Apple Mac mini (2018) vs Apple MacBook Air (2018) full review

In October 2018 Apple updated the MacBook Air and the Mac mini; the Air got a further tweak in July 2019. It's not long since we were wondering if they were going to be discontinued, but both machines are now clearly part of Apple's long-term plans.

They are priced lower than any other Mac in the line-up yet feature impressive specs. But which one offers the best value for money? Should an Apple fan on a budget buy the MacBook Air or the Mac mini? Read on for our detailed analysis and buying advice.

MacBook Air or Mac mini for portability

These 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 vs Mac mini: Mac mini

MacBook Air or Mac mini for power

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 launched the improved Mac mini and MacBook Air in October 2018 the specs were much better than offered previously, especially in the 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 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz. No additional BTO options 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 128GB or 256GB PCIe-based SSD, configurable to 512GB or 1TB SSD 128GB or 256GB PCIe-based onboard SSD, configurable to 512GB, 1TB or 2TB SSD
RAM 8GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory, configurable to 16GB of memory 8GB of 2666MHz LPDDR4 onboard memory, configurable to 16GB, 32GB or 64GB RAM
Graphics Intel UHD Graphics 617 (supports 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 Full-size 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 £1,099/$1,099 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, but it is going to be left for dust by the Mac mini. Even the entry-level Mac mini with its 3.6GHz Quad-Core i3 would beat the MacBook Air's 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost to 3.6GHz) - there is no alternative processor for the Air. 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, even the RAM in the mini is better: 2666MHz DDR4 SO-DIMM memory compared to 2133MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory. 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 slightly superior graphics compared to the Air. It 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 the Mac mini offers the most, 2TB as a build-to-order option. But it'll cost you £1,260/$1,400. Alternatively, you could boost the Air to 1TB for an extra £400/$400. We'd suggest that 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.

MacBook Air vs Mac mini: Power

MacBook Air or Mac mini for price

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

The Mac mini already has a lower price than the MacBook Air, starting at £799/$799, but the extra £300/$300 you could spend to get a £1,099/$1,099 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.

Speaking of screens the Mac mini can work with a 5K display, which may well be a deal breaker for some. The MacBook Air doesn't - but that's because the Air just isn't a Mac for the kind of people who need 5K displays. The Mac mini, however, can be spaced up to suit people how 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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