different colored imacs lined up
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What to Look for With a Desktop Mac in 2021

Apple’s Mac lineup is currently in flux as the company transitions away from Intel chips in favor of ARM-based Apple Silicon. Since Intel processors use a different processor architecture, software developers must account for both Intel and Apple Silicon when building their apps at this moment in time.

Intel chips will be supported for years to come, but at some point, new Mac software will no longer be compatible with them, and they will be left behind. New Macs with Apple Silicon can emulate most software written for Intel chips, running at around two-thirds of the native speed.

With around half of the company’s lineup already using Apple Silicon, it’s hard to recommend the older Intel models in all but a few niche circumstances. Apple’s first ARM-based chip, the M1, has wowed early adopters and reviewers alike with its high performance, energy efficiency, and relatively affordable price point.

Apple has committed to moving its entire Mac lineup to Apple Silicon by the end of 2022. High-end Macs have yet to receive the ARM treatment but will see more powerful Apple Silicon systems-on-chip before long, with more cores and RAM. If you need a powerful Mac, it may well be worth waiting to see what Apple comes up with.

The main question you should be asking when shopping for a desktop Mac is whether you need an all-in-one, like the iMac, or just the computer like a Mac mini. If neither of these is powerful enough, your only real choice is to wait for more powerful Apple Silicon chips or buy a Mac Pro.

Best Desktop Mac Overall: 24-inch iMac M1 (Four ports, 2021)

family using imac at home
Apple

Pros

  • Great value Mac with everything you need to get started
  • Four-port model has more room for expansion and a slightly better M1 chip
  • Surprisingly good downward-firing speakers
  • Available in six colors and silver

Cons

  • Might not be the best value choice if you already have a display and peripherals
  • Only four Type-C ports
  • The first iMac with a power brick
  • White bezels and protruding "chin" not to everyone's tastes

The iMac is Apple’s all-in-one desktop Mac, providing everything you need to get started. The 24-inch 2021 iMac is the first of Apple’s all-in-ones to receive the Apple Silicon treatment. A base model M1 delivers similar performance to an entry-level MacBook Air with its 8GB of unified RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive.

RELATED: How "Unified Memory" Speeds Up Apple's M1 ARM Macs

In the box, you’ll find an iMac with a beautiful 4.5K display, an Apple Magic Keyboard, a Magic Mouse, and a power brick with a color-matched braided cord. The iMac can be purchased in six vibrant colors (blue, green, pink, yellow, orange, and purple), as well as a more traditional silver version is also available.

We’re recommending the four-port variant here, which ships with a slightly more powerful version of the M1 processor with an 8-core GPU (up from 7 cores on the two-port model) and two fans instead of one. That additional fan should make it possible for this model to operate at higher speeds for longer before thermal throttling sets in. As the name suggests, this version also has two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports and two standard USB 3 Type-C ports.

One of the main reasons to opt for the iMac is its display. It delivers 500 nits of brightness, full P3 wide-gamut color coverage, and a pixel density of 218 PPI. This provides plenty of screen real estate for creative work or multitasking and a high enough pixel density to make text and webpages appear crystal sharp.

Considering a similarly-specced Mac mini costs $699, you’re effectively paying $800 more for a best-in-class 24-inch display, surprisingly good integrated speakers, a Magic Keyboard, and a Magic Mouse. This makes the iMac excellent value and the best Mac on this list considering the performance and quality on offer, and that’s before you’ve fallen in love with the wafer-thin design in a color of your choice.

Best Desktop Mac

24-inch iMac M1 (Four ports, 2021)

Apple's redesigned 24-inch iMac looks the part and delivers next-generation performance thanks to the M1 chip and a beautiful 4.5K Retina display.

