27in iMac (2019) vs Apple 16in MacBook Pro (2019) full review

We're comparing Apple's iMac and the MacBook Pro here, but there's more to it than a straightforward comparison of desktop versus laptop. For each Apple product there are variants that suit different customers. Some of you reading this may be hoping for advice about whether to choose a 21.5in iMac or a 13in MacBook Pro, while others may need the ultimate machine and be weighing up the differences between the 27in iMac and the 16in MacBook Pro.

We will attempt to answer all of your questions below. However, since we will start off with the smaller, cheaper models, if your needs are better served by the 27in iMac or the 16in MacBook Pro (which has replaced the 15in MacBook Pro) you can skip to that section.

We will look at the pros and cons of these very different Macs, considering price, specs, design, features and more, to help you decide whether an iMac or MacBook Pro is best for your needs.

13in MacBook Pro vs 21.5in iMac

If you are looking for a powerful Mac that doesn't cost a fortune then the 13in MacBook Pro and the 21.5in iMac are a good place to start.

Both categories of Mac have decent specs, for the most part, and both have reasonably priced entry-level models that may mean you don't have to exceed your budget.

iMac

Value for money

We'll start by outlining how the specs and price of the 13in MacBook Pro and 21.5in iMac compare.

21.5in iMac

  • 2.3GHz dual-core 7th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB HD, Full HD display, for £1,049/$1,099 (2017 model)
  • 3.6GHz quad-core 8th-gen Intel Core i3, 8GB RAM, 1TB HD, Retina 4K display, Radeon Pro 555X for £1,249/$1,299 (2019 model)
  • 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 (2019 model)

13in MacBook Pro

  • 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD for £1,299/$1,299 (2019 model)
  • 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD for £1,499/$1,499 (2019 model)
  • 2.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD for £1,799/$1,799 (2019 model)
  • 2.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD for £1,999/$1,999 (2019 model)

In theory the entry-level iMac is the cheaper option here, starting at £1,049/$1,099 - but that's an old model from 2017 that we don't recommend, so we'll be pretty much ignoring it in this article (it doesn't even have a Retina display). You can get better deals if you shop around for other 2017 iMac models that are being sold at a discount by resellers - check out our iMac deals round up here.

So, having discounted the outdated model, the iMac starts at £1,249/$1,299, which just happens to be the same starting price as the 13in MacBook Pro.

iMac

So what do you get for your money? If you had £1,249/$1,299 to spend then the iMac would be the more powerful option. You'd get a 3.6GHz quad-core processor (albeit an i3, which means no Turbo Boost) and you'd get a discrete graphics card.

But we feel that the iMac is held back somewhat by its old-fashioned hard drive, which is standard on this model. With that in mind we'd suggest you opt for a SSD instead if you can afford it (starting at £180/$200 for a 256GB SSD) or if that's pushed the price up too high, or driven the capacity too low, the Fusion Drive might be a good option, giving you a 1TB hard drive and a small Flash drive that will speed up operation, for £90/$100.

If you have a bit more to spend, then the 3.0GHz six-core iMac looks like a much better option than the similarly priced 1.4GHz quad-core 13in MacBook Pro.

As you can see there is no question here about the iMac offering much better bang for your buck. But what if your need for speed is less important than your need to have a portable Mac? Read on.

Design

We're not really bothered with how these devices look in this comparison. They're both elegant and extremely well-made as you'd expect from Apple.

The more important question here is what you need a Mac for.

If it's just for somewhere like your home or office then the iMac will do nicely. If you need to be able to take it around with you then the MacBook Pro is the obvious answer.

Is screen size an important factor for you? In the case of these two models we have 13in vs 21.5in (although obviously there are 16in and 27in options if you need to go bigger, more on those below). Before you decide you absolutely need the bigger screen, remember you can always hook the MacBook Pro up to a monitor when you're at your desk.

Screen quality may also matter to you, especially if you are planning to use your Mac to watch movies and show photos, or make movies and edit photos, for example. If this sounds like you then it's another reason to avoid the £1,049/$1,099 iMac, which doesn't have a Retina display. All the other Macs that come with a screen feature a Retina display, which means you can expect superb screen quality. Your eyes will thank you.

Speaking of which, the 2019 13in MacBook offers True Tone, which is a technology that adjusts the screen brightness according to ambient light and is therefore better for your eyes. The 2019 21.5in iMac doesn't offer this feature, so that's a feature in favour of the laptop.

