MacBook Air vs iMac: iMac and MacBook Air compared

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The MacBook Air has always been one of Apple’s most popular Macs, while the iMac is probably the most famous. The two have much in common, but a lot sets them apart.

Right now they have more in common than ever – with the arrival of the M1 iMac in April bringing the exact same specifications to those models as feature in the November 2020 MacBook Air. However, despite the components being the same, the iMac is likely to see performance benefits because aspects of the iMac design will allow for better cooling than the MacBook Air.

We’ll look into what is the same and what is different below so you can be sure to make the right decision if you are deciding between a new MacBook Air or iMac, or if you are considering switching from iMac to MacBook Air or MacBook Air to iMac and want to know whether it would be a good move.

We’ll start with a look at the design differences before moving onto the price and specs of the two Mac varieties.

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We are looking at the 24in iMac compared to the MacBook Air here. There is also a 27in iMac available, but that machine is really in a different league to the MacBook Air, so it’s unlikely someone would be considering both Macs. If the 27in iMac is what interests you read our comparison of the MacBook Pro and iMac.

Design

The smaller of the two iMacs has just had a makeover. The old 21.5in iMac, with its aluminium frame that hadn’t really changed in over a decade, is now a 24in iMac that comes in seven different colours. There is a choice of green, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue or silver, with the tone on the back a darker shade than that on the front. The display is surrounded by a white border.

New 24in iMac

The MacBook Air had a big redesign back in 2018. It’s still got the trademark wedge shape that tapers to a smaller point, thereby keeping the laptop light and giving the impression that it is thinner than it is. As laptops go, it’s one of the most attractive laptops you can buy, and comes in Gold, Silver and Space Grey. In the case of the MacBook Air (and every other Mac Apple makes, the display is surrounded by a black border).

MacBook Air

What it all comes down to is whether you need to be able to carry the computer around with you or if it will always be located in the same place. If you don’t need to be able to move it the iMac will be a good option, but if you will be carrying it to and from work or university then it has to be a laptop.

There are benefits to the iMac design that shouldn’t be ignored though. The MacBook Air fits many of the same components into a very small case and there are drawbacks to this. The iMac has two fans where the MacBook Air has no fans (the Mac mini and MacBook Pro each have one fan). It’s possible that having two fans will allow the iMac to maintain cooler temperatures in processor intensive activities, and where the MacBook Air would be throttled and therefore users will see a performance slow down, the iMac should have be able to extend its capabilities and go the extra mile. This is theoretical right now as we haven’t been able to test it, but it does look like the iMac will be able to push the same components a bit further because of the improved cooling.

There are other benefits to the larger case of the iMac, such as the inclusion of a six speaker sound system, which we will discuss in the audio section below.

Price

There are three standard 24in iMac options to choose from. You can made alterations at the point of sale to increase things like RAM and storage. Here’s what’s on offer:

24in iMac:

  • M1, 8-core CPU/7-core GPU, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Retina 4.5K display, for £1,249/$1,299
  • M1, 8-core CPU/8-core GPU, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Retina 4.5K display, for £1,449/$1,499
  • M1, 8-core CPU/8-core GPU, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD, Retina 4.5K display, for £1,649/$1,699

MacBook Air:

  • M1, 8-core CPU/7-core GPU, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, for £999/$999
  • M1, 8-core CPU/8-core GPU, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD, for £1,249/$1,249

Which Mac is the best value for money?

If you were wondering which Mac offered the best value for money out of the iMac and MacBook Air the comparison above makes that pretty clear. Not only do you save £250/$300 by buying the comparative 8-core/7-core MacBook Air at the entry level, you save an astonishing £400/$450 if you choose the 512GB MacBook Air option over the equivalent 512GB iMac.

You’ll quite possibly be wondering what the iMac offers that warrants the extra expense. We’re all familiar with the benefits of a laptop – most obviously its portability – but what benefits do a desktop computer bring?

Generally desktop computers have larger and more superior components inside them – but in the case of the 24in iMac and the MacBook Air the components are – we assume – exactly the same. Apple hasn’t designed a different version of the M1 chip for the iMac. Desktops are often more upgradable than laptops, but again, in the case of the iMac this Mac is not more upgradable – in fact it’s even less upgradable than the previous generation of iMac was.

