-inch iMac has Intel Iris Pro. This is the same system but with 128MB of dedicated RAM that acts as a buffer to improve performance.
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, you should consider getting a Mac with a discrete graphics system. Apple is using NVIDIA and AMD for its discrete graphics systems at the moment, so if you see NVIDIA or AMD on your Mac it's going to offer better performance. the NVIDIA cards come with their own separate RAM alongside higher GPU specifications. The 21.5-inch 2.9GHz iMac, 27-inch iMacs and top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display comes with a NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M. These have either 1GB or 2GB of dedicated video memory.
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 the new 4K video (or work for either Pixar or Dreamworks).
Storage. On the surface it appears that you get more storage for your money with a Desktop. The Apple Mac mini computer starts with 500GB and the iMacs have 1TB across the board and they can be upgraded to 3TB. 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 MacBook Pro with Retina display also comes with 128GB, 256BG or 512GB of flash as standard. 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. So although you get less storage you get much faster performance.
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 perfoming) 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 video then the larger internal hard drive will make a lot of difference.
Upgradability. 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 Retina Display still enables you to upgrade the RAM (up to 16GB) and swap out the hard drive. The iMac 21.5-inch is technically upgradable but so hard to strip down that it might as well not be, but both the iMac 27-inch and Mac mini allow you reasonable access to the RAM and hard drive.
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.
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.
Should you buy a Mac desktop or laptop?
It may sound trite but in the most case 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 21.5-inch iMac) will allow you to buy a machine with more potential lifespan. And don’t underestimate the productivity gains of working on a large 27-inch display.