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.
The fact that Apple uses the same name for some very different Macs does rather complicate a question like ‘Should I get a iMac or MacBook Pro’. It’s at times like this that we wish the 13in MacBook Pro was known as the MacBook and the 27in iMac as the iMac Pro, because then it would be more obvious that this is a question of comparing the consumer focused with the consumer focused, and the pro focused with the pro focused. But that’s not the case, so we can’t.
But we will attempt to answer all the possible questions below anyway.
We will start off with the 27in iMac because in August 2020 that model was updated (read our review of the new 2020 27in iMac here). We’ll be comparing that with the 16in MacBook Pro as it’s where you will find the specs match the best. However, as you will see if you read on, that doesn’t mean that a 13in MacBook Pro wouldn’t suit you just as well.
Then we will take a look at the smaller, cheaper iMacs and compare them with the 13in MacBook Pro. As before, in the case of the 21.5in iMac the top-of-the-range model might be a suitable alternative to the 16in MacBook Pro, so we won’t rule out those options.
If you are only interested in 13in MacBook Pro vs 21.5in iMac skip to that section here.
If you are only interested in 16in MacBook Pro vs 27in iMac jump to that section here.
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.
We’ll start with the more powerful, and more expensive, 27in iMac and 16in MacBook Pro. The 27in iMac was updated in August 2020, so it’s relatively new. The 16in MacBook Pro was last updated in November 2019.
Here we have options starting at £1,799/$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?
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 (2020)
- 3.1GHz six-core 10th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Retina 5K display, Radeon Pro 5300 for £1,799/$1,799
- 3.3GHz six-core 10th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD, Retina 5K display, Radeon Pro 5300 for £1,999/$1,999
- 3.8GHz eight-core 10th-gen Core i7, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD, Retina 5K display, Radeon Pro 5500 XT for £2,299/$2,299
16in MacBook Pro (2019)
- 2.6GHz six-core 9th-gen Core i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD, Radeon Pro 5300M for £2,399/$2,399 (2019)
- 2.3GHz eight-core 9th-gen Core i9, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD, Radeon Pro 5500M: £2,799/$2,799 (2019)
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 an eight-core 3.8GHz 10th generation i7 processor, while the MacBook Pro offers a six core 2.6GHz 9th generation i7 processor. Clearly in this case there is no doubt about it, the iMac trumps the MacBook Pro with a faster, newer processor.
However, the iMac only has 8GB RAM as standard while the MacBook Pro has 16GB. That’s disappointing, but you could add 16GB RAM to the iMac for £200/$200 extra. With that essential (we think) addition your iMac would cost £100/$100 more than the MacBook Pro.
The 27in iMac and the 16in MacBook Pro both feature the latest AMD Radeon Pro graphics cards, built using the new Navi architecture. The iMac offers the Radeon Pro 5300 with 4GB of GDDR6 memory, while the entry-level 16in MacBook Pro offers the mobile version of that chip: the AMD Radeon Pro 5300M.
In terms of what’s actually available to buyers, the iMac has the clear advantage. The top-of-the range iMac offers the Radeon Pro 5500 XT with 8GB of GDDR6 memory, but there is also a build-to-order option for the Radeon Pro 5700 XT with 16GB of GDDR6 memory.
The MacBook Pro, in the other hand, includes the option of the AMD Radeon Pro 5500M cards, or the AMD Radeon Pro 5600M with 8GB of HBM2 memory as a build-to-order option.
Prior to the August 2020 update, the MacBook Pro was at an advantage because it shipped with a 512GB SSD as standard, while the iMac was scuppered by a 1TB Fusion Drive (which combined a small amount of flash with a large hard drive and resulted in slower operation).
However as of August 2020 Apple is now selling the iMac with an SSD as standard (at last!)
The MacBook Pro does still go one better though. The entry-level 16in model ships with 512GB and the top-to-range model offers 1TB SSD.
The entry-level 27in iMac starts with 256GB SSD, while the other two models both offer 512GB.
If you need more storage for either machine you can max it out to 8TB.
That’s what you’ll find on the inside, but what about the outside? Things like the size and quality of the screen, the dimensions and weight, and how the Mac looks, will no doubt matter to you.
