Mac buyers guide: How to choose the best new Mac desktop - the small but powerful Mac mini, the elegant all-in-one iMac, or the new Mac superpower, the Mac Pro
Not everyone needs or wants the portability a Mac laptop has to offer. For everyone else, Apple makes desktop models, ranging in price from Apple's cheapest system to its most expensive. They run a wide gamut of performance and ability, so let's take a look and see what might be best for you.
The Mac desktop line is split into three categories. On the low end there's the Mac mini, a tiny, unassuming desktop computer. Next there's the gorgeous iMac, an all-in-one system than integrates the entire computer into the display. And at the high end, there's the Mac Pro - this diminutive black turbine isn't out yet as we posted this comparison, but it's worth bringing up because despite its small stature, it looms large on the horizon for its coming impact on the Mac market.
The Mac mini occupies the entry level of Mac desktop computers. It's the least expensive way to get a Mac. Both models are exactly the same size and weight - less than eight inches on a side, less than an inch and a half tall, and less than three pounds in weight.
The $599 entry level model sports a dual-core 2.5 GHz Intel Ivy Bridge processor is the CPU, and it comes with a 500 GB SATA hard disk drive and 4 GB of RAM.
The higher end machine, which costs $200 more, incorporates a 2.3 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, like what you might find on last year's 15-inch MacBook Pro (sans Retina display). Storage capacity is doubled to 1 TB.
There's also a server system - it comes equipped with OS X Server and squeezes in a second 1TB hard disk drive, for a total of 2 TB of storage. It costs $999.
The iMac is the next step up. The iMac comes in two variants - a 21.5-inch model and a 27-inch model. The 21.5-inch model starts at $1,299, and comes equipped with a 2.7 GHz quad-core processor; a faster 2.9 GHz model costs $1,499. The 27-inch iMac is priced at $1,799 for a 3.2 GHz version, and a 3.4 GHz version costs $200 more.
The Mac Pro is coming in December. Up until earlier this year, the Mac Pro was a cyclopean aluminum tower with a cheese grater front, an exterior industrial design that dated back almost a decade, to the PowerPC era and the Power Mac G5. But Apple's completely reinvented the Mac Pro for 2013.
The new Mac Pro will be available in two configurations - a quad-core system clocked at 3.7 GHz, equipped with 12 GB of RAM and 256 GB of flash storage for $2,999. Another $1,000 will net you a 3.5 GHz six-core system equipped with 16 GB RAM and 256 GB flash storage.
All new Macs include OS X 10.9 "Mavericks" preinstalled. New Macs also get free iLife '13 and iWork '13 apps.
Outwardly the Mac mini is almost laughably small. In another time, it'd be confused for Apple's first-generation Apple TV. But inside beats the heart of a champion - the $599 entry model is very similar in spec to a 13-inch MacBook Pro (without Retina display) - a 2.5 GHz Intel Core i5 processor - last year's Ivy Bridge variety (the Mac mini has yet to be upgraded to the new "Haswell" processors found in current MacBook Airs, MacBook Pros with Retina display and iMacs).
One of the Mac mini's raisons d'être was to provide a gateway for PC users interested in the Mac to make an inexpensive foray onto the platform. To that end, the Mac mini ships with no display, no keyboard and no mouse. But if you're using a desktop PC and you already have those things, plugging them in is all you should need to do to get them to work. Macs, including the Mac mini, have long shipped with software that will recognize PC keyboards; mice are, for the most part, universal and driver-independent; and displays will work with the Mac mini as long as you have the right kind of adapter cable.
The Mac mini led the way when Apple began to excise internal optical drives from its system; if you need to load or burn a CD or DVD, you'll need one of Apple's external SuperDrives (a third-party CD/DVD burner will work fine, too). That's one of the reasons why the Mac mini rises less than an inch and a half from the table. But don't let that deceive you. On the Mac mini's backplane is an array of expansion ports that provide you with a lot of flexibility. There's also a bottom panel that is removed by twisting a few degrees in one direction - that reveals two RAM sockets which you can upgrade with more high-density RAM if you find that the 4 GB included is insufficient for your needs.
The Mac mini's older design relegates it to 802.11n wireless network speeds, but Gigabit Ethernet is included for fast hard-wired connections (just like all Mac desktop models). FireWire 800 and four USB 3 ports are included, along with an SDXC card slot for retrieving photos and video from a digital camera. There are digital/analog audio input and output ports. There's also a Thunderbolt port for connecting to an external display or a fast external hard drive RAID. With the right adapter from Apple, that Thunderbolt port will work with just about any monitor - DVI, VGA, and so on.
The Mac mini also incorporates HDMI, so you can connect it to a flat panel HDTV (or a computer monitor that supports HDMI input). That, combined with a front-facing IR receiver, make the Mac mini ideal for use in the living room, if you're looking for a Mac-based home media server.
After Apple discontinued its rack-mount Xserve server, the Mac mini found new life in corporate workgroups and small to medium-sized businesses as a server. Apple's been offering the Mac mini with OS X Server pre-installed since Snow Leopard was current, and continues to sell boatloads of them to organizations looking for inexpensive systems to serve up everything from e-mail to web pages, media content and more.
