The decision of whether to buy a Mac laptop or a Mac desktop might seem simple. If you want to be able to carry your Mac around with you and use it wherever you are, then a Mac laptop (often called a notebook if you are in the US) is the best choice. But if you want to have the most powerful machine, and don’t mind that it will be stuck on a desk somewhere, then the desktop might seem to be the way to go.
Sometimes it's not that clear cut though. Some Mac laptops can be a lot more powerful than some Mac desktops, some desktops can offer you much better specs for your money, and with many of your files being available to you over the web via iCloud Drive you don’t actually have to have your Mac with you when you need to access the things you need.
While laptop computers are more popular with consumers than desktop computers, there is a lot in favour of desktops.
Apple’s range of Macs
Apple currently sells two types of laptop (MacBook Air and MacBook Pro) and four types of desktop (Mac mini, iMac, iMac Pro, and Mac Pro), and within those categories are Macs with different specs that suit different types of users.
Until July 2019 Apple also sold a 12in MacBook but since the MacBook Air was redesigned that model had lost some of its appeal as a small and light laptop. So Apple has discontinued it... For now. (Read: Will there be a new MacBook?)
Buy from Apple from £1,099/$1,099
Apple updated the MacBook Air in 2018 for the first time in a number of years. At the time it continued to sell the original MacBook Air (with it's 2015 processor) for less than £1,000/$1,000. We didn't recommend the older MacBook Air, so when Apple updated the range again in July 2019 we were glad to see the back of it.
We say 'updated' but the 2019 MacBook Air is really with 2018 MacBook Air with a slight change to the screen and a price drop on the 2018 prices (although it now starts at just over £1,000/$1,000 as Apple's no longer offereing the cheaper, older model). The 2019 MacBook Air hasa identical specs to the 2018 model apart from the addition of True Tone technology to the screen (which basically means it will adjust brightness and colours according to the lighting in your surroundings).
When it comes to the 2019 (and 2018) MacBook Air, the only difference is the size of the storage - 128GB or 256GB. Since its redesign in 2018, the MacBook Air has thinner bezels around its 13in Retina display, and is 1.56cm thick, tapering to 0.4mm at it’s smallest edge. It weighs 1.25kg, uses flash storage and has an eighth generation Intel processor running at 1.6GHz (3.6GHz with Turbo Boost) upgradable to 2.2GHz and with a Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz.
Buy from Apple from £1,249/$1,299
The MacBook Pro is Apple’s professional line of laptops, however, there is a big difference between the two sizes of MacBook Pro, and within that division there are many more iterations. In all there are four models with 13in screens and two models with 15in screens.
Like the other Mac laptops, those screens are all Retina. The 15in MacBook Pro, with it’s fast six- or eight-core processors, is far more powerful than the 13in line up, but within the 13in line up, there are also big differences, although those differences aren't quite as huge as they were prior to Apple's May 2019 update.
In July 2019 Apple finally updated the two entry-level MacBook Pro models. Prior to this update there were two models that lacked the Touch Bar and featured 2.3GHz dual-core 7th-gen processors, following the July update these models gained the Touch Bar and 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen processors. That's four rather than two processors, so although the number sounds lower, there are more of them.
The other 13in models (updated in May 2019) have even better 2.4GHz, quad-core 8th-gen processors. The other differences between these 13in models is that they have four rather than two Thunderbolt ports. And the graphics cards are slightly better.
The 15in MacBook Pro models have discreet Radeon Pro 555X graphics cards, which makes them better for use by creatives, designers, and for gaming. They also have superior processors: a 2.6GHz 6-core and a 2.3GHz 8-core offering.
The 13in MacBook Pro is 1.49cm and weighs 1.37kg, while the 15in is 1.55cm and weighs 1.83kg. For more information about the MacBook Pro read our comparison of the two MacBook Pro models here, and our 15in MacBook Pro review and our 13in MacBook Pro review.
And on to the Mac desktops...
Buy from Apple from £799/$799
Apple’s cheapest Mac is the Mac mini, a desktop Mac that prior to late 2018, hadn’t been updated since 2015. When the Mac mini was updated the price increased to £799 (which seems like a decent price for a Mac, but it did used to start at £399 many years ago, and started at £499/$499 prior to the 2018 update). The Mac mini is much more powerful than it used to be though - Apple’s targeting it at people who need power, rather than switchers form Windows as used to be the case. The 2018 entry-level Mac mini has a 3.6GHz Quad-core 8th-gen processor (it used to have a 1.4GHz processor).
The top-of-the-range Mac mini has a 3.0GHz 6-core processor (up from 2.6GHz processor). Another big change was the move from hard drive to SSD - with 2018’s Mac minis shipping with either 128GB or 256GB faster flash storage. If you need more there’s a pricy 2TB build-to-order option.
The Mac mini is a good option if you are on a budget, despite Apple raising the price for the machine, but there are other Macs that might also fit the bill, so you might like to read this: Which is the best cheap Mac. Read our full review of the 2018 Mac mini here.
