Which Mac should I buy is a question many of our readers ask. Apple keeps things fairly simple with a small range of computers, all of which are good. But if you’re after the best Apple desktop then you have to choose between an iMac or Mac mini. In this feature we’re going to take a look at Apple’s two consumer desktops and decide which is best. Which computer should you buy?
iMac vs Mac mini: vital statistics
The iMac is an all-in-one desktop computer with an integrated display. It comes in two main models: a 21.5 inch (diagonal) and a 27 inch diagonal. The processor is an Intel quad-core and ranges from 2.7GHz to 3.2Ghz. It comes with 8GB RAM as standard (configurable to 16GB) and a 1 TB hard drive as standard (configurable to 3TB or a range of SSD options or a Fusion Drive). It has a dedicated NVIDIA GeForce GT graphics card with either 512MB on most models (1GB on the high-end model, configurable to 2GB). It comes complete with an Apple Wireless Keyboard and Magic Mouse.
See: iMac review
The Mac mini is a small integrated desktop computer. If your idea of a desktop computer is limited to the idea of a large box that sits under a desk, then the Mac mini will come as a surprise. It’s absolutely tiny, measuring just 20cm square and under 4cm deep.
There’s only one model but it’s sold in two basic configurations: costin £499 and £679 respectively. The CPU has a slower clock speed than the iMac, starting at 2.5GHz dual-core or 2.3GHz quad core (the more expensive model has a slower clock speed because it has four cores, rather than two). it has either a 500GB or 1TB hard drive and comes with 4GB of RAM across the board, configurable to 16GB. It comes with a integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics card.
See: Mac mini review
iMac vs Mac mini: tech specs
There’s no denying that the iMac has better technical specifications across the board. It has a faster CPU, graphics card and more storage space on the standard models.
One surprising factor is that there are more input/output connections on the Mac mini than on the iMac. Both devices have four USB 3.0 ports, but the Mac mini also has a FireWire 800 port and a built in HDMI connection (you need to use an Mini DisplayPort adaptor on the iMac).
Mac mini connections
Thunderbolt port (up to 10 Gbps)
FireWire 800 port (up to 800 Mbps)
Four USB 3 ports (up to 5 Gbps)
SDXC card slot
Gigabit Ethernet port
SDXC card slot
Four USB 3 ports
Two Thunderbolt ports
Mini DisplayPort output with support for DVI, VGA, and dual-link DVI (adapters sold separately)
Kensington lock slot
iMac vs Mac mini: upgradability
One thing that’s also worth bearing in mind is that the Mac mini is much more upgradable than the iMac.
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 can the Mac mini a repairability rating of 8 out of 10 in its teardown.
The 21.5 inch iMac has a repairability rating of just 3 out of 10 from iFixIt.com. It is technically possible to upgrade the RAM and the hard drive, but you have to remove the cover of the iMac and strip down into the components. The 27-inch iMac is slightly better, in that has an external slot for RAM ugprades, but you still have to dig deep to upgrade the hard drive.
The Mac mini is certainly a friendlier Apple if you’re looking to move from a standard hard drive to an SSD down the line, or boost the RAM. 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 vs Mac mini: looking at display options
Of course the key difference when choosing between the Mac mini and an iMac is the presence of that very large display.
It’s a good quality display as well. When comparing it to other models on the market make sure to look out for the IPS technology (in-plane switching). This makes a huge difference to the colour vibrancy and reproduction. It is also a ‘glossy’ display though, this is the type that has high reflectance value (the ones that act like a mirror when turned off). While these have much more vibrant colours some people find the reflective nature off-putting, and print designers and photographers have difficulty with accurate colour reproduction.
The Mac mini doesn’t come with a display which means you can either use one you’ve already got, or purchase one separately. And it’s possible to get a much better deal by picking up a separate monitor. This AOC I2757FH monitor is a 27-inch model with IPS technology and it’s just £220. This compares pretty favourably with the Apple display (£899).
iMac vs Mac mini: best value
Add that to a £499 Mac mini and you have a Mac with a good 27-inch display for just £719. That’s less than half the price of the entry level 27-inch model (£1,499). Is it as stylish: no! Is it technically as good: no. But it’s half the price and not far off. You can even add an Apple Wireless Keyboard (£57) and Magic Mouse (£59) and still be far under what you’d pay for even the iMac with the smaller 21.5-inch display.
Of course the specifications aren’t as good on the Mac mini. But you could get the £679 model with its 2.3GHz quad core processor and 1TB drive and crank the RAM up to 8GB for an additional £80. That £759 in total. Add the AOC monitor and it’s still only £979. In terms of specification the Mac mini is now pretty close and it’s still £500 cheaper than the 27 inch iMac.
Given that monitor prices have dropped so much lately we find it hard to reccomend buying an iMac over a Mac mini at the moment. The only really sound reason for doing so would be the convenience of an integrated unit couple with a need for the more powerful graphics card. You can’t upgrade the graphics card in the Mac mini. But the integrated Intel HD graphics card is great at most tasks, even playing most games. Unless you’re a 3D or video professional we don’t see much of a big advantage to the iMac at all.