Apple Mac mini (2020) 3.6GHz Quad-Core, 256GB vs Apple MacBook Air (2020) full review

The Mac mini and MacBook Air are priced lower than any other Mac in Apple's line-up, and yet they still feature impressive specs. If you are wondering which one offers the best value for money and which one would suit your needs you've come to the right place. In this article we'll be looking at whether an Apple fan on a budget should buy the MacBook Air or the Mac mini? Read on for our detailed analysis and buying advice.

In March 2020 Apple updated the MacBook Air and the Mac mini. The Air got a significant update, with improvements to the processor, RAM, graphics and double the storage. It also had a price cut on the entry-level model. The Mac mini saw its storage capacity doubled but nothing else.

MacBook Air and Mac mini compared

In terms of specs the Mac mini and MacBook Air have traditionally come in at the low end of what Apple offers. However, when the company updated the Mac mini and MacBook Air in October 2018 the specs were much better than those offered previously, especially in the Mac mini.

The March 2020 update saw the MacBook Air gained some impressive new features, such as 10th generation processors and improved RAM. The Mac mini was also updated but the only change was to the storage, which doubled in capacity. We have a review of the 2020 MacBook Air here.

Mac mini

Here's how the specs compare:

  MacBook Air Mac mini
Display 13.3in Retina display with True Tone None (supports up to three separate displays)
Resolution 2560x1600 at 227ppi n/a
Colours Silver, Space Grey, Gold Space Grey
Dimensions 30.41 x 21.24 x 0.41-1.56cm 19.7 x 19.7 x 3.6cm
Weight 1.25kg 1.3kg
Processor 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i3 10th generation, Turbo Boost 3.2GHz. 1.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 10th generation, Turbo Boost 3.5GHz. (Build to order 1.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 10th generation, Turbo Boost 3.8GHz) 3.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i3, or 3.0GHz 6-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz. Configurable to 3.2GHz 6-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 4.6GHz
Storage 256GB or 512GB PCIe-based SSD, configurable to 1TB SSD or 2TB SSD 256GB or 512GB PCIe-based onboard SSD, configurable to 1TB or 2TB SSD
RAM 8GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory onboard memory, configurable to 16GB of memory 8GB of 2666MHz LPDDR4 onboard memory, configurable to 16GB, 32GB or 64GB RAM
Graphics Intel Iris Plus Graphics (supports one external 6K display with 6016x3384 resolution at 60Hz, one external display with 5120x2880 resolution at up to 60Hz, or two external displays with 4096x2304 resolution at up to 60Hz Native DisplayPort output)
Support for Thunderbolt 3-enabled external graphics processors (eGPUs)
Intel UHD Graphics 630 (supports up to three displays: three 4K displays or one 5K and one 4K display)
Ports Two Thunderbolt 3/USB‑C ports (Thunderbolt 3 is 40Gbps and USB‑C 3.1 offers 10 Gbps, both use the same port) Four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C, HDMI 2.0 and 2 USB 3 ports
Camera 720p FaceTime HD camera n/a
Audio Stereo speakers, three microphones, 3.5mm headphone jack HDMI 2.0 port supports multichannel audio output, 3.5mm headphone jack
Keyboard Magic keyboard, ambient light sensor, Force Touch trackpad, Integrated Touch ID sensor n/a
Battery life
Up to 12 hours wireless web, 13 hours iTunes (50.3‑watt‑hour lithium‑polymer battery) n/a
Price From £999/$999 From £799/$799
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As you can see, the Mac mini, in particular the flagship model, offers some pretty impressive specs, with 6 cores and up to 4.1GHz with Turbo Boost. There's also various build-to-order options that could enable you to build a really powerful Mac mini.

The MacBook Air is a lot better than it was prior to the 2018 update, and now following the 2020 update it's even better, especially with that quad-core 10th generation processor in the £1,299/$1,299 model.

The Mac mini hasn't had a processor update since 2018, so it's still using 8th generation processors, but it is still going to leave the MacBook Air for dust because even the entry-level Mac mini with its 3.6GHz quad-core i3 would beat the MacBook Air's 1.1GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost to 3.5GHz) despite the processor in the Air being newer. It will be interesting to see if the two are neck and neck in some tasks, though - while the Air can Turbo Boost up to 3.6GGHz the entry-level mini can't initiate Turbo Boost, so the two processors may well even out.

