Retina iMac, Mac mini, or Mac Pro — Which Apple desktop is right for you?
Updated April 2017: Updated to reflect the details and specs of Apple's current Mac desktop line.
Though Apple's Mac line is more limited than, say, its iPhone line, there is still a lot to think about before investing in your next (or first) desktop computer, like what screen size iMac should you get, or should you invest in the most powerful Mac mini processor, or should you just go all in and spend the big bucks on the Mac Pro? It's a big decision to make, and that's why you're reading this buyers guide — to find out which desktop Mac is right for you.
The Mac mini
Last refresh: October 2014 - WAIT
Unless you absolutely need a Mac mini for your home, school, or business, we recommend waiting until Christmas 2017 in the event of a summer or fall update.
The Mac mini is Apple's least expensive desktop computer, and that's because it's basically just the aging guts of a Mac stuffed into a 7.7-inch box. It was last updated in October of 2014 — two and a half years ago — and isn't the fastest of the bunch, but it still provides a lot of flexibility for those looking for a low-cost Mac box. It is far from the most powerful Mac in the desktop line — it has similar specs to the 2015 MacBook Pro — but it's got it where it counts.
That's right, box: Unlike the iMac, the mini needs to be connected to an external display, keyboard, and mouse in order to work. On the plus side, you can customize pretty much every aspect, in part because — in addition to its four USB 3 ports — you can daisy-chain up to six peripherals to a single Thunderbolt 2 port (and there are two of them). It also has an HDMI port, and believe it or not, a built-in SDXC card slot. So, your display, speaker, keyboard, mouse, and hard drive options are practically unlimited.
It starts at just $499 for the baseline low-end model. The midrange Mac mini starts at $699, and the high-end, fastest processor Mac mini starts at $999. All three models are configurable with more memory and storage, and the mid and high end models are configurable with faster processors.
The dual-core processor starts at 1.4GHz and can be upgraded to as much as a 3.0GHz Intel Core i7 processor. You can start small with 300GB of hard drive storage, or shoot for the moon with as much as a 2TB Fusion drive. The low-end model sports 4GB of memory, but the high-end model expands to as much as 16GB. The graphics range from HD 5000 for the low end and Iris for the rest. You're not going to get an advanced gaming machine, or a dedicated movie and music editor out of the Mac mini, but it is still a powerful computer for a very low price.
The Mac mini can support two 2560 x 1600 pixel displays at one time. It connects to Thunderbolt digital video output or HDMI 1080p resolution output. It also has a minijack digital/analog audio-in port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. With the right adapters, you can connect it to just about any screen
The Mac mini is great for anyone switch from PC that already has a display, keyboard, and mouse that they love. It's an inexpensive way to switch to Apple, while still keeping your current peripherals.
It's also ideal for use as a home media server that you can connect directly to your television set. Thanks to the mobility of the Mac mini and it's plethora of supported connections, it can be plugged into practically any display and used for offices, classrooms, and other places where the guts of the computer needs to be movable.
If you want the level of power you can get in a MacBook Pro as a desktop computer, and already have all of the accessories you need to get to work, the Mac mini is a low-cost investment. It's also a great computing device for small businesses looking for an in-house server.
If you need something with more power, and either don't already own a separate keyboard, mouse, and display, you should take a look at the iMac or Mac Pro line.
Last refresh: October 2015 - WAIT
Apple announced in April 2017 that the company would have new iMacs available later this year; we recommend waiting for the refresh if you can.
The iMac is Apple's all-in-one computer — literally. The iMac's processor, GPU, and other internals are hidden behind its display, giving it a remarkably thin (5mm at its edge) appearance for having so much tucked inside. It also comes with a Bluetooth-connected Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse 2 (though you can swap to the Magic Trackpad 2 if you choose) to let you start working right out of the box.
It comes in two sizes and three models — the 21.5-inch with 1920 x 1080 sRGB display (primarily for education), 21.5-inch with Retina 4K display, and 27-inch with Retina 5K display. All sizes and resolutions support millions of colors, but the 4K and 5K Retina displays are exponentially better than the standard resolution display.
The standard resolution iMac sports a 1.6GHz dual-core i5 processor and can be upgraded to a 2.8 quad-core processor, while the the 21.5-inch 4K iMac starts off with a 3.1GHZ quad-core processor and can be configurable to a 3.3GHz quad-core i7 processor. The 27-inch 5K iMac starts with a 3.2 or 3.3GHz quad-core i5 processor and can be configurable to a 4.0GHz quad-core i7 processor. You can get pretty powerful with the iMac line if you're willing to spend a little extra on more processing power.
