21.5in iMac (2019) vs Mac mini (2018) full review

If you're looking for a desktop Mac, rather than the mobile charms of the MacBook, MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, there are currently two obvious choices in the Apple range: the iMac and Mac mini. In this article we look at how they compare for features, specs and value for money, and help you decide which is the right choice for you.

Price

As you might expect for a device that doesn't come with a display, the Mac mini starts off a bit cheaper than its glass-wielding sibling.

There are two stock options, with the base 3.6GHz quad-core model that features 128GB of PCIe-based SSD storage and 8GB of RAM costing £799/$799, and the 3.0GHz (Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz) 6-core, that boasts a 256GB SSD and 8GB of RAM available for £1,099/$1,099.

Either can be configured up to a whopping 64GB of RAM (for an equally whopping £1,260/$1,260 additional cost) and 2TB of PCIe-based SSD storage (which will set you back another £1,440/$1,440).

To summarise those options are:

  • 3.6GHz quad-core 8th-gen Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD, for £799/$799
  • 3.0GHz 6-core 8th-gen Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SS, for £1,099/$1,099

You can browse the various Mac mini options on Apple's website.

The iMac range has a few more strands, due to the different displays on offer and Apple has introduced some new models 2019. They're the ones with 4K or 5K displays, not the entry-level 21.5-inch model which is from 2017.

Those happy with a 21.5in panel can opt for either of the following:

  • 2.3GHz dual-core 7th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB HD, 1920x1080 display, for £1,049/$1,099
  • 3.6GHz quad-core 8th-gen Intel Core i3, 8GB RAM, 1TB HD, Retina 4K display, Radeon Pro 555X for £1,249/$1,299
  • 3.0GHz six-core 8th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, Retina 4K display, Radeon Pro 560X for £1,449/$1,499

Should you prefer the larger 27in display, these are the options (all new for 2019):

  • 3.0GHz six-core 8th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, Retina 5K display, Radeon Pro 570X for £1,749/$1,799
  • 3.1GHz six-core 8th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, Retina 5K display, Radeon Pro 575X £1,949/$1,999
  • 3.7GHz siz-core 9th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 2TB Fusion Drive, Retina 5K display, Radeon Pro 580X £2,249/$2,299

All are configurable in different ways, offering extra storage, RAM, and processor upgrades. Browse, configure and buy on Apple's website.

(There's also the iMac Pro available for £4,899/$4,899, but that's a very expensive and niche product that will most likely only appeal to creative professionals, so we won't go into it here. If you want to see what this incredible powerhouse can do, then read our full iMac Pro review.)

With the updated iMacs for 2019, the choice isn't so easy. The Mac mini is certainly the best choice if you're budget is tight and you already have a monitor.

Our main piece of advice with the iMac is to steer well clear of the £1,049/$1.049 model and its 2.3GHz dual-core processor from 2017. The price might look great, but the specs really don't add up to anything special at all. You'll benefit hugely by spending the extra for the cheapest 4K iMac.

Wondering how the 2018 MacBook Air and Mac mini compare? Find out here.

Design

As you can see from the price list above, there are far too many options to include in a comparison review without the whole thing descending into a complicated spreadsheet. So, for the sake of clarity we will focus on the entry-level offerings of either model.

Just be aware that the other variants are available if you want more power, different screen sizes, storage options and so on.

iMac vs Mac mini: Design

Anyone who has seen an iMac in the last few years will instantly recognise the slim, all-in-one design of the current model. Under the expansive display is a brushed aluminium 'chin' bearing the Apple logo, and around the back is a curved bulge that contains the bulk of the hardware as well as an array of ports and the built-in stand.

If you're looking for a complete system in an attractive package, then the iMac is one of the best you can currently buy. The elegant, simple look is one that still holds its own; however, with little change since the design was first unveiled back in 2012, it wouldn't be unreasonable for Mac users to hanker after a new aesthetic. Even a black chassis like the one found on the iMac Pro would be a start.

Read our full iMac 21.5in (2017) review for more details.

iMac vs Mac mini: Design

Keeping with the 'if it ain't broke' motif, the Mac mini (reviewed here) is also identical to its predecessor in terms of construction, with the classic 19.7cm x 19.7cm x 3.6cm aluminium chassis making it a perfect fit for smaller desks or even rack mounting.

Again, you'll find all of the ports situated at the rear, but as this is a Mac mini you won't find a display, keyboard, mouse or trackpad, as none are included in the package. Apple did make one external alteration when revamping the mini in 2018, changing the colour from the plain aluminium to Space Grey, which does look much cooler.

Many wondered why Apple didn't completely redesign the Mac mini, assuming that it could be made even smaller. Turns out that the Mac mini is very popular with server farms and the like where they have existing setups - and keeping the design the same will make it easy to pop new units in. If the exisiting design matters to you then this could be an important factor. And it's not like it really needed to be smaller.