The quad-core 2.3 GHz Core i7 processor on the higher-end mini is comparable to Apple's entry-level 15-inch MacBook Pro from 2012. While the relative clock speed is slower than the less expensive mini, the quad-core processor makes a difference when you're working with software that's optimized for multiple cores. That includes a lot of graphics software and software that relies on digital processing.
Having said that, all Mac minis are encumbered with Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics, which are slow - don't expect any of these systems to be cutting-edge game machines, graphic design workhorses or digital video editing workstations.
For that, there's the iMac.
How the iMac has changed since its 1998 debut, when a 15-inch CRT inside a Bondi Blue-colored translucent plastic case would change Apple's fortunes. Over the years it's changed dress many times, and the iMac has transformed from a workhorse aimed at families getting on the Internet for the first time to one of Apple's most powerful systems - a computer that's as likely to be found in a professional digital video editing bay as it is in a family room.
When you take a look at the iMac's specs, it's easy to understand why. All iMacs (in their stock configuration) use differently-clocked quad-core i5 chips, and this past fall they were updated with Intel's "Haswell" microprocessor. Much of Haswell's design benefits are more specific to laptop computers, because of improved power efficiency. But Apple used the refresh opportunity to spruce up storage options and wireless networking - all iMacs now support 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which works up to three times faster than 802.11n.
For external expandability, all iMacs sport Gigabit Ethernet, two Thunderbolt ports (the original, not the faster Thunderbolt 2 found on newer MacBook Pros with Retina Display and the Mac Pro), four USB 3.0 jacks, SDXC card slot and headphone jack.
Also, if you happen to have a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro with a Thunderbolt port on it, you can double the iMac as a display for that laptop. The iMac supports a special operating mode called "Target Display Mode." If you consider that Apple's 27-inch Thunderbolt Display is $999, it's like getting one of those with a built-in fast-as-blazes Mac for an extra $800.
For memory and storage, all iMacs come equipped the same - 8 GB RAM, 1 TB hard drive. One important difference between the 21.5-inch and 27-inch models: The 27-inch iMac sports easily user-upgradable RAM thanks to door on the back that unscrews. The 21.5-inch iMac requires a complete disassembly to upgrade - and that's a daunting proposition even for an Apple-trained technician. You can custom order your 21.5-inch iMac with up to 16 GB RAM if you want, just be aware that doing the upgrade yourself after the fact is a hellacious project that may void your warranty.
Beyond customizing RAM on the 21.5-inch iMac, you can also customize storage options, replacing your 1 TB SATA drive with a 1 TB Fusion Drive or PCI Express (PCIe)-based flash storage. Fusion Drive is an interesting option - it's something that's been offered on the iMac since its last major redesign in 2012. Fusion Drive combines a 1TB hard drive with 128 GB of flash storage; the Mac sees them both together as one single storage device.
On Fusion Drive, frequently used files are kept on flash, while stuff that's only touched occasionally stays on the hard drive. Pure flash storage yields the best performance, but it's expensive. Fusion Drive offers better performance than a regular hard drive, but still offers gobs of space.
All iMacs except the entry $1,299 model incorporate discrete graphics processors, for better performance for gaming, graphics applications, video editing and more. But even the entry model is no slouch - it uses Iris Pro graphics. While Intel integrated graphics processors haven't been much to write home about in the past, Iris Pro is a bit of a different situation.
Iris Pro, introduced on higher-end Haswell processors, incorporates 128 MB of embedded RAM (eDRAM) that helps to reduce bottlenecking issues associated with integrated graphics processors. The net result is that the base-model 21.5-inch iMac distinctly outperforms its discrete processor-equipped predecessor.
Besides user-accessible RAM, the 27-inch Macs have more real estate inside, so you can customize them with up to 3 TB of internal storage (regular SATA hard drive or Fusion Drive) or 1 TB of flash storage; you can also equip them with up to 32 GB of RAM. The higher-end 21.5 and 27-inch iMacs can be configured with even faster processors, and the high-end 27-inch can also be configured with a faster graphics processor. A murdered-out 27-inch iMac, fully loaded with fastest CPU, graphics, gobs of RAM and flash storage tips the scale at $3,949. Sure, it's a lot of money. But it's also ferociously fast.
But if you want fast fast, let's have a look at the Mac Pro.
Let's get one thing out of the way: the Mac Pro is not for everyone. This is a niche machine aimed at content creators in professional video editing, graphic design, music and more - people who are looking for maximum, no compromises performance to get stuff done. Scientists, too. This isn't designed to compete with a high-end gaming PC, for example. This is workstation-class hardware.
The Mac Pro's peculiar cylindrical design has been likened to an office trash can. That mistake is easy to make when you're looking at pictures, but in real life, it's different: the Mac Pro is less than 10 inches tall. It's tiny for its astonishing performance. And in this case, form follows function - the very shape of the Mac Pro has been designed like a jet turbine, to whisk away hot air from the very powerful internal circuitry, which has been arranged around a unified thermal core, with a specially designed fan at the top that makes the Mac Pro much quieter than its predecessor.
