A Mac Mini next to an iMac.
Hadrian/Shutterstock

If you’re shopping for a new desktop Mac, you’ll almost certainly be drawn to the iMac. However, Apple also makes the iMac Pro, Mac mini, and a freshly redesigned Mac Pro. Let’s look at the differences.

iMac: Everything in One Package

The iMac is Apple’s flagship all-in-one. Available in 21- or 27-inch sizes, an iMac can be extensively customized to suit all kinds of budgets and scenarios.

All but the cheapest 21-inch ($1,099) come with a Retina 4K (or 5K) display, which features the P3 wide color gamut. These impressive panels are one of iMac’s main draws. When you buy an iMac, you get everything you need to get going: a computer, display, and the requisite peripherals.

A 2019 Apple iMac 21- and 27-inch display.
Apple

The 27-inch models not only feature a larger display; they also have more powerful hardware under the hood and a wider array of upgrade options. This includes eight-core processors (which were previously six-core), up to 64 GB of RAM (previously 32 GB), up to 3 TB of storage (previously 1 TB), and better GPUs to drive the larger display.

As a result, the iMac is the most flexible desktop computer Apple offers. It could be a budget home office or learning tool, a capable photo-editing workstation, the heart of a home recording studio, or a tricked-out creative powerhouse for video editing or 3D rendering.

While there’s an “Apple tax” you have to pay for all of that, when you compare it to building your own rig, the cost of an iMac doesn’t seem so unreasonable. This is especially true when you consider the price of a decent 4K or 5K monitor. If space is a concern, you might be happy to pay the premium to have everything cleverly contained in a single unit.

The iMac comes with an Apple Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse; for a small fee, you can upgrade the Magic Mouse to a Magic Trackpad instead. This is a worthwhile move, as macOS’s extensive use of gestures more than justifies a touch-based input.

The input/output on a 2019 Apple iMac.
Apple

Considering its desktop form factor, the iMac offers one of the best price-to-performance ratios of any Mac. If portability isn’t a priority, and you’re torn between a MacBook Pro and an iMac with comparable specs, the iMac is the more sensible choice in terms of overall power.

Even if you already have a monitor or two, the iMac might still be your best choice. (Multi-monitor setups are awesome!) You can’t configure a Mac mini with an eight-core processor or a Vega 48 GPU, for example.

The iMac also has yet another trick up its sleeve: a RAM upgrade slot. It’s located on the back of the unit, making it easy to upgrade the available memory. This also means you can buy an iMac with a paltry amount of RAM, and then upgrade it immediately with cheaper, third-party RAM that won’t affect your warranty. This is something MacBook owners can only dream about.

iMac Pro: A Powerhouse in Black

The most striking thing about the iMac Pro is its darker, space gray color, and matching desktop peripherals. Available only as a 27-inch all-in-one, the iMac Pro bridges the gap between the regular iMac and the more modular Mac Pro. It also starts at $4,999—a steep hike from the $1,799 base 27-inch iMac.

To understand the price difference, you have to understand who Apple is targeting. The iMac Pro is not a professional workstation for people who need much more powerful hardware.

The iMac Pro ships with Intel Xeon, server-class processors, starting at eight-cores and going all the way up to 18 (with a $2,400 upgrade). The iMac Pro can accommodate up to 256 GB of RAM and 4 TB of solid-state storage (no traditional hard drive options here).

An Apple iMac Pro display.
Apple

The iMac Pro also provides upgrade paths to AMD’s Vega 64X GPUs for serious 3D, VR, and video work. Behind the scenes, Apple has kitted out the iMac Pro with a redesigned cooling system that’s both quiet and highly efficient. It also threw a T2 chip in there, a coprocessor designed to handle the security and encryption that appears in most modern Macs (but not the regular iMac, yet).

The iMac Pro uses Error Correction Code (ECC) RAM, which is the memory of choice for servers. As the name suggests, this memory automatically detects and corrects memory errors on the fly, unlike standard RAM, which has a much higher failure rate. You also get four Thunderbolt 3 ports (up from two on the iMac) and 10 Gb ethernet (up from 1 Gb on the iMac).