Features & Specs

Now Apple has updated the iMac range for 2019, the all-in-one is a much more attractive choice if you can afford one. As mentioned earlier, you should avoid the cheapest model which is from 2017 and has out-dated specs.

A slight iMac disadvantage is that storage is generally on hard-disks rather than the much faster SSDs in the mini (although this does mean that capacity on the iMac is a lot larger). The iMac can be configured with a Fusion Drive if it doesn't come with one as standard - which combines a small SSD with a hard drive or an SSD, so it's worth considering either of these options if you do want to buy one. We'd be inclined towards the full SSD option and external storage to fill the gap.

iMac vs Mac mini: Features

Remember that the base iMac model doesn't feature the 4K display that adorns the other 21.5in device in the range, so the lower price of that model comes with a big caveat - don't buy it.

The Retina display Apple fits to the rest of the iMac range is beautiful, with crisp definition and warm colours. In the case of the 27in iMacs the 5K display is one of the best 5K displays you can get - and it includes a computer!

There's no such deliberation to be made about the Mac mini display, as you have to bring your own. But when you do so, the unit can support up to 5K resolutions, and also has the option to run three 4K screens simultaneously.

Internally, the Mac mini is a snappy performer, with the 3.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i3 proving 5 times faster than its predecessor. Now, to be fair, the previous model was four years old and somewhat underpowered to begin with, but the switch to 8th-generation chips definitely brings the speeds up to modern standards.

Ignoring that older model, the iMac is also now running on 8th-gen Intel processors with at least four-cores. You can upgrade to six-cores on both but it's worth noting that the iMac offers a 3.7GHz 9th-gen Intel chip if you need the extra power.

iMac vs Mac mini: Specs

This is aided by faster 2666MHz DDR4 RAM (only the cheapest iMac has 2133MHz DDR4) with all models having 8GB. You can configure with more if you need it.

So there's not much difference on memory, but while the Mac mini is stuck with integrated Intel UHD Graphics 630 graphics, the iMac (apart from 2017 model) comes with a dedicated Radeon Pro graphics card as standard. This will make a big difference if you're planning on doing a lot of demanding work like video editing or you want to play games.

In the past the Mac mini was always attractively priced, so when you factored in the purchase of a display, keyboard, trackpad/mouse, speakers, cables and such, it was still a good deal for the consumer. 2018's model raised that entry price significantly, so the £800/$800 starting point quickly escalates to way above £1,000/$1,000, especially if you buy Apple peripherals.

For example, we configured a setup on the Apple Store which included the base Mac mini, a 4K HDMI cable, Magic Keyboard with numeric keypad and a Magic Trackpad 2, and the total came to £1,126.95/$1,126.95, all of which is still without a display and speakers.

Even choosing the cheapest option from our recent Best Mac monitors & displays roundup, the Dell S2718H, added a further £272, and that left us with only HD rather than 4K abilities. So, for around £1,400/$1,400 the Mac mini is far from affordable for most people.

Of course, if you already own a display and/or peripherals you can use with the Mac mini, then this price comes down. But it's worth considering the real cost when comparing the mini to its seemingly more expensive counterpart.

Here's a breakdown of the minimum specs for both models (ignoring the 2017 iMac)

iMac (2019)

  • 21.5in 4K 4096x2304 P3 display
  • 3.6GHz quad-core 8th-generation Intel Core i3 processor
  • 8GB 2666MHz DDR4 RAM
  • 1TB 5400RPM HD
  • Radeon Pro 555X with 2GB of GDDR5 
  • FaceTime HD camera
  • Stereo speakers
  • Microphone
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • SDXC card reader
  • 4 x USB 3.0
  • 2 x Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C)
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 802.11ac
  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • 45cm x 52.8cm x 17.5 cm
  • 5.66kg / 12.5lbs

Mac mini (2018)

  • 3.6GHz Quad-Core 8th Generation Intel Core i3
  • 8GB 2666MHz DDR4 SO-DIMM RAM
  • 128GB PCIe-based SSD
  • Intel UHD Graphics 630
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • 4 x Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C
  • 2 x USB 3.1 Gen 2
  • HDMI 2.0 port
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 802.11ac
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • 19.7cm x 19.7cm x 3.6cm
  • 1.3kg / 2.9 lbs

Verdict

Now the iMac has been updated for 2019, there's not an obvious choice here. It really depends what you want to do and how much you have to spend.

If you simply need the cheapest device then the Mac mini wins here, but keep in mind that you have to buy other things like a monitor. If you have one already then that helps, of course.

What we know for sure is that you shouldn't buy the cheapest iMac which is from 2017. The cheapest 21.5-inch model is probably the best value now with a new 8th-gen Intel processor and a Radeon Pro as standard.

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