If you're looking for a desktop Mac you've got four choices: the iMac, iMac Pro, Mac mini and Mac Pro. But which is the right one for you? In this article we compare them all to find the best buy in 2019.
Desktop Macs, while not portable like laptops, offer a lot of features that MacBooks lack. They are generally more powerful because they are able to use larger, more power-hungry components, and you will usually get more for your money because you tend to pay a premium for laptops' compact nature.
The Mac desktop that suits you depends on what your priorities are in terms of price and power. Here we will examine which desktop Mac offers you the best value for money: essentially the most powerful Mac desktop you can get without spending more than you need.
The Mac mini (reviewed here) has been the cheapest Mac for some time but is no longer as affordable as it once was. Updated in 2018 to a more capable and powerful machine, it now starts at £799/$799, where many years ago prices started a lot lower at £400/$500. However, the new model is a lot better than the four-year-old previous generation and well worth your attention.
It has USB-A, USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, HDMI and Ethernet at its disposal along with high quality Bluetooth 5.0 to connect your mouse and keyboard if you wish. The GPU might be a little underpowered for the price but there's no doubt that the cheapest way to get macOS into your home is far better than before the update (plus you can always plug in an eGPU should you need a more powerful graphics card).
But it's not necessarily the desktop Mac for everyone. That starting price creeps up quick if you're adding a keyboard, mouse and monitor into the equation, at which point you might want to start considering the iMac for a higher price, but one that includes everything you need in the box.
If you've got a high-quality monitor though then configuring a Mac mini at point of purchase is a good way to get more Mac for your money. There are granular options for more RAM and storage that you'll have to pay more for on an iMac or MacBook. You can get a Mac mini with 64GB RAM and 2TB SSD if you really want, which is pretty nuts.
Just note that you can't officially configure it after purchase - well it's possible to add more RAM but you might void your warranty if you try to do so yourself (Apple would prefer you to use an authorised Apple service provider). As for upgrading your Mac with any other components, you are out of luck, but that's the usual situation with Macs.
The Mac mini's flexibility is its strength but it might not be the desktop Mac solution for you.
With its all-in-one design, the iMac is Apple's signature Mac, and an update for Mar 2019 means it's bang up to date too.
Over the years the design has changed from the original CRT iMac in Bondi Blue, to today's super-slim aluminium flatscreen stunner. If you want a beautiful computer on your desk, this is the one. (Not surprisingly, the iMac is a popular choice in office receptions.)
Even better, not only is the iMac gorgeous, but the range of iMacs is so wide and all-encompassing that there is an iMac for everybody. You don't have to sacrifice power and performance.
However, we don't consider the entry-level iMac (an older, 2017 model that's still on sale) a good option, especially not compared to the Mac mini. At £1,049/$1,099 that iMac's starting price is £250/$300 more than the entry-level Mac mini, but with far less appealing components: 2.3GHz Intel Kaby Lake i5 dual-core processor, 1TB hard drive and two Thunderbolt 3 ports, compared to the mini's 3.6GHz quad-core processor, 128GB SSD, four Thunderbolt ports, two USB A/3 ports, and HDMI. Apple also sells a Mac mini at a price similar to the entry-level iMac with a six-core 3.0GHz processor and 256GB SSD.
The entry-level iMac doesn't offer the high-resolution Retina display that you get with the rest of the range, but it does at least offer a display, unlike the Mac mini. That's about the only thing in its favour.
So, moving swiftly on from the 2017 iMac, what about the rest of the range? For £1,249/$1,299 you can get an iMac with a Retina 4K display, an 8th-gen 3.6GHz quad-core processor, and a discreet Radeon Pro graphics card, rather than an integrated card. This model compares much more favourably with the Mac mini; even having a hard drive rather than an SSD may appeal if you want lots of storage space, although note that it does slow things down considerably. We think you're better off with a Fusion drive or just configuring an SSD at point of sale.
And the iMac range doesn't stop there. You can choose an even faster processor and a bigger 27in 5K display. Standard prices go all the way up to £2,249/$2,299, and there are lots more build-to-order options to choose from.
