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.
Current Mac models and their prices
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.
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 $499 entry level model sports a dual-core 1.4 GHz Intel fourth-generation core processor, and it comes with a 500 GB SATA hard disk drive and 4 GB of RAM. The $599 mid-range model features a 2.6 GHz fourth-gen Intel processor, 8 GB RAM, 1 TB hard drive and faster graphics. A $999 model steps up the speed to 2.8 GHz, with 8 GB RAM and a 1 TB Fusion Drive.
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 $1,099. For that you get a 1.4 GHz dual-core Core i5 processor and 500 GB hard drive. $1299 gets you a 2.7 GHz quad-core processor and twice the storage; 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. There's also the gorgeous 5K iMac, which starts at $1,999.
Up until 2013, 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 completely reinvented the Mac Pro.
The Mac Pro is available in two basic 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. You can add up to a 12-core processor and faster graphics, too.
All new Macs include OS X 10.10 "Yosemite" preinstalled. New Macs also get free iLife and iWork apps.
Entry level vs. going all-in: How much can you do with a Mac mini?
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 Mac mini features many of the same components used in Apple's 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro.
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.
The Mac mini sports 802.11ac wireless network speeds as well as a single Gigabit Ethernet port, included for fast hard-wired connections (just like all Mac desktop models). 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 two Thunderbolt 2 ports, suitable 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. It can even do 4K display through that HDMI port, though you'll be relegated to slower 24 Hz or 30 Hz speeds (great for movies, but don't expect to be gaming in 4K on the Mac mini).
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 no longer offers the Mac mini with OS X Server pre-installed, but it's a $19.99 download from the Mac App Store. The $999 Mac mini model is well suited to be a server for e-mail to web pages, media content and more.
All Mac minis are limited to dual-core processors only, with integrated graphics (HD 5000 on the low end model, Iris on the mid-range and high-end model). Don't expect any of these systems to be cutting-edge game machines, graphic design workhorses or digital video editing workstations. But they'll get the job done for a low price. If you're looking for more, there's the iMac.
All-in-one vs. all in parts: What's the iMac advantage?
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, most 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 non-5K 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 except for the cheapest $1099 model - 8 GB RAM, 1 TB hard drive (the low-end model sports a 500 GB hard drive instead). 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 $1,099 and $1,299 models incorporate discrete graphics processors, for better performance for gaming, graphics applications, video editing and more.
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.
Apple's newest 27-inch iMac is the first desktop Retina model. The Retina iMac comes equipped with a stunning 5K display capable of 5120 x 2880 resolution. It's available in two configurations, for $1,999 and $2,499 respectively. Inside is a either a 3.3 or 3.5 GHz quad-core i5 processor and 8 GB RAM. The lower-end 5K model sports a 1 TB hard drive and AMD Radeon R9 M290 graphics. The higher-end 5K model features AMD Radeon R9 M290X graphics and a 1 TB Fusion Drive. If you're into digital content creation, working with 4K source media like movies or videos, or just want the cream of the crop, look no further than the new 5K iMac.
But if you want fast fast, let's have a look at the Mac Pro.
Practicality vs. power: Is the Mac Pro worth the money?
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 accommodate 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.
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.
Who should get a Mac mini?
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.
Apple's 2014 refresh for the Mac mini didn't change it physically but did bring the little machine in line with changes we've seen propagated throughout the rest of the Mac line since 2013. That makes it a safe buy again, and a better value than ever with a system now priced at $499.
Who should get an iMac?
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.
The 5K iMac is an amazing machine for digital content creation, video editing and all around use. Obviously that technology comes with a pricing premium, but it's a unique Mac in Apple's lineup and well worth the price if it fits your needs.
Who should get a Mac Pro?
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.
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