How to build an elite desktop Mac for less than an M3 iMac on Cyber Monday

M2 Mac mini on a wooden desk
(Image credit: Gerald Lynch / Future)

Apple’s new iMac is a fantastic all-in-one desktop powered by Apple’s new M3 chip. Yet, for a variety of reasons, it’s not the perfect Mac solution for everyone. As we noted in our review, there are some drawbacks to buying one in 2023, including a more limited selection of ports, Lightning accessories, and the fact it isn’t upgradeable. 

More generally, the appeal of an all-in-one iMac is also quite niche. While the harmony of computer and display in one chassis appeals to some, others might prefer a more modular approach to building a desktop Mac setup. Powered by something like the M2 Mac mini, buying multiple products separately will give you absolute control over every facet of the experience, including your monitor, keyboard, mouse, and any other peripherals you can think of. We’ve seen a $100 discount on the M3 iMac earlier on in the Cyber Monday proceedings, but that’s no longer live, which made me ask myself this: Can you build a brilliant desktop Mac setup for less than the price of a $1,299 M3 iMac? Thanks to Cyber Monday, the answer is definitely yes.

The ultimate M3 iMac alternative

M2 Mac mini — the beating heart

M2 Mac mini on a wooden desk

(Image credit: Gerald Lynch / Future)

With a budget of $1,299, the first thing we need is a desktop Mac. The choice obviously falls to the Mac mini, as it’s the only compact desktop Apple sells in this price bracket. Thanks to one of the best Cyber Monday Mac deals we’ve seen thus far, you can pick up Apple’s M2 Mac mini for just $499. This will be the Mac at the heart of our setup, and while it’s now no longer Apple’s most up-to-date processor, anyone who is considering buying an M3 iMac will be equally well served by M2. For the day-to-day computing an iMac user might do, the improvements from M2 to M3 are marginal, and the M2 chip was already so good that it will handle anything you throw at it. Apple silicon is so efficient and powerful compared to the old Intel offerings that for anyone who doesn’t need “Pro” computing power for intensive tasks like video editing and gaming, this M2 Mac mini is an absolute steal. Pound for pound it’s the best value Mac you can buy right now, and the value for money at this sale price of $499 is off the charts. 

Mac mini M2 |$599$499 at Amazon

Mac mini M2 | $599 $499 at Amazon

Under $500 for one of iMore's favorite Macs, what a deal! This Mac mini M2 deal also extends across the range if you want to upgrade your Mac as well – there are significant savings if you want to add more storage or RAM. 

Price check: B&H Photo $499 | Best Buy $499

 Budget: $1,299 Spent: $499 Remaining $800

The display — an embarrassment of riches

Samsung M80C

(Image credit: Samsung)

The next thing we need for our setup is a display, which is where the iMac we’re trying to subvert throws us its first curveball. The M3 iMac ships with a 24-inch 4.5K Retina display, which presents both a challenge and an opportunity for us on our quest. To my knowledge, you can’t buy a 4.5K Retina display, and there’s no 5K monitor on sale today that will fit our budget, so we need to round down to a 4K display. That means we’re moving from a 4480-by-2520 resolution at 218 pixels per inch display down to 3840 x 2160 pixels. Don’t panic, though, 4K resolution is more than ample for pretty much everything you might want to do on a desktop Mac, and this compromise brings us to the opportunity: overcompensating for resolution with size. 

24 inches is big for a pizza, not so much a monitor, and a quick glance at Cyber Monday’s best deals reveals a plethora of alternatives, making narrowing it down to one a massive pain. If you really want to save money, you could get a luckyfive 27” 4K monitor for just $152 at Amazon, or there’s the AOC U2790VQ for $209 if you want a more reputable brand. I also considered this LG UltraFine 4K number, which is 29% off and just $269. But in the end, there was only one winner. 

This Samsung 32-inch monitor is not only vastly larger than the 24-inch iMac, but it also comes with a plethora of excellent features and an absolutely epic Cyber Monday discount. The M80C features a built-in Slimfit camera so we don’t need to buy a webcam as part of our build. More excitingly, however, it supports AirPlay for streaming from another Apple device and the Samsung Gaming Hub, which lets you stream games from services including Xbox Game Pass and NVIDIA GeForce Now. It also features USB-C and HDMI connectivity, perfect for our Mac mini, and built-in stereo speakers too. 

Did I mention it’s also 43% off in the Cyber Monday sale? That means it’ll set us back a mere $399, leaving us plenty of budget to spend on some other goodies. There’s even a “Spring Green” and “Sunset Pink” colorway of the slightly older M80B model if you really want that splash of color to rival an iMac.

SAMSUNG 32" M80C UHD HDR Smart Computer Monitor|$699$399 at Amazon

SAMSUNG 32" M80C UHD HDR Smart Computer Monitor| $699 $399 at Amazon

Get 32 inches of 4K display with AirPlay and streaming built-in as well as Samsung's Gaming hub, all for just $399 instead of $699. That's a 43% Cyber Monday saving on the ultimate Mac companion. 