However, if you look at the disadvantages of a laptop the advantages of the desktop become a little clearer. The MacBook Air is thin and light, which is a benefit if you want the ultimate in portability, but that also means there is less room inside the case for things like cooling and speakers. Hence the MacBook Air has no fan while the iMac has two. Hence the speakers in the MacBook Air, while perfectly acceptable, are not going to compare with the six speaker sound system inside the iMac.

MacBook Air bag

The other major difference is the simple fact that the iMac has a much, much larger screen that, at 4.5K, is vastly better than that on the MacBook Air.

Below are the best deals we are seeing for the iMac and MacBook Air right now:

M1 iMac 8-core CPU/7-core GPU, RRP £1,249/$1,299

Retailer Price Delivery  

Price comparison from over 24,000 stores worldwide

M1 MacBook Air, 8-core CPU/8-core GPU, RRP £1,249/$1,299 (the £999/$999 model is highlighted at the top of the article)

Retailer Price Delivery  

Price comparison from over 24,000 stores worldwide

For more iMac deals and more MacBook Air deals see our dedicated deals articles.

Specs

So it’s possible to argue that a desktop should cost more than a laptop, but is the iMac worth up to £400/$450 more than the MacBook Air? Perhaps a deeper look at the specs will help us determine that.

Screen

We’ll start with the screen, because that is probably the most obvious difference between these two Macs – other than that one is a laptop and the other a desktop.

Both the iMac and the MacBook Air have Retina displays (with the exception of the still on sale £1,049/$1,099 21.5in iMac which doesn’t, and which recommend that you do not buy).

The MacBook Air screen measures 13.3in. The display is LED-backlit and uses IPS technology, offers 2,560 x 1,600 native resolution at 227 pixels per inch, and it supports millions of colours. It also offers 400 nits brightness, wide colour (P3) and True Tone, which is a technology that can adjust the brightness and colour to ensure that colours look correct depending on the light in your surroundings.

MacBook Air screen

The 24in iMac screen actually measures 23.5in (we’re not sure why Apple is lying about the display size when it was perfectly happy referring to the 21.5in iMac). Regardless of the minor quibble, there is no doubt that the iMac display is superior, not only because it is bigger than the MacBook Air display. It offers 4,480 x 2,520 resolution at 218 pixels per inch, supports 1 billion colours, and offers 500 nits brightness – all better than the Air. However, like the MacBook Air, the iMac also offers support for wide colour (P3) and True Tone technology.

24in imac

In contrast with the MacBook Air the iMac screen will look more vibrant thanks to the extra brightness and its support for one billion colours, a feature that was first offered by the 27in iMac in 2017, but was lacking from the 21.5in iMac until the arrival of this model.

If the extra colours and brightness are important to you then that is good reason to choose the iMac over the MacBook Air. However, if your only reason for choosing the desktop is the large screen then keep in mind that you could always plug an external monitor into your MacBook Air and have two screens. Read about How to use a second screen with a Mac. You could do exactly the same with the iMac if you think even a 24in display will feel cramped. Incidentally, the M1 Macs only support one additional display… officially – read How to connect two or more external displays to Apple Silicon M1 Macs to find out how to add more.

Processor

All the new Macs since November 2021 – and now the iPad Pro – feature Apple’s M1 Chip. The only difference is how many cores the graphics part of the system has. When it comes to the processor each Mac is identical – at least on paper.

Our processor benchmarks for the November 2020 crop of M1 Macs show that there are insignificant differences between the scores achieved in our Geekbench tests (see our MacBook Air review). We don’t expect to see a big difference when we run benchmarks on the 24in iMac, it’s feasible that we will see a slight improvement on the basis that the iMac will offer better cooling, which might mean that Apple doesn’t need to throttle it to avoid overheating, which could mean that the iMac can be pushed a little further.

