If you're looking for a desktop Mac you've got four choices: the iMac, the iMac Pro, Mac mini and the Mac Pro. But which is the right choice for you? We compare them all to find out which is 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 no longer as affordable as it once was. Updated in 2018 to a more capable and powerful machine means 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 have 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.
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 sat 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, 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 a good option, especially not compared to the Mac mini. At £1,049 the iMac starting price is £250 more than the entry-level Mac mini, but this entry-level iMac has a less powerful 2.3GHz Intel Kaby Lake i5 dual-core processor, 1TB storage, 8GB RAM, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports, while the mini has a 3.6GHz quad-core processor, 128GB SSD, 8GB RAM, 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. That £1,099 Mac mini boasts a six-core 3.0GHz processor and 256GB SSD.
The entry-level iMac doesn't offer the high-resolution Retina display that the rest of the range offers, 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 £1,049 iMac, what about the rest of the range? For £1,249 you can get an iMac with a Retina 4K display, a 3GHz 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, the main thing letting it down being the fact that Apple last updated it in 2017, so the processors are getting a little old now while the Mac mini launched at the end of 2018. The other 'issue' is that this version of the iMac has a hard drive rather than an SSD, which may appeal if you want lots of storage space, but does slow things down considerably. We think you are better off with a Fusion drive or just configuring the iMac with 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, 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 4.2GHz, 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 almost £5,000/$5,300, but there is another iMac option that might appeal to those who need the ultimate Mac.
Apple said that it experienced so much interest from creative professionals in the iMac that it decided to create a 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 128GB ECC RAM, and up to 4TB SSD. We tested the 10-core spec with the full 128GB whack of RAM, 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 are looking for. But there is still one option.
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 entry-level iMac or the Mac Pro because the former is under-powered and Apple has neglected the latter for far too long. We'd also advise waiting until later in 2019 before buying any new iMac as the iMac wasn't updated in 2018 and we expect a new model to launch soon with faster processors and more cores. Read more about the new iMac here. Apple will probably update the iMac Pro around the same time...
So, for now, our advice is to buy a Mac mini if have to have a Mac desktop now. But otherwise hold tight and wait until later in 2019 - we think that Apple will update the majority of its remaining Macs at or before WWDC in June.