Apple has just updated the iMac, but we think there is a bigger update on the horizon. We expect that Apple will redesign the iMac soon and when it does we expect 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. Read about Apple’s plans for the new iMac here.
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 either, 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.
If you tend not to be based in one place though then a MacBook Pro will clearly be the preferred option.
The MacBook Pro offers twice as much RAM and twice as much storage, but is considerably more expensive.
The iMac benefits from a faster processor and a lower starting price.
Both models have pretty much identical build-to-order options.
If you need to get the most powerful Mac you can for your money then the iMac is a good option.
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.
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.
Apple updated the 21.5in iMac in August 2020 but rather than upgrading the processors all the company did was switch out the old-fashioned hard drives that used to ship as standard for faster SSDs. Although only a minor update it is very significant – and something we had been calling for. Other than the storage nothing else has changed since 2019 (and 2017 in the case of the entry-level model).
As for the 13in MacBook Pro, there are two entry level models that had a similarly minor update in March 2020 when the capacities of the SSDs were doubled. The other two mid-range 13in models gained new 10th generation processors at the same time as well as doubled RAM – 16GB up from 8GB.
We’ll start by outlining how the specs and price of the 13in MacBook Pro and 21.5in iMac compare.
- 2.3GHz dual-core 7th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Full HD display, for £1,099/$1,099 (2017 model)
- 3.6GHz quad-core 8th-gen Intel Core i3, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Retina 4K display, Radeon Pro 555X for £1,299/$1,299 (2019 model)
- 3.0GHz six-core 8th-gen Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Retina 4K display, Radeon Pro 560X for £1,499/$1,499 (2019 model)
13in MacBook Pro
- 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD for £1,299/$1,299 (2019 model – with bigger SSD)
- 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD for £1,499/$1,499 (2019 model – with bigger SSD)
- 2.0GHz quad-core 10th-gen Core i5, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD for £1,799/$1,799 (2020 model)
- 2.0GHz quad-core 10th-gen Core i5, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD for £1,999/$1,999 (2020 model)
In theory the entry-level iMac is the cheaper option here, starting at £1,099/$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 £1,299/$1,299, which just happens to be the same starting price as the 13in MacBook Pro.
So what do you get for your money? If you had £1,299/$1,299 to spend then the iMac would be the more powerful option. You’d get a 3.6GHz quad-core 8th-gen processor (albeit an i3, which means no Turbo Boost).
The equivalent MacBook Pro offers a 1.4GHz quad-core 8th-gen Core i5.
However, we aren’t only interested in the £1,299 models here. The 2.0GHz MacBook Pro offers some much improved specs compared to the entry-level models. For a start the processors are 10th generation. But that model starts at £1,799/$1,799.
£1,799/$1,799 would get you a brand new 27in iMac with 3.1GHz 6-Core 10th-gen processor, just to put things in perspective.
Those MacBooks are starting to look rather expensive in comparison!
When Apple updated the MacBook Pro back in March 2020 it doubled the RAM in the two 2.0GHz 13in models. However, the £1,299 and £1,499 models still offer just 8GB RAM.
The iMacs also offer just 8GB RAM.
We’d always recommend more RAM, but that doesn’t mean you have to opt for the £1,799 MacBook Pro. You can always update the RAM as a build to order option on any Mac.
One of the key benefits of the iMac is the fact that you get a discrete Radeon Pro graphics card. The 13in MacBook Pro only offers an integrated graphics card.
Many designers, creatives, gamers, and other people who use highly demanding apps, will tend to be drawn towards an integrated graphics card, like the one offered by the iMac.
That’s not to say that the MacBook Pro wouldn’t handle things well enough for the average person. But we’d recommend the 2.0GHz models with their newer graphics cards, just for the sake of being more future-proof.
Prior to the August 2020 update we’d have said that the iMac is held back by its old-fashioned hard drive, which was standard on this model – but that is no longer the case. Now the iMac ships with a 256GB SSD, just like the equivalently priced 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.
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). 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. (Incidentally the 27in iMac does now offer True Tone).
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.
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 £1,799/$1,799 13in MacBook Pro? Spend a little more and you do get some decent specs. However, those specs then don’t compare very favourably to the identically priced 27in iMac.
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.