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 three types of laptop and four types of desktop, and within those categories are Macs that suit different types of users.
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There are two MacBook Airs but the only difference is the size of the storage - 128GB or 256GB. The MacBook Air has a 13-inch screen, and is 1.7cm thick, tapering to 0.3mm at it’s smallest edge. It weighs 1.35kg, uses flash storage and has a fifth generation Intel Haswell processor running at 1.8GHz, upgradable to 2.2GHz and with a Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz.
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The slimmer MacBook also comes in two iterations with the difference being processor speed and storage. The MacBook has a 12-inch screen, and tapers from 1.31cm to 0.35cm, so overall its thinner than the MacBook Air.
It’s also lighter than the Air, weighing just 0.92kg. The processor is newer than that in the MacBook Air, and although it sounds slower (1.2GHz-1.4GHz) it can Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz.
The display on the MacBook is Retina - which means that there are so many pixels squeezed in that your eye can’t detect them, meaning that the display looks much better than that on the MacBook Air. Read our MacBook review here.
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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 13-inch screens and three models with 15-inch screens.
Like the MacBook, those screens are Retina. The 15-inch MacBook Pro, with it’s fast quad-core i7 processors is far more powerful than the 13-inch line up, which has dual-core i5 processors. The 15-inch MacBook Pro models also have discreet graphics cards, which makes them better for use by creatives, designers, and for gaming.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro is 1.49cm and weighs 1.37kg, while the 15-inch 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 15-inch MacBook Pro review and our 13-inch MacBook Pro review.
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Apple’s cheapest Mac is the Mac mini, a desktop Mac that hasn’t been updated since 2015. The entry-level model has a 1.4GHz processor and 500GB storage, the next model up has a 2.6GHz processor and 1 1TB hard drive. And the top of the range model has a 2.8GHz processor and a 1TB Fusion Drive.
The Fusion Drive is interesting as it’s how Apple is able to offer some of the speed you get from a SSD, like the storage you find in Apple’s laptops, as well as the extra capacity offered by a standard hard drive. The Mac mini might seem a good option if you are on a budget, but as you’ll see if you read this: Which is the best cheap Mac, it might not be. Read our review of the Mac mini here.
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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 going to be a iMac Pro launched late in 2017, stretching the reach of the iMac even further into the creative pro space.
The iMac comes with either a 21.5-inch display or a 27-inch display, processor speeds range from a 2.3GHz dual-core to a 3.8GHz quad-core processor. You’ll find Fusion Drives as standard in most models. And the display on the iMac is stunning, with new technology added in June 2017 that makes them even brighter and capable of displaying one billion different colours.
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The Mac Pro is designed for the most professional of users and when Apple launched it the company boasted about how advanced it was, and how fast it was. Unfortunately it has been a bit of a flop as it didn’t meet the need of many of the creatives that Apple was targeting with it, and Apple itself hasn’t been able to update it since it launched in 2013 because of problems with the design.
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Since the backlash against the Mac Pro, Apple has released the similarly named iMac Pro. It is a largely non-upgradeable desktop professional Mac. We review it here.
It's an absolute powerhouse with Intel Xeon W processors (8, 10, 14 or 18-core madness), a 5K display and 32, 64 or 128GB RAM. It's this RAM which is upgradeable but the rest isn't so if you are rendering high level graphics or video, be sure to consider what you might need a few years down the line.
It's a pricey choice to make; the iMac Pro costs from £4,899/$4999 and goes up to north of £13,000/$13,000.
The differences between Mac laptops and desktops
Here are a few statements on Macs, and our responses to them.
“The most powerful Macs are desktops…”
This statement is partially true. Apple’s Mac desktops do ramp up to higher-spec models when compared to Mac laptops, however this doesn’t mean that you can't buy a powerful Mac laptop.
The top-of-the-range 15-inch MacBook Pro has a fast quad-core i7 processor running at 2.9GHz, 16GB RAM, a discreet Radeon Pro graphics card, 512GB SSD, and a Retina display, for £2,699/$2,799.
By comparison the top-of-the-range iMac comes with a 3.8GHz quad-core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, a 2TB Fusion Drive, a Radeon Pro graphics card, and a Retina display, for £2,249/$2,299.
So, the iMac looks like better value because it’s cheaper, and the processor looks faster (although note that it’s a i5 rather than an i7). However, there is also more RAM in the MacBook, and the faster SSD drive will beat the Fusion Drive for speed, if you don’t desperately need 2TB of storage.