As for why you should choose an iMac as your Mac desktop, there are lots of reasons. Here are a few (note these pros do not apply to the entry-level model):
- The gorgeous Retina display, which is capable of showing 1 billion colours and has pixels so tightly packed together your eye can't see them.
- High-performance graphics in the form of the Radeon Pro 500 series, making the iMac perfect for intensive graphic work as well as gaming. This is in contrast to many alternative Macs that offer an integrated graphics card.
- Thunderbolt 3 which incorporates USB Type-C so you can take advantage of super fast data transfer to and from external drives and cameras (40Gbps).
- Another benefit is the fact that there are a lot of different iMacs to choose from. With two screen sizes (21.5in or 27in), and processor speeds ranging from 2.3GHz to 3.7GHz and from dual- to 8-core, there really is something for everyone.
We won't go into too much detail here about the different models on offer, but we do have an article that answers the question: Which is the best iMac?
If you were to fully max out a standard 27in iMac you could spend more than £5,000/$5,000, but there is another iMac option that might appeal to those who need the ultimate Mac.
Apple said it experienced so much interest from creative professionals in the iMac that it decided to create an iMac Pro (reviewed here) just for them: a brand-new category of iMac designed purely for the professional creative user.
The iMac Pro, which launched at the end of 2017, offers a default eight cores and build-to-order options up to 18 cores, based on Intel's Xeon W workstation-standard processors. It offers a Radeon Pro Vega GPU, up to 256GB ECC RAM, and up to 4TB SSD. We tested the 10-core spec with 128GB of RAM (at the time this was the maximum), and it absolutely destroyed every benchmark we tried, including a multicore Geekbench 4 score of almost 37,000. (A well-specced 2017-vintage i7 iMac scored around 17,500 in the same test.)
It really is in a different league to the standard iMacs. These Macs are designed for the kind of users who need to edit 8K RED video, H.264 4K footage, or 50 Megapixel RAW stills. It would even be overkill for gamers. Which is probably a good thing as it's likely to be a little beyond their price range, starting at just under £5k and stretching to slightly over £13k if you go for every possible upgrade.
If you need a monster of a machine then the iMac Pro might be just what you're looking for. But there is still one more option to consider.
Until the iMac Pro arrived the Mac Pro was traditionally the most powerful Mac you could get for your money. Right now however, the Mac Pro is somewhat out of date.
Apple hasn't updated the Mac Pro since 2013. However, Apple has promised that it will upgrade the Mac Pro and give it a complete redesign, and the wait may soon be over as a new Mac Pro is supposed to be launching in 2019. You can read all about Apple's plans for the Mac Pro here.
In the meantime, it's worth noting that there are a few things that the current Mac Pro has going for it. It has silent operation, so it's been popular with audio professionals, and its design is certainly unique and compact - and probably one of a kind as we don't expect Apple to keep the current design with the new edition.
The Mac Pro (reviewed here) starts at almost £3,000/$3,000, though, so it really would be extravagant to buy one and we wouldn't recommend that you do so right now.
Conclusion & buying advice
Right now we don't advise buying the Mac Pro because Apple has neglected it for far too long. It's also very expensive.
The iMac got a fairly substantive update in Mar 2019, and now comes with up-to-date processors. It's a strong range with something for everyone, but we haven't tested it out just yet - watch this space for a detailed review.
The iMac Pro also got an update in March 2019, but only a very tiny one - Apple just added two new configuration options (on RAM and graphics) at the top end. This means the company is unlikely to revisit the iMac Pro again in 2019, so you're safe to buy now - if you need and can afford this mega-powerful machine.
The updated Mac mini is a great little machine, although bear in mind that you don't get a monitor. It's far more powerful and capable that it used to be, albeit more expensive too.
Right now, our advice is to go for the 2019 iMac, thanks to its updated processors - but make sure you get the right config for you (and avoid the non-Retina 2017 model). The Mac mini remains a good-value option, however, especially if you've already got a monitor you want to use.