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 miniSource: iMore

The Mac mini is Apple's least expensive desktop computer and remained so even after a price hike with its latest refresh in 2018. Now a more capable competitor in the desktop landscape, the Mac mini is a great option for those that don't mind bringing their own monitor. It might just be the best Mac desktop for everyday users while remaining a great option for a variety of pros.

Unlike the iMac, the Mac mini doesn't come with a monitor. In fact, it doesn't come with anything other than a power cord. Still as small as it's ever been, the Mac mini needs you to bring the monitor, keyboard, and mouse or trackpad into the equation. Part of the reason for this is cost: Apple doesn't include anything else to keep the base price as low as it is. But it's also about convenience and cutting down on waste. The Mac mini can be (and is built to be able to be) used as a server, connected to multiple Mac minis in a server farm. Where other Apple desktops come with a keyboard and mouse automatically, Apple knows that a lot of Mac minis are just going into a server setup, so it's best not to bother.

The Mac mini starts at $799 for the baseline low-end model with a quad-core 3.6GHz eighth-generation Intel processor. It can be configured with a six-core 3.2GHz eighth-generation Intel processor, 64GB of RAM, 2TB of storage, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet for $3,199.

Storage is all solid-state and very fast. While you can't upgrade the internal storage after you order, you can upgrade the memory on your own through a fairly simple process. Starting with 8GB of RAM, you can swap it out later for up to 64GB.

With an up to six-core processor, the Mac mini is more powerful and capable than ever for a wide variety of tasks. From music and video production to photo editing, it's a great little machine for amateurs, as well as professionals who don't need an incredibly powerful rig. Because it features four Thunderbolt 3 ports, you can expand the Mac mini to meet your needs, including adding an external GPU for faster graphics processing on those applications that take advantage of Apple's Metal graphics architecture. You can also take advantage of its Ethernet port, either 1Gbit or 10Gbit, for fast wired networking and data transfer, particularly when set up as part of a server farm. HDMI 2.0 can output at 4K at faster frame rates, perfect for anyone looking to use the Mac mini as a home theater PC.

While not as cheap as it used to be, the Mac mini is still a great low-cost investment for many people, especially those looking for an HTPC or just a general-purpose desktop computer. 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.

Mini but mighty

Mac mini

Apple's most affordable Mac.

The tiny Mac mini was essentially reintroduced to the world in 2018. The Mac mini's powerful expansion options, from four Thunderbolt 3 ports to the option for up to 10Gbit Ethernet, mean that it's ready for almost anything you might throw at it, whether you're using it as your everyday desktop or stacking several together to build a server farm.

The iMac

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 $1,099 for the base model, though costs can exceed $4,800 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 3.6Ghz quad-core i3 (upgradeable to a 3.2Ghz six-core i7), with 8GB (upgradeable to 32GB) of memory and a 1TB hard drive (upgradeable to a 1TB Fusion Drive or 256GB-1TB SSD).
  • The 27-inch 5K model starts at a 3.0Ghz six-core i5 (upgradeable to a 3.6Ghz eight-core i9), 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 555X card with 2GB video memory, or a Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB video memory at a $200.
  • The 27-inch 5K model ships with a Radeon Pro 570X card with 4GB video memory standard; additionally, you can upgrade to a Radeon Pro 575X with 4GB video memory or Radeon Pro 580X with 8GB video memory for $200 and $500, respectively. The top-end iMac can also be equippd with a Radeon Pro Vega 48 GPU with 8GB of video memory for an additional $450.

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.

The 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.

All-in-on powerhouse

iMac

All-in-one for everyone.

Apple's all-in-one desktop is available in a number of different options that'll make it the perfect desktop computer for your needs. Do you need a lot of storage? What about memeory, or graphics? You can configure an iMac to be just the machine you need it to, all with a big, beautiful 21.5- or 27-inch display.

The iMac Pro

iMac ProSource: iMore

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)
  • The Radeon Pro Vega 64X with 16GB of HBM2 memory

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 $1,000 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.

The pro all-in-one

iMac Pro

An all-in-one for demanding professionals.

Powered by Intel Xeon W processors with up to 18 cores, up to 4TB or storage, and 256GB of DDR4 ECC memory, the iMac Pro truly is a pro-focused, all-in-one monster or a machine, ready for any task you'd care to throw at it. Radeon Pro graphics make Metal operations faster than ever, while its unique dual-vent cooling system keeps temperatures down to allow the iMac Pro to handle a much higher load than is possible in the standard iMac.

The Mac Pro

Mac ProSource: iMore

Let's start here: The current Mac Pro line is not for everyone, and it never has been.

Apple introduced a new Mac Pro in 2019, and it's really a niche machine aimed at professional video editing, graphic design, music, 3D animation, and virtual reality development. This is not a Mac for people looking to edit photos or enthusiests trying to get the most power out of the Mac that they can. This is purpose-built for high-end, professional production.

Replacing the previous Mac Pro's cylindrical "trash can" is an aluminum box. An evolution of what was affectionately called the "cheese grater" design of older Mac Pros, this new casing comes in two parts. The metal frame that stands on your desk and holds the internals of the Mac Pro itself, as well as the aluminum outer shell. The shell, which is held in place by a locking handle mechanism, can be quickly removed so that you can inspect, modify, and clean your Mac Pro with ease.

Inside the Mac Pro, Apple is once again using Intel's Xeon processors. Starting with the 8-core Intel Xeon W, you can configure your Mac Pro with your choice of a 12-, 16-, 24-, or 28-core CPU depending on your needs. The computer supports up to 1.5TB (yes, terabytes) of DDR4 error-correcting code (ECC) memory spread out over 12 user-accessible slots. It features eight PCIe expansion slots, some of which can also serve to hold Apple's new, custom Mac Pro Expansion (MPX) modules. You can use any of the slots to hold conventional graphics cards as well. The MPX bays feature an x16 gen 3 PCIe slot for graphics bandwidth, as well as an x8 gen 3 slot for Thunderbolt.

The MPX modules are custom Apple graphics modules meant for high-end video, 3D animation, and VR production. Built with AMD graphics processors, an MPX module can hold up to two of them at a time for maximum performance. Currently, MPX modules come in three flavors: AMD Radeon Pro 580X, Radeon Pro Vega II, or Radeon Pro Vega II Duo, which comes with two Vega II GPUs. The Mac Pro is designed to hold up to two of these MPX modules at once. Apple has also created the Afterburner card, an accelerator card specifically designed to dramatically increase the performance of the ProRes and ProRes RAW codecs in Final Cut, QuickTime Player, and supported third-party apps.

When it comes to storage the Mac Pro will only be available with solid state drives. You can get it with up to 8TB of storage on board, though it was originally annoucnced with 4TB. You can, of course, also expand it externally through its Thunderbolt 3 ports.

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.

Unlimited power

Mac Pro (2019)

Redefining the professional workstation.

At long last, Apple has introduced a new Mac Pro. Expensive, expansive, and powerful, the new Mac Pro is able to take on any task you decide to put it to. Meant for high-end music, video, and animation production, the Mac Pro can feature a processor with up to 28 cores and up to 1.5TB of memory. The custom MPX graphics modules, with dual AMD graphics processors, can handle high-bandwidth video loads for the most demanding productions.

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 2019: Updated to reflect the details and specs of Apple's current Mac desktop line.

Serenity Caldwell contributed to an earlier version of this article.

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