Best Budget Desktop Mac: Mac mini M1 (2020)

Mac mini near a dark red light
Apple

Pros

  • The cheapest and best-value Mac with an M1 chip
  • M1 chip puts older Intel models to shame
  • A wider selection of ports than most, with USB-A and HDMI out
  • Officially supports up to two 60Hz monitors simultaneously (one 6K, one 4K)

Cons

  • Hard to find a display that competes with the 24-inch iMac for the money
  • Dongles or hubs necessary to get more ports
  • Cannot be upgraded like the older Intel-based Mac mini

The 2020 Mac mini was the first desktop Mac to make the transition to Apple Silicon. Its M1 chip has 8 CPU and 8 CPU cores, with adequate cooling to sustain the chip at load in a way that the fanless MacBook Air cannot. A base model Mac mini comes with 8GB of unified RAM and a 256GB SSD, though these can be upgraded to 16GB and up to 2TB, respectively.

For $699 you get a computer and a power cord. You’ll need to supply your own display, with the Mac mini supporting one 6K display (60Hz) and one 4K display (60Hz) simultaneously via HDMI or USB-C. You’ll also need to provide your own peripherals, which is perfect if you already have a keyboard and mouse you’d like to use. If you need the whole package, though, you might want to go with the iMac instead.

Performance-wise the Mac mini M1 is roughly equivalent to the iMac, delivering big gains in apps that have been optimized for Apple Silicon. The Mac mini also has the widest port selection of any M1 Mac, with an HDMI 2.0 out, two USB-A ports, two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, and Gigabit Ethernet It also has an optional 10 Gigabit Ethernet upgrade available when shopping through Apple.

The Mac mini M1 is perfect if you want to dip your toes into Apple’s new architecture without breaking the bank. It’s ideal for Windows users who want to tinker with macOS, or Mac users who prefer to bring their own mechanical keyboard or ultrawide display. For a truly smart buy, get the base model and add your own external solid-state drive to increase total storage.

Best Budget Desktop Mac

M1 Mac mini (2020)

The 2020 M1 Mac mini is Apple's best value computer, but you'll need to bring your own display and peripherals. It's small, cheap, and especially well suited to the Mac-curious.

External USB 3.2 SSD

Samsung T7 Touch 1TB Portable SSD

Add storage space to your Mac mini for around half the price of Apple's internal drive upgrade, with fast USB 3.2 transfer speeds.

Best Desktop Mac for Video and Photo Editing: Mac mini M1 (2020)

Mac mini in front os screen
Apple

Pros

  • Same video and photo editing performance as the 24-inch M1 iMac, for much less
  • Upgradeable to 16GB of RAM for heavier workflows
  • Many video editors already optimized for Apple Silicon

Cons

  • Base model's 256GB of solid state storage might fill up quickly
  • Only two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports
  • Finding a display that competes with the 24-inch iMac could be tricky

From a performance standpoint, the four-port M1 iMac and base M1 Mac mini are very closely matched. Both share 8 CPU cores and 8 GPU cores, with a cooling solution that should help them remain performant under load. Both can be upgraded with 16GB of RAM when shopping through Apple, which is an upgrade that’s well worth doing if you bounce between apps like Final Cut Pro, After Effects, and Da Vinci Resolve when editing.

The M1 is a capable system-on-chip that can chew through most 4K video codecs with ease. While 8GB of RAM is sufficient for this task, more RAM provides more overhead for serial multitaskers. It also takes the strain off your internal drive, often used as a “swap” disk by macOS to dump RAM contents to disk for later retrieval.

The Mac mini takes our recommendation from a value perspective. You’ll need to add your own display, and you’ll likely want to calibrate it for color accuracy too. You won’t get a keyboard or mouse in the box, but you may already have these in your editing environment. Look for a 24-inch 4K display like the LG UltraFine 24 UHD if you want something comparable to the 24-inch iMac.

The Mac mini provides the flexibility to build your editing workstation around a solid starting point in the M1 chip, but it’s not perfect for everyone. If the idea of shopping around for monitors and keyboards defeats the point of buying a Mac in the first place, look at the 2021 M1 iMac instead.

Alternatively, you can also wait for Apple to refresh the 27-inch iMac or the iMac Pro. Both of these higher-performance iMacs should hopefully be announced and shipped with an Apple Silicone processor by the end of 2022.

Best for Photo/Video Editing

M1 Mac mini (2020)

Apple's M1 system-on-chip can eat through 4K video and high-resolution RAW photos with ease. The M1 Mac mini has the same excellent performance as a four-port iMac at a fraction of the price, with one catch: you've got to supply your own display and peripherals.

24-inch 4K Monitor

LG UltraFine 4K 24-inch Monitor

LG's 24-inch 4K UltraFine connects via Thunderbolt and delivers full P3 wide color gamut coverage, 500 nits of brightness, and a pixel density of 183ppi.

Best Desktop Mac for Students: iMac 24-inch M1 (Two ports, 2021)

child using imac to study chemistry
Apple

Pros

  • Everything you need to get started
  • Hard to find a display that can compete at this price point
  • Apple Silicon M1 chip delivers big gains over Intel models

Cons

  • Not portable, so not ideal for all students
  • Mac mini may be better for students who are comfortable sourcing their own display and peripherals
  • Performance very similar to M1 MacBook models

Many students opt for laptops like the MacBook Air or 13-inch MacBook Pro (a few of our favorite MacBook models) so they can carry their workstations around campus. With the arrival of the M1, the performance gap between desktop and laptop Macs has closed considerably. For example, the two-port 24-inch M1 iMac has the same 8-core CPU and 7-core GPU as an M1 MacBook Air.

However, the iMac has better thermals and can run under load for longer than the Air. This will be noticeable in tasks that really stress the computer, like rendering video, running 3D applications, or compiling software. It’s tough to find a complete system that performs this well, with a display that looks this good.

The iMac has a much larger screen than Apple’s laptops, which gives you far more screen real estate to multitask. You can have multiple web pages or documents open at a time, but on a laptop, you’ll be flicking between desktop spaces.

But if you’re buying an iMac in the mistaken belief that it will perform considerably better than a MacBook (especially a MacBook Pro, which is also actively cooled), then you should reconsider. Buy the M1 iMac for your dorm room because you want a colorful all-in-one solution that can chew through school work, web browsing, and creative tasks like video editing. Just don’t get an iMac if portability is important to you, especially now that Apple Silicon has evened the playing field.

Best for Students

24-inch iMac M1 (Two ports, 2021)

The 24-inch M1 iMac has everything you need to study hard: a new Apple Silicon system-on-chip, a stunning 4.5K Retina display, and color-matched Apple-branded peripherals.

Best for High-End Performance: Mac Pro (2019)

Mac pro side and front on yellow background

Pros

  • The most powerful Mac, bar none
  • Massively customizable depending on your needs
  • Eye-catching "cheese grater" design
  • Available as a tower or rack

Cons

  • Not yet upgraded to Apple Silicon
  • Expensive compared to comparable PC builds
  • Overkill for most users' needs

If you absolutely have to have the best of the best, look no further than the Mac Pro. It starts at $5,999 and is only available directly through Apple. This is a purpose-built machine designed for professionals who have a specific need for an expandable high-performance computer that runs macOS.

The Mac Pro has yet to be upgraded to Apple Silicon, and still uses Intel Xeon processors. The base model has an Intel-based 8-core CPU clocked at 3.5GHz, but you can opt for up to 28 cores (at 2.5GHz) if you have the cash. There is support for up to 1.5TB of RAM (with 32GB as standard) and 8TB of internal storage (256GB as standard).

You can connect up to 12 4K displays, six 5K displays, or six of Apple’s Pro Display XDR monitors (which start at $4,999 each). However, you’ll need to opt for the 12 Thunderbolt 3 port option at checkout to drive that many monitors. Inside the chassis, you’ll find eight PCI Express slots ready to accept high-bandwidth expansion cards and powerful graphics cards.

RELATED: How to Use Multiple Monitors to Be More Productive

If you have to ask if you need a Mac Pro or if you can afford a Mac Pro, then you probably don’t need one. Apple has said it will be transitioning the entire Mac line to Apple Silicon before the end of 2022, so if you’re thinking of investing, then it might be wise to wait and see what the next-generation Mac Pro looks like.

Best for High-End Performance

Mac Pro

If you absolutely need the most powerful Mac that Apple makes, look no further than the Mac Pro.

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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