iMac vs. MacBook: Should you buy a desktop or laptop Mac?


iMac or MacBook?
The age-old question.
Image: Apple/D. Griffin Jones/Cult of Mac

Should your next Mac be a portable or a desktop? More than 90% of Macs sold are laptops, and it’s easy to see why — MacBooks are light while offering best-in-class performance and battery life. Still, the “iMac vs. MacBook” quandary remains.

In fact, there are some compelling reasons to stick to the iMac (or other desktop Macs like the Mac mini or Mac Studio). You save money and also wind up with a more reliable machine.

Check out our latest video or keep reading below to help you decide.

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iMac vs. MacBook: Which should you buy?

1. It’s easier to take a MacBook with you

The biggest and most obvious reason to get a MacBook is that it’s easier to take with you.

Unplug it and put it in your bag — a ten-second process and you’re good to go. In a pinch, you can take it out, sit it on your lap and you can get some work done.

An iMac, being an all-in-one computer, is pretty easy to transport as far as desktop computers go. But it doesn’t have a battery and it won’t fit inside your backpack. A Mac mini can also be relatively easy to move around — provided you have a keyboard, mouse and monitor set up at both destinations.

But nothing can compare to the portability of a MacBook Air.

2. Most desktop Macs are considerably cheaper than MacBooks

Mac mini with external hard drive, keyboard, trackpad and display sitting on the floor (isometric perspective)
The Mac mini starts at only $599.
Photo: D. Griffin Jones/Cult of Mac

The one thing everyone knows about buying Apple products is that they tend to be expensive. I would strongly argue that buying a Mac is worth the price for the quality, power and longevity of the computer you get, but that may not be so reassuring if you only have a little bit of money to spend.

Buying a desktop Mac can save you a lot of money over buying a MacBook. If you compare like-for-like:

  • The base Mac mini is $500 cheaper than the MacBook Air.
  • The Pro-level Mac mini is $700 cheaper than the MacBook Pro.
  • And the Max-level Mac Studio is a whopping $1,000 cheaper than the MacBook Pro.

Add an extra $200 if you prefer the bigger 15-inch MacBook Air — or $300 for the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

MacBooks cost more for a reason. But do you really need the portability?

Apple MacBook Air with two Studio Displays plugged in.
Most people with a laptop have a desktop display, keyboard and mouse to dock it to, anyways.
Photo: Apple

Granted, the price differences are there for a reason: the Mac mini and Mac Studio don’t come with a built-in display, keyboard and trackpad like the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. On the other hand, if you’re doing your daily work on a MacBook, you probably have it docked to an external display, keyboard and mouse anyway.

So if you don’t have as much money to spend — and you already have a display — you can save a lot of dough getting a Mac mini instead of a MacBook.

The iMac, Apple’s all-in-one computer with a built-in display (which comes with a keyboard and mouse in the box) is actually the same price as a comparable MacBook Air. But while you give up the portability, you trade the laptop’s small 13-inch screen for a desktop-size 24-inch display.

Or, you can use the price difference to get a more powerful Mac. Instead of getting the cheapest 14-inch MacBook Pro, you can get a Mac mini with a more powerful Pro-level chip, double the memory and double the storage — for $100 less.

3. Desktop Macs last longer

Four Macs sitting on a table
In my personal collection of computers, old and new, the desktops give me way fewer problems.
Photo: D. Griffin Jones/Cult of Mac

If you only buy a new computer when yours literally stops functioning, you’ll likely get more years out of a desktop Mac than a laptop. Laptops contain more parts and, therefore, more things that can fail over time. (Plus, laptops typically take more abuse than desktop Macs.)

Assuming you don’t drop your laptop, the MacBook battery is the part most likely to go south.

Let me put it this way: If you’re the sort of person who’s still not sure if you should get an iMac or MacBook, you probably don’t use your laptop as a laptop too often. You probably travel for a weekend or the occasional work trip just often enough to make you unsure.

That kind of lifestyle — leaving a laptop plugged in and docked on your desk 364 days out of the year — is devastating to the lithium-ion battery inside a MacBook. My MacBook Pro held up fantasticly throughout college. But as soon as I graduated and kept it at home every day, the battery life plummeted. And now, it’s totally nonfunctional.

4. MacBooks are equally as powerful as their desktop counterparts

The MacBook Air, iMac, MacBook Pro and MacBook circa 2016.
The Mac product family, as seen deep in the dark depths of the Intel era.
Photo: Apple

When Apple put Intel chips inside Macs, the desktops would outperform the laptops — even with similar specs.

That’s because Intel packaged processors with manufacturing defects, which didn’t run as fast or as hot as better-manufactured ones, as laptop chips. Now that more energy-efficient Apple silicon powers the Mac lineup, the game has changed. Apple wants all of its processors to perform the same: The company puts its best-manufactured chips in MacBooks so the laptops can take advantage of their superior power efficiency, and puts underperforming chips in desktop computers at a higher power rate so they can run just as fast.

All of this means that Apple laptops are no longer second-rate computers. A MacBook Pro with an M3 Pro chip inside will run equally as well as a Mac mini with the same Apple silicon processor.

5. Only desktop Macs get the most powerful processors

Render of the M1 Ultra chip
The Ultra chip is two Max chips transposed into one.
Image: Apple

While an iMac or MacBook can be identically configured to run the same, you can still buy a more powerful desktop Mac than you can a MacBook.

The MacBook Pro can be configured with up to a Max chip, but the Mac Studio gets the even more powerful Ultra chip. This is effectively two Max chips interposed together, delivering double the processing power, double the graphics power and double the memory.

It isn’t Apple’s style to sell a MacBook Pro with “half-day battery life,” and while Apple silicon chips run much cooler than others, they’re not magic. The MacBook Pro is simply too thin to house such power.

iMac vs. MacBook? Mac mini vs. MacBook Pro?

Get an iMac if you want good performance with a big screen. Get a MacBook if you need the portability. Go for a Mac mini to save the most amount of money. And choose a MacBook Pro for portability and power.

The real magic about Apple silicon is that these days, no matter what Mac you buy, you’re going to get a great computer that’ll last you years.

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