Buy from Apple from £1,049/$1,099
The iMac, like the MacBook Pro comes in different sizes and with vastly different specs, meaning there is something for those with the most basic requirements as well as a model to suit people who need a powerful Mac for their work. There’s also an iMac Pro which is more suited to the creative pro space.
The iMac comes with either a 21.5in display or a 27in display, processor speeds range from a 2.3GHz dual-core 7th-gen to a 3.7GHz six-core 9th-gen processor. You’ll find Fusion Drives (which combine a large hard drive with a small SSD) as standard in most models. There are Retina displays on all bar the entry-level 21in model (which hasn’t been updated since 2017 while the rest of the range was updated in 2019).
Buy from Apple from £4,899/$4,999
The iMac Pro is an iMac designed to fill the gap between the standard iMac and the Mac Pro. It’s very much aimed at creative pros and anyone who needs a lot of power. It’s not cheap, but it does come with a Retina display (unlike the Mac Pro).
It is a largely non-upgradeable desktop professional Mac. We review it here.
The iMac Pro was launched in 2017 and hasn’t been updated since then though. It features a 3.2GHz 8-core Intel Xeon W processor as standard and Radeon Pro Vega 56 graphics, but the standard iMac is now closing the gap with its build-to-order 3.6GHz 8-core 9th generation i9 processor and optional Radeon Pro Vega 48 graphics.
And then there’s the Mac Pro, which is expected to launch towards the end of 2019, more on that next.
Buy the old model from Apple from £2,999/$2,999. New model coming soon!
Apple has revealed details of the new Mac Pro coming later in 2019. It is designed for the most professional of users, and crucially, it will be easier to upgrade than the 2013 Mac Pro, regarding which Apple said it has “designed itself into a thermal corner”. After the fiasco of the 2013 Mac Pro it’s hoped that Apple has learned its lessons and that the new Mac Pro will be more suitable for its target market. We have high hopes.
Read our preview of the upcoming Mac Pro.
Are Mac desktops more powerful than MacBooks?
Traditionally, Apple’s Mac desktops have ramped up to higher-spec models when compared to Mac laptops, and when you look at the iMac Pro and the Mac Pro there isn’t really a comparable laptop… However, when you look at the more standard Mac offering, it certainly isn’t the case that you can't buy a more powerful Mac laptop.
The top-of-the-range 15in MacBook Pro has a fast 8-core i9 9th-gen processor running at 2.3GHz (4.8GHz Turbo Boost), 16GB RAM, a discreet Radeon Pro 560X graphics card, 512GB SSD, and a Retina display, for £2,699/$2,799.
By comparison the top-of-the-range iMac comes with a 3.7GHz 6-core i5 9th-gen processor (4.6GHz Turbo Boost), 8GB RAM, a 2TB Fusion Drive, a Radeon Pro 580X graphics card, and a Retina display, for £2,249/$2,299.
So, the iMac is £450 cheaper, but the MacBook Pro has more cores (8 versus 6) and a faster, newer processor (ignore the 2.3GHz vs 3.7GHz and take note of the Turbo Boost figure). There is also more RAM in the MacBook Pro, and the faster SSD drive will beat the Fusion Drive for speed, if you don’t desperately need 2TB of storage.
Do Mac desktops have better processors than MacBooks?
This is certainly true at the high end. Apple’s Mac Pro and the iMac Pro offer multi-core Intel Xeon workstation processors.
However, the processor options for the iMac and the 15in MacBook Pro have improved in recent years, offering more cores (topping out at 8 for the MacBook Pro and 6 for the iMac - although there is an 8-core iMac build-to-order option). Currently the MacBook Pro processors top out at i9, while the iMac processors are i5 - but the build-to-order iMac option is i9.
Do Mac desktops have more RAM?
This is another benefit. When it comes to build-to-order options, standard Mac desktops can offer 64GB RAM, while the best Mac laptops can’t go above 32GB RAM. The iMac Pro offers 128GB RAM and when it launches the Mac Pro will offer up to 1.5TB or RAM.
Do Mac desktops have better graphics?
While it’s true that the best graphics cards are to be found in Mac desktops (the iMac Pro and the new Mac Pro when it launches) the graphics cards offered in the 27in iMac and the 15in MacBook Pro are slightly more comparable. Only the 15in MacBook Pro models offer discrete graphics, all other MacBooks have integrated graphics.
Are MacBooks faster as they have flash storage?
It’s true that traditionally Mac desktops have tended to use older hard disks rather than the flash storage that the laptops use. However, this is changing. Now the only desktops that don't ship with an SSD as standard are the iMacs. The Mac mini, iMac Pro and Mac Pro all ship with SSDs.
There's a good reason for the preference for SSDs. If PC has to access data from a hard drive it can slow it down in typical operation. A obvious difference here is the way a SSD equipped laptop can start up almost instantaneously, while you might have to turn on a desktop and then go and make a cup of tea while it starts up.