The iMac comes stock with 8GB of onboard memory and is configurable up to 16GB for the 21.5-inch or 32GB for the 27-inch model. It also starts with 1TB of hard drive storage and can be configurable up to a 3TB Fusion drive, depending on the size. It's important to point out that the 27-inch iMac has a removable panel that allows you to upgrade RAM on your own (which is remarkably easy to do), but the 21.5-inch model does not. It would take a lot more work, and possible a professional technician, to upgrade the RAM on the smaller iMac. If you know, beyond a doubt, that you've chosen the right amount of RAM for your computing needs for now and the life of your iMac, the 21.5-inch model is fine, but if you think there is a chance you'll want to invest in more RAM someday (and don't want to pay for it right now), the 27-inch model is worth the extra investment.
The standard resolution 21.5-inch iMac is outfitted with standard graphics of HD 6000, while the Retina 4K model has a slightly better bump at Iris Pro 6200. The 27-inch model, on the other hand, starts out with the AMD Radeon r9 M380 graphics processor with 2GB of GDDR5 memory and can be upgraded and configured to as high of graphics as the AMD Radeon R9 M395X with 4GB of GDDR5 memory. As far as graphics go, you won't be able to go top-of-the-line as far as hardcore gaming is concerned, but you can max out your iMac with a powerful movie and music editing device that is an industry standard for many film makers and recording engineers.
If you want your desktop to be a part of the Apple ecosystem, but don't have a lot of money to spend, you can still get a lot out of the 21.5-inch standard resolution iMac. It's definitely an entry level model, though, and will likely be obsolete long before its usefulness is.
If you are on a budget, but want the most out of your desktop iMac, the 21.5-inch 4K Retina model is a great baseline choice. It's powerful and speedy and has a mid-range price that you can conceivable save up for. The screen real estate is big enough for most and you can spend a little more to supe it up. If you work on your desktop most of your day, especially if it's your main working device, the 21.5-inch 4K Retina display iMac is your pic. Keep in mind that you'll have to pick your RAM needs when you buy, and you'll be stuck with that choice or the life of your iMac.
If you work in an industry that is graphics heavy, if you need speed and efficiency, if you need a lot of screen real estate, you're looking at a 27-inch 5K Retina display iMac. It's the most powerful in the line, and also the most future proof. Not only do you have the most advanced display, you can also upgrade your RAM yourself at any time. Even the baseline 27-inch iMac is a smart investment if you work with visual arts in any capacity.
If you still need something with more power, we're talking rendering power, the kind of power that can match scientific computing, video encoding, and file compression, then you should set your sights on the Mac Pro.
The Mac Pro
Last refresh: April 2017 - BUY
While most people should wait while Apple finishes up the new modular version of the Mac Pro before buying a new pro Mac, if you have to buy now, the newly speed-bumped Mac Pro offers a nice discount off its original 2013 configuration.
Let's start here: The Mac Pro line is not for everyone. To start, it's a niche machine aimed at content creators in professional video editing, graphic design, music and more. Couple that with the fact that the current Pro was launched in 2013 and has only seen a minor speed bump in the years since, and, well... it's not a machine that I'd currently recommend to most users. That said, there are still folks who the current Mac Pro might have appeal, and it's for those that we write this guide.
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. Given its astonishing performance, it's downright tiny. And in this case, form follows function: The very shape of the Mac Pro has been designed to mimic a jet turbine, whisking away hot air from the very powerful internal circuitry.
Inside the Mac Pro, Apple has used Intel's Xeon processor, designed for workstation and server applications, with boosted levels of internal cache and enhanced multiprocessing capabilities, and AMD's Dual FirePro GPUs. These processrs aren't the GPUs you might find at your favorite PC game hardware outfit: They're designed for optimal performance in high-stress environments for video cards to work in — 3D rendering, for example. AMD's chips are optimized for OpenCL — a core Mac technology and an open standard —so any application driven by that process will fly on these chips. (Unfortunately, the Mac Pro doesn't support Intel's CUDA technology.)
The Mac Pro eschews conventional hard disk drive technology altogether for PCIe-based flash storage. That means that the Mac Pro is not very expandable: It 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. 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 (as long as you're still using USB 3 and Thunderbolt 2 peripherals).
- If you are a full-time movie or music editor, if you render large amounts of graphics on a regular basis, or if you are working with 3D content development, then you are the pro-ist of pros and you will be right at home with a Mac Pro.
Still thinking about it?
If you're still not sure which Mac desktop is right for you, get some advice from the iMore community in the Mac desktop forums. Our readers can be fantastic sound boards for your thought process and offer suggestions to help tip you in the right direction.