Price check: B&H Photo $399 | Best Buy $399

Budget: $1,299 Spent: $899 Remaining $400

Peripherals

Keychron Q1 Pro

(Image credit: John-Anthony Disotto)

The M3 iMac comes boxed with a Magic Mouse and Apple’s Magic keyboard. Both are charged using a Lightning cable, but with the advent of USB-C in the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro, there’s no reason for you to settle for such mediocrity. Hilariously, there are even more keyboards and mice than there are monitors to choose from when it comes to Cyber Monday sales. We’ve got plenty of money left to spend, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be treating yourself to a sturdy mechanical keyboard. Keychron is a household favorite here at iMore, and you could get their budget C3 Pro with 87 keys for less than $30 at Amazon, which is frankly bananas. I would never be parted from my Keychron Q5 Pro, which is a much heftier offering and 20% off at Amazon right now, down to $185.  

But again, we need a winner, and it’s the Keychron V1 wired mechanical keyboard with a 75-key layout. This will serve your DIY desktop Mac out of the box perfectly, and it sounds delicious to type on, but it also has hot-swappable switches so if you want to get into the never-ending cycle of keyboard customization, it’s the perfect futureproof starting point.

Keychron V1 wired mechanical keyboard|$89$59 at Amazon

Keychron V1 wired mechanical keyboard| $89 $59 at Amazon

This customizable option is the perfect entry-level option so you can start replacing keycaps, switches, gaskets, plates, foam, and more to your heart's content. 

Price check: B&H Photo not available | Best Buy not available

We also need a mouse for our Mac. More so than keyboards, the type of mouse you use is very subjective, with lots of options to choose from. I’ve picked the Logitech MX Master 2S because it’s actually on sale and in stock for Cyber Monday, unlike the 3S. It offers tracking on any surface including glass, and up to 70 days of use on a full charge. If it was on sale, I’d recommend the MX Master 3S, but spending $100 on a mouse seems excessive under the circumstances. The only other wildcard choice is Apple’s Magic Trackpad, which you can pick up for $109 right now at Amazon. 

Logitech MX Master 2S |$99$59 at Amazon

Logitech MX Master 2S | $99 $59 at Amazon

The Logitech MX Master 2S is no longer the newest mouse on the block, but it's features are still pretty special. Either way, this current price over at Amazon isn't the lowest it's ever been, but it's still a very good saving, and the cheapest you'll find it right now. 

Price check: B&H Photo not available | Best Buy not available

Budget: $1,299 Spent: $1,019 Remaining $280

Extras 

With $120 spent on peripherals, we now have everything a DIY desktop Mac build needs to get up and running, but you’ll notice we have $280 left over. If I was a sensible family man, I’d save that money to spend on groceries. Alas, I’m not, so I’m going to blow it on some extra bits and bobs. The M2 Mac mini is a well-connected device, but this Satechi USB-C stand and hub is just too cool not to include in our roundup. For the price of one Mac mini USB-C port, you get two USB 3 ports, a USB-C port, two card readers, and a 3.5mm audio jack all on the front of this fun Mac mini dock. Given the Mac mini’s ports are all on the back this is a serious upgrade and one that’s 25% cheaper right now thanks to Cyber Monday.  It also has a secret weapon, an M.2 SATA SSD enclosure for future storage expansion. 

SATECHI Type-C Stand & Hub with SSD Enclosure |$99$75 at Amazon

SATECHI Type-C Stand & Hub with SSD Enclosure | $99 $75 at Amazon

This sleek Satechi dock will raise up your Mac mini and provide USB-C, USB-A, headphone, and SD card connectivity for just $75. It's a cheap and stylish accessory that should be near the top of any Mac mini user's list.

Price check: B&H Photo $99 | Best Buy $99 

A more pressing need in our setup is storage. The M2 Mac mini only ships with 256GB of solid state hard drive space, but for just $99 you can add 2TB of SanDisk portable SSD storage to your rig, perfect for taking projects and information on the move. 

SanDisk 2TB Extreme Portable SSD| $299$139 at Amazon

SanDisk 2TB Extreme Portable SSD| $299 $139 at Amazon

Almost any Mac you buy will come with a fixed amount of SSD storage, so a portable SSD is the perfect way to expand that. 2TB for $139 is an absolute steal compared to the price storage used to be a few years ago, and that's down from its usual price of $150, a whopping 33% off!

With $100 left to spend, I’m going to tackle the one advantage the M3 iMac still has over our efforts here, some solid audio. I’ve found these lovely Sanyun bookshelf speakers for $103, which takes us to within $2 of our initial budget. They’re active, featuring onboard amplification so you don’t need any other hardware to get going, and feature 4-inch speakers as well as an all-important auxiliary input for our Mac mini’s 3.5mm output. 

Edifier MR4 Powered Studio Monitor Speakers| $129$79 at Amazon

Edifier MR4 Powered Studio Monitor Speakers| $129 $79 at Amazon

These Edifier MR4 powered studio monitors don't need an amp to work and deliver 4 inches of lovely sound through either aux, TRS, or RCA. 

So there you have it, you can indeed buy a vastly more capable and exciting Mac desktop setup for the price of an M3 iMac. Or if you want to pinch the pennies a bit more, you can buy an excellent desktop Mac for a fraction of the price, ditching the extras and swapping out the peripherals for cheaper ones. Just stick to that M2 Mac mini as your starting point and the rest should take care of itself. 

Still not convinced? This is the price you can currently get an M3 iMac for:

M3 iMac |$1299 at Amazon 

M3 iMac | $1299 at Amazon 

The brand new M3 iMac is not currently on sale, so retails at $1,299 at Amazon for the 8-core GPU version or $1,499 for the 10-core GPU version with plenty of colors to choose from!

Stephen Warwick
News Editor

Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design.

Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwarwick9