If you’re looking for a desktop Mac, rather than the mobile charms of a Mac laptop (in which case, read our MacBook buying guide) there are 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.
Anyone who has seen an iMac in the last decade 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. (We have a separate article about the rumoured iMac redesign, including news that there may be a 23in model coming.)
Keeping with the ‘if it ain’t broke’ motif, the Mac mini also hasn’t changed a lot in the past ten years, although when it was updated in 2018 Apple switched from silver to a Space Grey finish, and then returned to silver in 2020.
In terms of construction nothing has changed though, 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.
Many wondered why Apple didn’t completely redesign the Mac mini when it was updated in 2018 – by all accounts there is plenty of wasted space on the inside, so the unit could be slimmed down considerably making it 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.
There are various iMac models: three 21.5in models, three 27in models and a iMac Pro.
The 27in iMac were last updated in August 2020, two of the 21.5in models were updated in March 2019, and the entry-level iMac dates back to 2017. The iMac Pro was introduced in December 2017 and hasn’t been updated since (other than various adjustments to the build to order options). Apple used to ship all iMacs with a Fusion Drive or a hard drive until 2020 when it finally transitioned the whole range to SSDs as standard.
As for the Mac mini there are three models. Two of these were introduced in November 2020 and include Apple’s M1 chip. The other Mac mini is an older model that dates back to 2018, although Apple did double it’s storage earlier in 2020.
Here’s an over view of how the iMac and Mac mini models compare.
- M1 Chip with 8‑Core CPU and 8‑Core GPU
- M1 Chip with 8‑Core CPU and 8‑Core GPU
- 3.0GHz 6-core Intel i5 8th-gen processor, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD, Intel UHD Graphics 630
- 2.3GHz dual-core Intel i5 7th-gen processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640
- 3.6GHz quad-core Intel i3 8th-gen processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 4K Retina display, Radeon Pro 555X with 2GB memory
- 3.0GHz 6-core Intel i5 8th-gen processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 4K Retina display, Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB memory
- 3.1GHz 6-core Intel i5 10th-gen processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 5K Retina display, Radeon Pro 5300 with 4GB memory
- 3.3GHz 6-core Intel i5 10th-gen processor, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD, 5K Retina display, Radeon Pro 5300 with 4GB memory
- 3.8GHz 8-core Intel i7 10th-gen processor, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD, 5K Retina display, Radeon Pro 5500 XT with 8GB memory
- 3.0GHz 10-core Intel Xeon W processor, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD, 5K Retina display, Radeon Pro Vega 56 with 8GB memory
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 – don’t buy it.
Speaking of the 21.5in display on that iMac – there are rumours that a redesign is in the works and we could soon see a 23in iMac, so if you want a bigger screen waiting would be a good idea.
The Retina display Apple fits to all bar the entry-level iMac 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! Like the 21.5in model we may soon see a bigger screen for the 27in iMac.
There’s no such deliberation to be made about the Mac mini display – you have to bring your own. But when you do so, the M1 Mac mini can support two displays – including a 6K resolution screen. The Intel model that is still on sale can support three 4K screens simultaneously, or one 5K display and one 4K display.
We’ve already mentioned the big news about the Mac mini: the fact that it gained Apple’s M1 chip in November 2020 (although one model with Intel inside remains).
The M1 chip has an 8‑Core CPU and 8‑Core GPU. The Intel offering is a 3.0GHz 6-core Intel i5 8th-gen processor, the integrated graphcis are Intel UHD Graphics 630. We’ll discuss graphics in more detail below.
We’re seeing some impressive results from the M1 chip, even in comparison to the Intel offerings. So it’s likely that the only reason to buy the Intel model would be because you aren’t ready to transition to Apple Silicon yet.
There are similar comparisons to be made with the 21.5in iMac, which is currently lumbered with a 7th generation dual-core processor at the entry level (we’ve already said to ignore this one), and 8th generation Intel processors for the other 21.5in models. These smaller-screened iMacs were last updated in 2019 so we do expect that Apple will update them soon (and when it does you can expect it to use its own chips, probably the M1). We’d recommend waiting for that iMac update.
Moving onto the 27in iMac – this model was updated in August 2020, and now has 6- and 8-core 10th generation Intel processors. These models are impressive – and closing the gap on the iMac Pro, which hasn’t been updated since it launched back in 2017. Apple’s likely to take a little longer to develop its own processors for the pro-oriented iMacs, so we’d say that if you want to buy one now then you can comfortably do so – unless you really want Apple Silicon.
Apple’s M1 Mac mini has 8GB RAM, as do the iMacs, but that doesn’t mean that they are the same.
The RAM in the M1 Macs is part of the M1 chip. It’s what Apple is referring to as unified memory architecture, or UMA, and is accessible to both the CPU and the GPU. Apple indicates that there should be performance benefits due to this, because the memory can be allocated according to where it is needed most.
There is one downside compared to the Intel-powered Mac mini which ships with 8GB 2666MHz DDR4, but can be upgraded to 64GB at point of purchase. The M1 Mac mini can only be upgraded to 16GB RAM.
