Mac mini vs. iMac vs. Mac Pro: Which Apple desktop should you get?

With the introduction of the iMac Pro, Apple now has more Mac desktops in its lineup than ever before. Whether you're looking for a base-level headless Mac, a basic-to-midrange all-in-one, or some pro-level power, there are some solid options here.

Which should you buy for your needs? Here's our breakdown.

The Mac mini

Mac mini

Last refresh: October 2014 - WAIT

Unless you absolutely need a Mac mini for your home, school, or business, we recommend waiting until 2018.

The Mac mini is Apple's least expensive desktop computer — an aging Mac's guts stuffed into a 7.7-inch box. It was last updated in October 2014, over three years ago; it's far from being a competitor in the desktop landscape, but it still provides a lot of flexibility for those looking for a low-cost Mac box.

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 old-school 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.

The Mac mini starts at just $499 for the baseline low-end model; the midrange model hits $699, while the high-end, fastest processor 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 won't get an advanced gaming machine or a dedicated movie and music editor out of the Mac mini, but it's still a serviceable desktop computer for a reasonable price. It's a great machine for anyone switching from PC who already has a display, keyboard, and mouse that they love; it's also ideal for use as a home media server, or a basic computing device for small businesses looking for an in-house server.

If you don't mind owning a machine with aging internals and already have all of the accessories you need to get to work, the Mac mini is a great low-cost investment.

If you need something with more power, or you need a computer with a display and peripherals, you should instead take a look at the iMac, iMac Pro, or Mac Pro line.

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The iMac

Last refresh: June 2017 - BUY

The most recent update to the iMac line brings Kaby Lake, faster SSD options, and Thunderbolt 3 to the lineup.

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.

The iMac comes in two sizes and three models:

  • the 21.5-inch with 1920 x 1080 sRGB display (primarily for education)
  • the 21.5-inch with 4096 x 2304 Retina 4K P3 color display
  • the 27-inch with 5120 x 2880 Retina 5K P3 display

All sizes and resolutions support millions of colors; additionally, the 5K Retina display supports an even billion colors, and both the 4K and 5K displays a 500-nit brightness rating.

Pricing starts at just $1099 for the base model, though costs can exceed $5200 if you go for a fully-loaded 27-inch 5K model. Each model of iMac differs slightly in processor power, memory, and speed:

  • The standard resolution iMac sports a 2.3GHz dual-core i5 processor, with 8GB (upgradeable to 16) of memory and a 1TB hard drive (upgradeable to a 1TB Fusion Drive or 256SSD).
  • The 21.5-inch 4K model starts at a 3.1Ghz quad-core i5 (upgradeable to a 3.6Ghz i7), with 8GB (upgradeable to 32) of memory and a 1TB Fusion Drive (upgradeable to a 256GB-1TB SSD).
  • The 27-inch 5K model starts at a 3.4Ghz quad-core i5 (upgradeable to a 4.2Ghz quad-core i7), with 8GB (up to 64GB) of memory and a 1TB Fusion Drive (upgradeable to a 2 or 3TB Fusion drive, or up to a 2TB SSD).

Additionally, their graphics cards differ:

  • The base model ships with an integrated Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 card.
  • The 21.5-inch 4K model ships with either a Radeon Pro 555 card with 2GB video memory, or a Radeon Pro 560 with 4GB video memory at a $200 premium.
  • The 27-inch 5K model ships with a Radeon Pro 570 card with 4GB video memory standard; additionally, you can upgrade to a Radeon Pro 575 with 4GB video memory or Radeon Pro 580 with 8GB video memory for $200 and $500, respectively. 
While the iMac still lags behind others as a top-notch gaming device, you can do quite a lot with the machine. The top-end 5K model with the Radeon Pro 580 is also VR-compatible, if you're considering integrating VR into your household.

The iMac is truly Apple's Swiss army knife of computers: With an all-in-one shell, it can fit in almost any environment where users don't already have external peripherals.