It's also worth noting that the iMac has a wider range of ports such as USB 3.0 and a microSDXC card reader. The MacBook Pro just has four USB-C ports (all Thunderbolt 3) as well as a headphone jack so you'll likely need an adapter or two.

Specs and features

If you compare the similarly priced models, as we did above, then it's clear that the 13in MacBook Pro is not as powerful as the 21.5in iMac. But what if we  take a look at the £1,749/$1,799 13in MacBook Pro? Spend a little more and you do get some decent specs.

Here we have the 2.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5 processor, which, while it still looks inferior to the 3.0GHz six-core 8th-gen Intel Core i5 (£1,449/$1,499), does at least come with a 256GB SSD as standard (to add the same SSD to the iMac would cost an extra £90/$100).

It's looking like the iMac is the best option if you want a powerful Mac that doesn't cost a fortune.

If you don't need power as much as portability though - perhaps you are just looking to do work like word processing on the go - we think the 13in MacBook Pro will stand you in good stead. But a MacBook Air might do the job just as well for even less money. Read our comparison of the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air here.

Verdict

We made it clear in the value for money section above that the iMac offers the most powerful components for the lowest price. But, as we saw in the design section, the MacBook Pro has a lot in its favour, from its portability to the quality of its display.

You also need to consider two alternatives: if it's portability you are after, but the power isn't important, the MacBook Air is a good choice. And if you really want the ultimate power at the lowest price then the Mac mini is worth considerration. 

It all depends on what you need from your Mac.

What if you need even more power? In that case you need to read on as we compare the 27in iMac and the 16in MacBook Pro...

16in MacBook Pro versus 27in iMac

Now onto the more powerful, and more expensive, 27in iMac and 16in MacBook Pro.

Here we have great options starting at £1,749/$1,799 for the iMac and £2,399/$2,399 for the 16in MacBook Pro.

As you can see, there is already a big difference between the starting prices of the two distinct Macs, is the MacBook Pro worth the extra spend? What else is different?

16in MacBook Pro

Value for money

As we did above, we'll start by outlining how the specs and price of the 16in MacBook Pro and the 27in iMac to see how much you get for your money.

27in iMac

  • 3.0GHz six-core 8th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, Retina 5K display, Radeon Pro 570X for £1,749/$1,799 (2019)
  • 3.1GHz six-core 8th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, Retina 5K display, Radeon Pro 575X for £1,949/$1,999 (2019)
  • 3.7GHz six-core 9th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 2TB Fusion Drive, Retina 5K display, Radeon Pro 580X for £2,249/$2,299 (2019)

16in MacBook Pro

  • 2.6GHz 6-core 9th-gen Core i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD, Radeon Pro 5300M for £2,399/$2,399 (2019)
  • 2.3GHz 8-core 9th-gen Core i9, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD, Radeon Pro 5500M: £2,799/$2,799 (2019)

These are official Apple prices; for the latest deals from other retailers, read Best iMac deals and Best MacBook Pro deals.

The first thing that you will probably notice is that the entry-level 16in MacBook Pro costs more than the top-of-the-range iMac. How do those models compare?

For the iMac we have a six core 3.7GHz 9th generation i5 processor, while the MacBook Pro offers a six core 2.6GHz 9th generation i7 processor. That processor has a lower clock speed, but it's also a i7 rather than an i5, which will benefit it.

The iMac has 8GB RAM as standard while the MacBook Pro has 16GB. You could add 16GB RAM to the iMac for £180/$200 extra. But the iMac would still cost less than the MacBook Pro.

iMac 27in

The graphics cards in the MacBook Pro are also superior to those in the iMac. And the fact that the MacBook Pro ships with 512GB SSD as standard is a real bonus compared to the iMac's 1TB Fusion Drive, which combines a small amount of flash with a large hard drive and will result in slower operation.

If you speced your iMac with the 512GB SSD (+ £270/$300) and the 16GB RAM mentioned above (+£180/$200) your iMac would cost £2,199/$2,299. That's a saving of £200/$100 on the price of the similarly specced entry-level MacBook Pro. So they aren't quite as different as you might think. We believe spending the extra money on the MacBook Pro is well worth it, especially when you consider it's a portable machine.