Graphics

In terms of graphics things are a little different depending on whether you choose the M1 with 7-core or 8-core GPU. The more cores you have the more capable the Mac will be of intensive graphics, so if you have the need to run particularly graphics heavy apps or games, then a 8-core graphics equipped Mac will be preferable.

Both the MacBook Air and the iMac have a 8-core GPU option and naturally you may be drawn to the MacBook Air because of it’s lower price: £1,249/$1,249 for a MacBook Air with 8-core CPU/8-core GPU, and 512GB SSD, compared to £1,449/$1,499 for the iMac with 8-core CPU/8-core GPU, 256GB SSD. If you wanted to match that 512GB SSD the price rises to £1,649/$1,699. But, as we have already said, there are benefits to had thanks to the iMac’s cooling system (which the MacBook Air essentially lacks). For this reason we’d recommend the iMac if graphics capabilities are important to you – although we’d suggest that you could save money by looking at the MacBook Pro or Mac mini.

iMac graphics

RAM and Storage

All M1 Macs ship with 8GB RAM as standard and the option of upgrading to 16GB. If you think you need more than that then you will need to look at an Intel Mac – but beware that the RAM that comes with the M1 is not typical RAM.

Apple is refers to it as unified memory architecture, or UMA, and it 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.

As for storage, there are basically two choices 256GB or 512GB.

If 256GB is enough for you choose from a £999/$999 MacBook Air or a £1,249/$1,299 or £1,449/$1,499 iMac.

If you want 512GB then the options are a £1,249/$1,249 MacBook Air or a £1,649/$1,699 iMac.

It’s hard not to see these prices and conclude that the MacBook Air is better value for money. It certainly is when it comes to the storage on offer.

The only question is whether you need 512GB storage. If you use Apple’s iCloud for storage (read: How much does iCloud cost?) you might find that you don’t need so much physical storage inside your Mac.

If you do need a lot of storage then you may want to consider the limits of how much storage you can add to these different Macs. The thing is, they both offer up to 2TB – and that will cost you an additional £600/$600 regardless of which Mac you are purchasing. (The entry level iMac only offers up to 1TB storage).

Ports & Peripherals

Finally a section where the iMac trumps the MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air offers two Thunderbolt ports (which double up as USB 4 ports). The entry-level 24in iMac also offers two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, while the more expensive 24in iMac adds 2 USB 3 ports, which could be helpful if you have older peripherals. The iMacs also offer Gigabit Ethernet (although that’s a build-to-order option on the entry-level model).

iMac back

The other difference is the keyboard. The MacBook Air features a keyboard with Touch ID. Not all the 24in iMac models ship with the Magic Keyboard with Touch ID – if you buy the £1,249/$1,299 iMac is ships with a Magic Keyboard with Lock Key, but this is configurable to have the Touch ID option.

To choose the Touch ID keyboard when you purchase the entry-level iMac you need to click on Change to another keyboard, and choose Magic Keyboard with Touch ID (and which ever language applies to you). It costs an additional £50. The other iMacs ship with the Touch ID keyboard.

iMac keyboard

Touch ID allows you to unlock your Mac, sign in to apps, and pay for things using Apple Pay using your fingerprint. You can set up multiple fingerprints for various users of the Mac – so there is no danger than another user can spend your money.

Gigabit Ethernet is only offered for the iMac, but both the MacBook Air an iMac offer 802.11ax Wi‑Fi 6.

Both the MacBook Air and iMac can support one external display with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz. This is disappointing given that the 21.5in iMac used to support two 4K displays at 60Hz.

Both the MacBook Air and the iMac have a FaceTime HD camera integrated into the screen. The MacBook Air has a 720p FaceTime HD camera, while the iMac trumps that with a 1080p FaceTime HD camera with M1 image signal processor.

Verdict

Every time we look at how the 24in iMac compares to another Mac we are struck by how badly the iMac competes. Apple’s desktop offers practically identical specs, but it is considerably more expensive. While we appreciate the benefits of a desktop and the 4.5K display, it’s hard to recommend it when it costs so much more. It would have been easier to defend the iMac if Apple had given it an M1X chip, then at least we could have expected a power boost. But as it stands, the iMac is too expensive when you can get the same specs in portable form.

Specs





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