Inside the Mac Pro, Apple has used Intel's latest Xeon processor. Xeon is aimed at workstation and server applications, with boosted levels of internal cache and enhanced multiprocessing capabilities.
Apple's focus on optimizing the Mac Pro as a workstation-class computer continues to the graphics, where Apple has opted for AMD's FirePro GPUs. These processor aren't like Radeon GPUs you might find for sale from your favorite PC game hardware outfit. They're designed for optimal performance in high-stress environments for video cards to work in, like 3D rendering, for example. And they are parallel-processing monsters. Application software that's optimized for OpenCL, a core OS X technology and an open standard, will see huge benefits, which makes the Mac Pro ideal as a system designed for massive computational work, as is being done in science and research. Also for other applications that are driven by parallel processing, like video effects rendering.
The Mac Pro eschews conventional hard disk drive technology altogether for PCIe-based flash storage. That means that the new Mac Pro isn't nearly as internally expandable as last year's model - you could cram a combined 16 TB of hard drive storage into the old one; this one tops out at 1 TB. But that 1 TB is terrifically fast. And RAM is expandable at present to 64 GB of 1866 MHz DDR Error Correcting Code (ECC) memory.
Despite the relative dearth of internal expansion options, the Mac Pro is Apple's most expandable Mac on the outside. Four USB 3.0 ports and dual Gigabit Ethernet ports are only the start - there's also six Thunderbolt 2 ports. Thunderbolt 2 has twice the bandwidth of the original Thunderbolt. That means the Mac Pro can simultaneously accomodate RAID, Storage Area Network (SAN) systems, exotic network interfaces like Fibre Channel and up to three 4K displays - making this a terrific companion for professional film editing.
What's more, Mavericks has introduced a new network interface called "Thunderbolt Bridge," which I expect we'll hear more about for use with the Mac Pro - this is a direct network connection that uses Thunderbolt cables. You can only imagine what an array of Mac Pros, networked together with Thunderbolt cables and Thunderbolt Bridge, will be able to do with the right parallel processing software. It's a distributing computing dream.
There's also an HDMI 1.4 "UltraHD"-compliant interface for hooking up a 4K television. And just like Apple's other new machines, there's also 802.11ac Wi-Fi networking under the hood, so even if you're not hard-wiring this beast to your network, you'll see some smoking wireless networking speed.
The Mac mini is an ideal first Mac for someone just switching over to the Mac platform, who's anxious to get their feet wet but may be held back by the perception of the Mac as an expensive computer. It's great if you're on a budget, especially if you have a display, keyboard and mouse from another computer - Mac or PC - that you can recycle.
It's a terrific home computer - I have three kids, and I was able to get each of their own. They use them for talking online with friends, playing games, doing schoolwork and working on projects - everything from science reports to multimedia presentations.
What's more, the Mac mini is a great small workgroup server in a corporate environment, or for small to medium sized businesses that want to take e-mail, web service, file sharing and other capabilities in house rather than paying for an external option or cloud service.
Having said all that, the Mac mini is getting long in the tooth - it's squarely last year's technology, working with slower Wi-Fi and pokier graphics. If Apple's history with the Mac mini is any indication, it should get a refresh in the next few months, with Haswell processors and other refinements, to keep it in check with every other consumer Mac. So if you need a Mac mini today, get one - but if you can wait a bit, your patience may be well-rewarded.
The iMac is an elegant workstation that's equally versatile in the home or office. Many iMacs perform double duty as a personal computer and as a movie or video viewing system for a bedroom or den, in place of a television. It's a gorgeous machine that's well balanced to do a little bit of everything - from running office productivity software to the latest games.
But there's a lot of power under the hood. The iMac's beefy processor and great graphics make it an ideal content creation workstation, suitable for everything from magazine page layout to music creation, video editing and effects rendering, and more.
I do have some misgivings about the 21.5-inch model's lack of user-accessible RAM - putting more RAM in a computer can help extend its useful life and will enable particularly aggressive apps to run faster. Having said that, 8 GB is more than enough overhead for now.
Time is money. And the Mac Pro is optimized to save you time. If you're in an endeavor where you are sitting around waiting for your computer to do something - whether it's color-correcting an hour of high-definition video or calculating genetic variance - the Mac Pro may be a good system for you to own.
Of course, that presumes that you can wait for one. The Mac Pro isn't expected to ship until December, and Apple isn't yet taking pre-orders. But we can look at the spec pages and drool.
Hopefully I've given you some food for thought. But if you remain unconvinced about which Mac desktop model is right for you, please visit our Apple desktops discussion forums, and continue the discussion right here in our comments. We have an amazing online community that you should be a part of.
Any decision you make will yield you a great Mac that's flexible for doing a lot of things. Let your heart and your wallet guide your decision, and rest easy that whatever you decide, you've got an excellent new computer.