What if you were to compare the top of the range 3.7GHz six-core 9th-gen Core i5 iMac (£2,249/$2,299) with the 2.6GHz 6-core 9th-gen Core i7 MacBook Pro (£2,399/$2,399). In that case we have two comparably priced Macs before we have even switched in more RAM and an SSD (which we'd still chose over the 2TB Fusion Drive that's standard in that iMac).

Until Apple starts to ship the iMac with more RAM and an SSD as standard we will be less inclined to recommend it, but that may well change in 2020. Read about our predictions for the iMac in 2020 here.

Design

Speaking of which, one of our predictions for the iMac in 2020 is that Apple may finally redesign it. We want to see a larger screen thanks to reduced bezels; we have always felt that a 27in display isn't optimum so we are hoping for a 30in iMac.

Another criticism of the iMac as it stands is the fact that it isn't particularly ergonomic. We know people who have their iMac sat on top of books in order to have it at eye level. A MacBook Pro obviously isn't a particularly ergonomic option, but many people who use a laptop at their desk plug it into a screen.

The MacBook Pro is already an expensive option before you factor in the price of an additional screen though, so if it's a larger, high quality screen you need then the iMac is what you need. That's why the designers we know use iMacs.

iMac designer

Specs and Features

We have already discussed what you get for your money, with the conclusion that while the MacBook Pro looks a lot more expensive, if you were to attempt to match the specs more closely the difference isn't quite so great.

And the gap is closing: when Apple introduced the 16in MacBook Pro in November 2019 that Mac gained 2666MHz DDR4 memory that can be configured to 64GB - basically bringing it into line with the iMac.

However, the iMac benefits from a faster processor and if you need as much storage as possible it's the only way to get 1TB or more without spending a fortune.

As with our comparison of the 13in MacBook Pro and the 21.5in iMac it's a case of whether specs trump features in your case. If you need to get the most powerful Mac you can for your money then the iMac is a good option. But if you need something portable, and you don't mind buying an extra display for when you are sat at your desk, then the MacBook pro will meet your requirements.

Verdict

The iMac is cheaper but there is a lot missing from the standard offerings. If you attempt to spec the iMac up to meet the MacBook Pro the difference isn't quite so great.

With its 16in display the MacBook Pro is a great option for creatives on the move, and while we probably wouldn't want to be confined to a 16in screen when at our desk, the benefit of being able to carry the computer with you probably outweighs the expense of buying a monitor to use at your desk.

We feel that the iMac is lagging behind somewhat. If Apple updates the iMac in 2020 we expect that it will be more of a contender, but right now we'd pick the 16in MacBook Pro.

MacBook Pro 16in

Buying advice

Which ever MacBook Pro you are looking at, it has the advantage of coming with an SSD as standard and can be configured to a whopping 8TB if you have cash to splash (£1,980/$2,200). The iMac models either come with a traditional hard drive (which we advise against) or a Fusion Drive (which is better, but still not as good as a SSD).

When it comes to graphics, the 13in MacBook Pro relies on Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645 or 655, while the 16in has a Radeon Pro 5300M or 5500M with 4GB of GDDR6 memory.The integrated graphics in the 13in MacBook Pro make it less suited to games and other image heavy applications, but it's likely to be sufficient for spreadsheets, Word documents and email. 

All iMacs (with the exception of the entry-level model) have discrete graphics (various Radeon Pro options). We recommend a discrete graphics if you are likely to be doing graphics intensive tasks, and if it's the best graphics you are after then the 16in MacBook Pro's graphics options are superior (but it's a newer machine).

So, what should you buy?

If you need a laptop for normal office work or study, watching movies, sending emails and surfing the web, and you need to be able to carry it with you the 13in MacBook Pro will suit you.

If you want to use your Mac for normal office work or study, watching movies, sending emails and surfing the web, but also playing a few games, maybe even doing a bit of video editing, image editing or design work, and you don't mind not being able to carry it around, the 21.5in iMac is a good option. Don't buy the entry-level model though!

If you need something more powerful, perhaps because your job involves video editing, image editing or design work, then the 27in iMac is likely to suit you. As long as you don't need something portable.

If what you need is a powerful and portable device then the 16in MacBook Pro is ideal. It costs more than the iMac but you get more for your money. The 16in display isn't as great as the 27in 5K display of the iMac, but you can always plug in a separate display - in fact you can plug in two 6016‑by‑3384 resolution displays (such as the Pro Display XDR) or up to four 4096‑by‑2304 resolution (4K) displays.

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