This professional level of performance is expensive, though. Even if you configured a 27-inch iMac with the best available processor, RAM, and GPU chip, you’d still be about $150 shy of the iMac Pro’s starting price.

This makes the iMac Pro hard to recommend for the average consumer.

Mac mini: Small Mac, Big Possibilities

The Mac mini is the pocket-rocket Apple desktop. It was neglected by Apple for so long, it barely got an update from 2014-18. Now, it’s back and Apple seems committed to providing timely hardware updates, the most recent of which was March 2020.

To understand the appeal of the Mac mini, you have to understand its intended uses. The first is a small, dedicated $799 barebones desktop computer. You don’t get a monitor, keyboard, or mouse which has been the case since the machine first debuted in 2005.

Back then, the Mac mini offered PC owners a cheap, compact way to jump aboard the Apple train. Since then, the Mac mini has earned a reputation for being a solid home server and theater PC (HTPC) solution. It also remains a great option for the Apple-curious, who have a desktop PC, monitor, and peripherals ready to go.

The 2020 Apple Mac Mini.
Apple

One such scenario might be programmers who want to develop iPhone and iPad apps, which require Xcode and an Apple Developer account. This isn’t possible on Windows, and a Mac mini is still cheaper than a MacBook Air (Apple’s other budget option).

The Mac mini has found favor in other areas, too. Build and render farms use distributed computing methods to share heavy loads across multiple machines. This speeds up building software or rendering video, and the Mac mini often powers these facilities.

Other uses include dedicated Xcode servers for mobile developers, controllers for professional lighting and audio processing at live shows, and powering digital signage and outdoor displays. Many of these are possible thanks to Apple’s excellent input/output (I/O), which includes four dedicated Thunderbolt 3 ports.

The Mac mini lacks a dedicated GPU, so it’s not likely to be a powerhouse video editor. You can upgrade most components at checkout, like the CPU, RAM, and storage, but the iMac still comes out on top.

Like the iMac, you can also upgrade the RAM in a Mac mini yourself to save some money.

Mac Pro: When Nothing Else Will Do

If you look at the iMac Pro and think, I need more, then the Mac Pro is all that remains. After dropping the ball on the oft-maligned “trash can” Mac Pro in 2013, Apple resurrected the Mac Pro in 2019. It was a hulking beast of a machine, worthy of its name.

The new Mac Pro has all the trappings of the celebrated Power Mac G5, right down to its modular case design and all-metal chassis. If the starting price of $5,999 sounds steep, keep in mind that a fully tricked-out Mac Pro costs more than $50,000 (yes, really).

The 2019 Apple "Cheese Grater" Mac Pro.
Apple

Like the iMac Pro, the Mac Pro features only server-class Intel Xeon processors, with up to 28-cores (a $7,000 option). The machine supports up to 1.5 TB of DDR4 ECC memory, dual Vega II 32 GB Radeon GPUs, and up to 8 TB of solid-state storage. Apple also offers a $2,000 Afterburner card which speeds up the decoding of ProRes and ProRes RAW encoded video from high-end cameras.

The Mac Pro pairs best with Apple’s equally flamboyant Pro Display XDR—a $4,999, 32-inch Thunderbolt 3 display with a native 6K resolution. Of course, you can use any monitor you like but when you’re spending this much, compromise seems self-defeating.

This monster is built with a very specific person in mind, who also likely isn’t paying for it herself. For most home-computer uses, the iMac Pro makes far more sense if you need a bonkers, high-end Mac.

For most consumers, even a beefed-up regular iMac will eat through most tasks, including 4K video editing, RAW image processing, and 3D rendering.

RELATED: Is the Mac Pro Overpriced Compared to a PC?

More Bang for Your Buck Than a MacBook

When it comes to desktop Macs, the iMac is the best choice for most consumers. Even if you’re considering a MacBook Pro, if you don’t need portability, think about how an iMac might improve your workflow.

For some people, an iPad might be the perfect MacBook replacement, leaving your desktop Mac and its much larger display free to do the heavy lifting and macOS-specific tasks.

RELATED: Can You Replace Your Mac with an iPad in 2020?

Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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