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: MacBook Air

There are a few other things that you might not notice at first glance. For example, not only can the mini be maxed out to 64GB RAM while the Air is limited to 16GB. Prior to the 2020 update the MacBook Air only offered 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory, but now it has 8GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory, which is better than the 2666MHz DDR4 onboard memory in the Mac mini. The Mac mini does have a 64GB RAM option though, where the Air can only be increased to 16GB. If that is something that matters to you then it could be an important point (but probably if it matters to you the MacBook Air would have been ruled out long ago).

The other difference is in terms of graphics. Both have integrated graphics - so if you need discrete graphics you'd want to look at another Mac, or consider plugging in a eGPU. The Mac mini has Intel UHD Graphics 630 graphics compared to the Air's Iris Plus Graphics. The Iris Plus graphics are the successor to the Intel Iris Graphics 655. Both graphics cards are integrated. However, the Mac mini also has more ports available for plugging in external graphics.

Speaking of which, if you need ports - and specifically if you need HDMI and one or more of the older-style USB ports then the Mac mini is your best bet as it has all of those and more.

Finally, if you need a lot of space both the Mac mini and the MacBook Air offer 2TB as a build-to-order option. The price is the same for both Macs: £600/$600. If you need the space but want to keep the price down an external hard drive might be a better idea - here's our round-up of the best hard drives for Mac.

With all the above in mind it certainly looks like the Mac mini is the best option for power but the MacBook Air still has a lot to offer.

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: Power

MacBook Air or Mac mini for portability

The MacBook Air and Mac mini are two very different Macs. One is a laptop and one is a desktop machine, so if you need a portable computer then the Air is the obvious choice here: it's one of the lightest Macs Apple makes.

But the Mac mini can't be entirely ruled out on the portability stakes. Weighing in at 1.3kg it's heavier than the Air's 1.25kg, but only just. So, if you wanted a Mac you could use at work, and then carry home with you, the Mac mini may well be suitable. All you would need is a monitor and keyboard to plug in to at home and at work and you'd be good to go.

Despite that, it has to be said, the MacBook Air is going to trump the Mac mini for portability simply because you can use it anywhere.

MacBook Air or Mac mini for price

So, with all the above in mind, which of Apple's 2020 MacBook Air and 2018 Mac mini offers the best value for money?

The Mac mini already has a lower price than the MacBook Air, starting at £799/$799 compared to £999/$999, but the extra £200/$200 you could spend to get a MacBook Air could be money well spent since it will get you a 13in Retina display and the ability to work from anywhere.

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: Value for money

That said, a 13in display may not be enough so you may well end up plugging your laptop into a second display, at which point you might as well have got the Mac mini, although of course you'd have two screens to work on. Find out about the best displays for Mac here and how to use a second display with your Mac.

Speaking of screens both the Mac mini and the MacBook Air can work with a 5K display. That's a change compared to the 2018 MacBook Air that didn't support 5K monitors.

Despite the MacBook Air's improved options following the 2020 update, the Mac mini is still the best option in terms of what it can offer people who need a powerful computer. And the best bit is that it doesn't cost a fortune to do so.

When it comes to sheer value for money, we think the Mac mini wins thanks to its low cost and impressive specs.

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: Mac mini ports

Verdict

So, to conclude, the MacBook Air and the Mac mini are similar but also very different. Both have a lower price than any other Mac Apple makes, and the processor on the MacBook Air looks less impressive than that on the entry-level Mac mini, but it can be boosted up to a similar level.

However there are much more advanced build-to-order options on the Mac mini, while only the MacBook Air comes with a screen and keyboard.

When it comes to people who are just looking to buy a Mac to use for general day-to-day activities, like spreadsheets, documents, a bit of photo editing, and some web browsing, the entry-level Mac mini and MacBook Air are surprisingly comparable.

If you just want a computer for use at home, and you have a monitor already, the Mac mini would be a great choice.

If you want a computer that you can use anywhere then the MacBook Air is the one.

If you need a Mac that can be specced up to something quite powerful without breaking the bank the Mac mini is the obvious choice - the Air is unlikely to be suitable.

So which one would we choose? As much as we love the new Mac mini we think that the days of the desktop are numbered and people are much more likely to choose a laptop - and there are plenty of very good reasons why they do that, all of which will apply to the Air, making it our low-cost Apple Mac of choice. Still not sure we discuss the best cheap Mac here, including some other ways you can get a Mac without spending a fortune. We also look at how the MacBook Air compares to the iMac.

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