21.5-inch iMac (2017) 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. 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/$1.049
  • 3.0GHz quad-core 7th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB HD, Retina 4K 4096x2304 P3 display, for £1,249/$1,249
  • 3.4GHz quad-core 7th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, Retina 4K 4096x2304 P3 display, for £1,449/$1,449

Should you prefer the larger 27in display, these are the options:

  • 3.4GHz quad-core 7th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, Retina 5K 5120x2880 P3 display, for £1,749/$17,49
  • 3.5GHz quad-core 7th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, Retina 5K 5120x2880 P3 display, £1,949/$1,949
  • 3.8GHz quad-core 7th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 2TB Fusion Drive, Retina 5K 5120x2880 P3 display, £2,249/$2,249

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.)

The extra cores and the newer processors of the Mac mini, plus it's lower price, means that the new Mac mini is a real contender here. Sure it lacks a monitor but at that price you could buy a second monitor and still pay less than you would for some iMac models.

And stear well clear of the £1,049/$1.049 iMac with the 2.3GHz processor. The price might look great, but the specs really don't add up to anything special. And it doesn't even have a Retina display like the rest of the iMac line up. If you want the cheapest option, it has to be the Mac mini.

The iMac is sure to be updated by Apple soon though, and when it is we would expect that the processor options across the range will be much improved. Right now the fact that only the Mac mini offers a 6-core option does make the iMac look a little weak in comparison. We would advise waiting until Apple updates the range before spending money on a new iMac.

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

As we already mentioned, Apple hasn't updated the iMac range since June 2017, and as a result the internals are now ageing in comparison to its rivals - and the 2018 Mac mini. The Intel chips in the iMac are 7th-generation Kaby Lake, while the Mac mini uses 8th-generation processors.

Another 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 - 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.

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.

iMac vs Mac mini: Features

That being said, the performance and features of even that 21.5in iMac will be perfectly acceptable for general computing duties such as working on documents, browsing the web, streaming content, creating music on GarageBand and editing home videos in iMovie.

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.

iMac vs Mac mini: Specs

This is aided by faster 2666MHz DDR4 RAM (the iMac has 2133MHz DDR4) and the PCIe-based SSD, which zips along at a much higher clip than the spinning hard drive on the iMac, making the system generally feel more responsive when launching apps and retrieving information.

You pay for this rapidity with a drastically reduced amount of storage. 128GB is small for laptops these days (or even phones!) and on a desktop device it's minuscule. If you want to store any movies, along with a music collection and a few larger applications like Logic Pro X, then you'll be running out of space almost before you begin.

This can of course be augmented by the addition of external hard drives via the Thunderbolt 3/USC-C or USB A/3.0 ports, but that adds more to the cost, which is a constant theme with the mini.

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 full specs for both models.

iMac

  • 21.5in 1920x1080p HD display
  • 2.3GHz Dual-Core 7th Generation Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz)
  • 8GB 2133MHz DDR4 RAM
  • 1TB 5400RPM HD
  • Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640
  • 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

  • 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

The new Mac mini is faster than the iMac in all departments thanks to its updated hardware, but the price hike makes it harder to recommend than in previous years. Once you factor in the required peripherals the total cost can be well beyond the iMac, especially if you head down the 4K route.

It's also difficult to point towards the current iMac, as the internals are getting too dated to justify the current asking price. Oddly, we'd advise you to buy neither at the moment, and instead wait to see what Apple unveils for the iMac in 2019, as the revamp could give the new mini a better run for its money.

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