While we think it's only a matter of time before iMacs switch to SSDs as standard, for now Apple’s answer is to offer a Fusion Drive which combines a small part of flash memory with a larger hard drive, so that you can benefit from some increases in speed, while you still have lots of space to store data. As prices come down for SSD storage we expect the switch to SSDs as standard to happen.
Do all Mac desktops offer more storage?
For a lot of people it’s the storage space that matters most and a desktop with a large amount of storage will be much more attractive. The entry-level iMac comes with 1TB hard drive.
To get anything like 1TB of space on a Mac laptop you are looking at spending at a minimum spend of around £2,000/$2,000 (as a build-to-order option on the 13in MacBook Pro).
However, there are 512GB options available as standard on the MacBook and the 13in and 15in MacBook Pro, and as the price of flash storage falls we expect that this amount of storage space will become even more common, and maybe soon we’ll be seeing 1TB as a standard rather than build-to-order option.
If you think you need a lot of storage you might be able to get by with an external hard drive, or attach to a network attached storage device (a NAS drive) via your WiFi. You may also find that you don’t need as much storage as you did in the past if you start to use iCloud and services such as iCloud Photos and iTunes Match to store all your music and photos in the cloud.
As the price of cloud storage declines you may well find that 2TB of storage that you can access from anywhere is much more useful than having a 2TB drive inside your Mac. You can pay Apple £6.99 a month to have 2TB iCloud storage. Read about the pricing options for iCloud storage here.
If you need a big display, do you have to buy an iMac?
You might be thinking that a 13in or 15in MacBook Pro can’t possibly provide you with enough screen real estate to get your work done. As a result you might have ruled out a MacBook Pro in favour of a 21.5in or 27in iMac. However, you don’t need to.
You can plug your Mac laptop into a second screen and either use that instead of, or as well as, your MacBook screen. Read about how to connect a second screen to your Mac here.
You could also use AirPlay and an Apple TV to share your laptop display to your TV screen, perfect if you want to stream your favourite TV show.
Is the iMac display better than all MacBook displays?
This is true. The display on the 27in iMac really is great, and pretty much the best 5K display you can get for your money right now.
The MacBook Pro and MacBook also have Retina displays, but they can’t match the resolution of the iMac. There are calls for Apple to up the display on the 15in MacBook Pro to 4K, which would match the display on the 21.5in iMac. This may happen in the next year or so, with rumours that a 16in MacBook Pro is in the works
However, whether you really need that many pixels is another question. If you aren’t working with 5K or 4K content you probably don’t really need such a high resolution screen. However, you might benefit from the quality if you are editing photos or video.
Do iMacs have more ports than MacBooks?
It’s true that MacBooks have fewer ports than Mac desktops. That’s a necessity to make laptops slimmer and as small and light as they are.
The MacBook Air has two USB-C ports (both of which double up as Thunderbolt 3). And the 13in MacBook Pro has two USB-C/Thunderbolt ports for the two entry-level models, and four for the other 13in and 15in models.
Those USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports support charging, DisplayPort (for plugging in a display), as well as offering up to 40Gbps transfer speeds via Thunderbolt.
If you want to find the older USB standard you need to buy a Mac desktop: The 21.5in iMac offers two thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, four USB 3 ports, an SDXC card slot, headphone port and Gigabit Ethernet, which brings us onto another benefit of desktops…
Are MacBooks limited to WiFi connections?
While the benefit of having a laptop is that you don’t need to be chained to your desk, there are some benefits to being fixed. One is having a fixed internet connection.
While Mac desktops also have WiFi, obviously, the fact that they offer Ethernet too can be a benefit. If you are downloading software, or uploading something quite big, then having an ethernet connection will be faster.
Because your desktop Mac can connect via an ethernet connection you can also share that connection to other devices wirelessly. You won’t be able to share your internet connection from a Mac laptop because the WiFi channel is already being used.
However, you can connect your Mac laptop to ethernet using an adaptor such as this one: Belkin Usb-C to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter, £29.95.
Are Mac desktops easier to upgrade and fix?
A final point in the favour of the Mac desktop is upgradability. One of the issues with Mac laptop is that upgradability is at best tricky, at worst, non-existent. The newer your Mac laptop the fewer upgrade options are available, with RAM soldered in and batteries glued into place.
Not that Mac desktops are particularly upgradable, but the 27in iMac does at least have accessible RAM slots on the back of the display. Plus the new Mac Pro, when it launches, will be modular, in other words, upgradable.
If you need the most powerful Mac you can get then the desktop is the only way to go. But don’t ignore the MacBook Pro as the 15in model may well meet your needs.
If you are looking for a portable Mac, consider the iPad, you never know, it might meet your demands. And soon it will be possible to use your iPad display with your Mac to extend your screen onto the touch-capable device. Read about using an iPad with a Mac in Catalina here.
Speaking of which, if you want to be able to have a big display, don’t forget that you can plug a standalone display into your laptop.
If you think you need more ports than a Mac laptop can offer, consider buying adaptors. Here are our favourite USB C adapters, chargers, hubs, docks and cables for your Mac.