There are some major differences between the RAM that is used across the iMac range. Starting with 8GB 2133MHz in the entry-level (up to 16GB), 8GB 2400MHz DDR4 (up to 32GB), and 8GB 2666MHz DDR4 (up to 32GB) for the top 21.5in model and the 27in models. Those 27in models can be maxed out with 128GB RAM. The bigger the number the faster the RAM.
You’ll notice that the iMacs (with the exception of the entry-level model) all offer discrete graphics with their own allocated memory of 2-, 4- or 8GB. So, as we said, 8GB RAM in a Mac mini is not the same as 8GB RAM in an iMac.
The graphics provision is an important distinction between the iMac and Mac mini.
While the Mac mini is equipped with Apple’s graphics solution built onto the M1 chip, or in the case of the remaining Intel model, integrated Intel UHD Graphics 630 graphics, the iMac (ommitting the entry-level iMac, which has integrated graphics) comes with a dedicated Radeon Pro graphics card as standard. This will make a big difference if you’re planning on doing a lot of demanding work like video editing or you want to play games.
The M1 graphics is impressive – and beats the Intel integrated solutions in tests. However, the M1 MacBook Pro was beaten when pitched against a Mac with an external graphics card – so an eGPU is still better than M1 graphics – which suggests that the iMacs with discrete graphics would perform better than the M1 Macs.
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. Many years ago the Mac mini cost less than £400, but Apple’s unlikely to ever drop the price that much again. For now the starting price for the Mac mini is £699/$699, which is £100 less than it was prior to November 2020.
We configured a setup on the Apple Store which included the base Mac mini, Magic Keyboard and a Magic Trackpad, and the total came to £897.00, all of which is still without a display and speakers.
Of course, if you already own a display and 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.
If you ignore the M1 Mac mini and compare the remaining Intel model to the iMac with similar specs:
- Mac mini: 3.0GHz 6-core Intel i5 8th-gen processor, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD, Intel UHD Graphics 630: £1,099/$1,099
- 21.5in iMac: 3.0GHz 6-core Intel i5 8th-gen processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 4K Retina display, Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB memory: £1,499/$1,499
The big difference being that the iMac includes that 4K display and a discrete graphics card. But it costs £400/$400 more.
There is also a huge leap from the 21.5in iMac to the 27in iMac in terms of price. To move up to the 27in model will cost you another £300/$300.
However, as you will see below, you don’t have to pay the full price for Macs. A number of resellers will discount even the latest models. Check the deals below to see what’s on offer:
M1 Chip, 256GB SSD: £699/$699
M1 Chip, 512GB SSD: £899/$899
3.0GHz 6-core i5 8th-gen, 512GB SSD: £1,099/$1,099
2.3GHz dual-core i5 7th-gen, 256GB SSD: £1,099/$1,099
3.6GHz quad-core i3 8th-gen, 256GB SSD, Radeon Pro 555X: £1,299/$1,299
3.0GHz 6-core i5 8th-gen, 256GB SSD, Radeon Pro 560X: £1,499/$1,499
You might be able to pick up an even better deal on one of the older Mac mini models so check out our round up of Mac mini deals.
3.1GHz 6-core i5 10th-gen, 256GB SSD, Radeon Pro 5300: £1,799/$1,799
3.3GHz 6-core i5 10th-gen, 512GB SSD, Radeon Pro 5300: £1,999/$1,999
3.8GHz 8-core i7 10th-gen, 512GB SSD, Radeon Pro 5500 XT: £2,299/$2,299
You might be able to pick up an even better deal on one of the older iMac models so check out our round up of iMac deals.
(There’s also the iMac Pro available for £4,999/$4,999, 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.
With the updated M1 Mac mini at the end of 2020, and the promise of a similar update to the 21.5in iMac looming, it’s pretty clear that buying one of the smaller iMacs right now isn’t a good move.
As for whether to wait for the M1 iMacs or pump for an M1 Mac mini we’d suggest that the mini is a good option if price and power is your primary concern, but hold out for a new iMac if graphics are important to you. That said, we have no guarantee that the 21.5in iMac will feature graphics that are good as the discrete graphics on offer right now.
If you really need a machine capable of graphics intensive apps then the 27in iMac is designed with you in mind, and we expect Apple to take a little longer to update that model, so unless you are happy to wait until later in 2021 we’d suggest that now is a good time to buy the 27in iMac.
Wondering how the MacBook Air and Mac mini compare? We have a separate article you might be interested in reading.
Apple Mac mini (2020) M1: Specs
- M1 8 core CPU 8-core GPU, 8GB or 16GB (Unified Memory), 256GB/512GB/1TB/2TB, Support for one display up to 6K and one display up to 4K (sold separately), Single Speaker, 3.5mm headphone jack,
HDMI 2.0 port supports multi-channel audio output, WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5, 2x Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports, 2x USB?A ports, HDMI 2.0 port, Gigabit Ethernet, 197mm x 197mm x 36mm, 1.2kg