Its base model is great for educators and household tasks, while the 4K model provides an excellent mid-size screen and horsepower for basic video editing, day-to-day work, and gaming. If your needs exceed these tasks, the 5K iMac provides a huge jump up in parallel processing power and graphics, offering VR-ready performance and room to process video, photography, and basic software development.

But even the 5K model may not be enough for you: If you work in an industry that requires heavy-duty rendering power and simultaneous processing, you may want to set your sights on the iMac Pro or Mac Pro.

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The iMac Pro

Last refresh: December 2017 - BUY

If the iMac is a Swiss army knife, the iMac Pro is a high-end chef's instrument. It serves one primary purpose: To utterly destroy any and all multithreaded tasks and rendering thrown its way.

The iMac Pro is not a computer for your average user. Though its space gray sheen may attract those who otherwise don't need the machine, its $4999 starting price tag should ward off most idle interest.

That price is out of the ordinary for an iMac, and for good reason: This iMac is packed full of hardware to make video editing, photography, VFX, software development, gaming, and base VR development, as easy as possible.

Depending on your needs (and budget), the iMac Pro offers several processor configurations:

  • A 3.2Ghz (Turbo Boost up to 4.2Ghz) 8-core Intel Xeon W (the base model)
  • A 3.0Ghz (Turbo Boost up to 4.5Ghz) 10-core Intel Xeon W (the optimal middle ground for both single and multithreaded processes)
  • A 2.5Ghz (Turbo Boost up to 4.3Ghz) 14-core Intel Xeon W (super-charged version of the 10-core)
  • A 2.3Ghz (Turbo Boost up to 4.3Ghz) 18-core Intel Xeon W (the best machine for multithreaded processes)

There are also two distinct graphics platforms built into the machine:

  • The Radeon Pro Vega 56 with 8GB of HBM2 memory (great for software development)
  • The Radeon Pro Vega 64 with 16GB of HBM2 memory (great for VR and VR development, and other graphics-intensive processes)

It's also worth noting that you'll be able to hook up multiple external GPUs to the iMac Pro if you so choose, which means doubling (or tripling) your graphics processing power.

You can also get a truly ridiculous amount of on-board memory and solid-state storage: Memory ranges from 32GB to 128GB, and you can pay an additional $2800 to upgrade your 1TB hard drive to 4TB. These configurations are installed when you purchase the machine, and can only be changed by Apple itself or its authorized service providers.

Who should get the iMac Pro? Those who truly need it: Graphics pros, video editors, VR gamers who want a higher-end Mac than the highest-end iMac without having to pay for an external GPU, software developers, and the like.

You shouldn't get an iMac Pro if you're just coveting the space gray color or the prospect of that raw power — chances are, unless you work in an industry that requires its processing power, you won't nearly put it through its paces.

You also shouldn't get an iMac Pro if you're coveting a non-all-in-one solution. While the iMac Pro can hook up to multiple external displays, RAID systems, and eGPUs, it ultimately relies on external accessories to augment its performance; if you want a computer that you can upgrade yourself, you might want to consider the upcoming Mac Pro instead.

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The Mac Pro

The Mac Pro

Last refresh: April 2017 - WAIT

While most people should wait while Apple finishes up the new modular version of the Mac Pro before buying a headless pro Mac, if you don't want to consider the iMac Pro, the newly speed-bumped Mac Pro offers a nice discount off its original 2013 configuration.

Let's start here: The current Mac Pro line is not for everyone, and the upcoming 2018-2019 Mac Pro won't be for everyone, either.

Currently, Apple offers the Mac Pro as 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, nor High Sierra's support for external GPUs.)

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 can still be expandable... on the outside. Four USB 3.0 ports and dual Gigabit Ethernet ports are only the start - there are 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 5K displays — making this a decent companion for professional film editing (as long as you're still using USB 3 and Thunderbolt 2 peripherals).

If the iMac Pro doesn't appeal to you and you absolutely need a new pro-level Mac, you might want to consider this Mac Pro; for most professionals, however, I'd recommend waiting for Apple's new iteration of the machine.

See at Apple

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.

Updated December 2017: Updated to reflect the details and specs of Apple's current Mac desktop line.

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