Should I buy an Apple laptop (MacBook) or an Apple Mac desktop computer? What are the pros and cons of Apple's laptops and desktops?

Deciding whether to buy an Apple Mac desktop or a MacBook laptop (also known as a Mac notebook) is tricky. The prices are broadly similar, but Apple Mac desktops and MacBook laptops offer different features and user experiences. Apple's Mac desktops ramp up to higher-spec models when compared to Mac notebooks, but desktop computers chain you to a desk; while Apple's MacBook laptops let you roam free - but at what performance cost?

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. (Updated on 25 November 2014 to include new specs and pricing information.)

See also: Should I buy an iMac or Mac mini?

Mac laptop or desktop: Apple's desktop computer range

Apple currently makes three different models of desktop computer:

  • iMac. The most famous Mac in our range is the all-in-one iMac with its built in display (either 21.5-inch or 27-inch). This has recently been joined by the all-new iMac Retina 5K Display model. 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 £399 for the Mac mini (although you'll need to factor in the cost of a screen if you haven't got one) and £899 for the iMac (£1,999 for the iMac 5K Retina Display). The new Mac Pro starts at £2,499.

See also: iMac review | iMac with Retina 5K display review | Mac mini review | Mac Pro 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 three different Mac notebook 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).
  • 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 £749 for a MacBook Air, £899 for a MacBook Pro and £999 for a MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

See also: MacBook Air review | Non-retina MacBook Pro review | MacBook With Retina Display review

Mac laptop or desktop: Different features

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; the laptop is designed to be carried around with you (or, as the name suggests, used on your lap).

Mostly this is due to the design. The Mac Pro and Mac mini need an external monitor, and while the iMac has an integrated display you still use a separate keyboard and mouse (or Magic Trackpad). 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 that beyond a few design differences there really isn't that much technically that separates Apple Mac laptops and desktops. 

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.

Mac desktop or laptop: Display

The iMac with Retina 5K display

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.

Mac laptop or desktop: Processor speeds and performance

The MacBook Air, Mac mini and iMac all start with the same 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor. The 13-inch MacBook Pro starts with a 2.5GHz dual-core CPU, and MacBook Pro with Retina Display starts with a 2.6GHz dual-core CPU. The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display has a more powerful 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor. The iMac with Retina 5K Display has a whopping 3.5GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i5 and the Mac Pro starts with an even more powerful 3.7GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon E5.

Although there's some areas of crossover between the entry-level MacBook Pro, 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.

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 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, iMac and non-Retina MacBook Pro all feature the older Intel HD Graphics 5000, card from 2010. The MacBook Pro with Retina Display has a newer, and faster, Intel Iris Graphics card introduced in 2013. Intel HD and Intel Iris are both integrated graphics cards that 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.

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 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 (£1,199); top-of-the-line 15-inch: 2.5GHz MacBook Pro with Retina Display (£1,999) and both 27-inch iMacs (£1,499 and £1,599) all come with a NVIDIA GeForce GTX discrete graphics cards (with either 1GB  or 2GB of independent RAM for the graphics). These all offer vastly improved graphics performance over Macs with Intel HD 5000, Intel Iris or Intel Iris Pro graphics.

The 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display comes with an AMD Radeon R9 M290X with 2GB 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.

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. The Apple Mac mini and iMac computers start with 500GB and higher range models have 1TB across the board and they can be upgraded to 3TB.

The MacBooks and Mac Pro, on the other hand, come with smaller and 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 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 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 video 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 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 the iMac 27-inch allows you reasonable access to the RAM and hard drive.

The new Mac mini enables you to swap out the hard drive, but 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 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 and new 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 27-inch display (especially one as beautiful as the new iMac with Retina 5K display).

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