“Mac desktops have better processors”
This is certainly true at the high end. Apple’s Mac Pro and the iMac Pro offer multi-core Intel Xeon workstation processors.
However, when it comes to the iMac and the 15-inch MacBook Pro lines there is less difference. All processors are quad-core, for example. One key difference is the fact that the MacBook Pro processors are i7, while the iMac processors are i5, which seems to give the MacBook Pro a boost, despite them offering fewer GHz.
“Mac desktops can offer more RAM”
This is another benefit. When it comes to build-to-order options, Mac desktops can offer 64GB RAM, and when the iMac Pro launches you’ll see 128GB being offered. Creative users have complained that the MacBook Pro can’t even offer 32GB RAM, maxing out at 16GB only.
Apple says that it cannot support 32GB RAM in the MacBook Pro without redesigning the logic board, possibly reducing space for batteries. Apparently Apple would also be required to use DDR memory, which is not low power, another factor that would affect the battery.
“Mac desktops offer 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 they launch) the graphics cards offered in the 27-inch iMac and the 15-inch MacBook Pro are slightly more comparable.
However, as you can see by the specs below, the iMac graphics are better, and crucially the best options for video memory are available with the iMac.
- Radeon Pro 570 with 4GB video memory
- Radeon Pro 575 with 4GB video memory
- Radeon Pro 580 with 8GB video memory
15-inch MacBook Pro
- Radeon Pro 555 with 2GB memory
- Radeon Pro 560 with 4GB memory
“Mac laptops are better because they have fast flash storage rather than hard drives”
It’s true that Mac desktops tend to use older hard disks rather than the flash storage that the laptops use. Because the 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.
However, Apple’s answer here is to offer a Fusion Drive which combines a small part of flash 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.
“Mac desktops are better because they 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 13-inch MacBook Pro).
However, there are 512GB options available as standard on the MacBook and the 13-inch and 15-inch 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.
If you are thinking you need a lot of storage for all your iTunes and your Photo library Apple does offer solutions like iTunes Match, which stores your tunes in the cloud, and iCloud Photo Library which could mean you can avoid having to copy your entire photo library to your new Mac.
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. For example, you can pay Apple £6.99 a month to have 2TB iCloud storage. Read about the pricing options for iCloud storage here.
“Laptops allow you to work anywhere you like”
There’s no doubt about it, if you buy a laptop you will be able to use it anywhere. Whether it’s on the sofa at home, in your home office, on the train, or on your desk at work.
While we’ve all seen the pictures of people using iMacs on the train, it’s really not a very common occurrence.
However, there might be an even better option than a Mac laptop if you are looking for a device that can allow you to work anywhere and everywhere. iPads are becoming more and more like Macs, allowing you to use split-view for multitasking, for example, and many of the applications you would use on your Mac are also available on the iPad, such as Pages and Numbers, but also the Microsoft Office apps.
There are many benefits to using an iPad, from the multitouch display, which is great if you are sketching, to the fact that some iPads can use a SIM card to give you access to the web wherever you are. (Although its so easy to share your internet connection from your iPhone to your Mac laptop that maybe that doesn’t really matter.) Read: iPad vs MacBook.
“If you need a big display you need to buy a iMac”
You might be thinking that a 13- or 15-inch 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 21.5- or 27-inch 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.
Of course, you could also plug an extra screen into your iMac, and you can also use AirPlay and an Apple TV to share that screen with your TV, so that’s no reason not to buy an iMac either.
“The display on the iMac is the best you can get”
This is true. The display on the 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.
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.
“The problem with MacBooks is that they lack many of the ports offered by Mac desktops”
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.
However, some may feel that the MacBook has gone a step too far in terms of removal of ports. The only ports you will find on the MacBook are the headphone port and a single USB Type-C port that also doubles up as a Thunderbolt 3 port.
There are a few more ports on the other MacBooks, the MacBook Pro, for example offers four USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports that 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 look at the MacBook Air, or the older 15-inch MacBook that Apple has kept on sale. Or you can buy a Mac desktop: The 21.5-inch 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…
“Mac laptops are only able to connect via WiFi”
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.
“Mac desktops are more upgradable and easier to fix than Mac laptops”
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 27-inch iMac does at least have accessible RAM slots on the back of the display. Plus we are given to believe that the new Mac Pro when it launches, at some point in the next year or so, 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 15-inch model may well meet your needs.
If you are looking for a portable Mac, have a look at the iPad, you never know, it might meet your demands.
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.