I’m a big fan of Apple’s M1 chip. It means you can now buy a computer with just 8GB of RAM and be blown away by what it’s capable of.
No spinning beach balls, no overzealous app management required to keep the ship afloat and no buyer remorse.
It really is transformative. With the M1, using a Mac feels just like using an iPad or iPhone; whatever’s going on inside that aluminium chassis doesn’t get in the way of what you want or need to do.
Only, now, the M1 is starting to filter into the rest of the Mac product line, and we’re encountering some interesting buying decisions.
Before last week’s Spring Loaded event, the only major decision M1 buyers needed to make was between the MacBook Air and Pro. Now, an M1 iMac has been thrown into the mix, which means that those who want a desktop Mac do have to make a choice.
So, let’s make it, shall we?
All-in-one or separates?
The M1 Mac mini and 24” iMac are two very different computers. Sure, they’re practically identical spec-wise (more on that later), but the ownership experience on offer from each device demands some exploration.
The Mac mini, for instance, is just a box. You don’t receive anything else, bar the power cable. And that means you need to add a keyboard, mouse, monitor and webcam.
By comparison, the new 24” iMac comes with everything you need to get going. The screen is built-in, along with a 1080p (yay) webcam, and you’ll also find a keyboard and mouse stowed away in the box.
For those who want ultra-convenience and no need to invest time in researching and buying peripherals, the iMac is hard to beat. You simply order it, pay for it, unpack it and place it on your desk. Bosh – you’ve got a Mac.
However, the Mac mini does enable you to jump into the world of some pretty interesting peripherals. Mine, for instance, enabled me to finally get into the ultra-widescreen monitor game, and I’ve not looked back.
It has also helped me develop a passion for mechanical keyboards – something which has revolutionised the way I work and enjoy computing in general.
Granted, you can technically attach all of these third-party peripherals to an iMac, but that’s not really the point of Apple’s all-in-one (although I’d urge you to try out a mechanical keyboard, regardless).
If you’re space constrained, both computers do an admiral job at conserving desk space, but there’s no doubting that the Mac mini’s incredibly small footprint is one of its crowning glories if you’re used to towering desktop PCs.
You can’t get a Mac mini or 24” iMac which is more powerful than the other device. They’re both essentially the exact same computer.
They feature the M1 chip, options for 8GB or 16GB of RAM and internal storage which ranges from 256GB right up to a massive 2TB. The only noticeable differences are a 7-Core GPU option on the base level iMac (ignore anyone who says this will be an issue – it isn’t), and an additional fan on the iMac.
The latter is, once again, not something to concern yourself with. For whatever reason, Apple has decided the iMac might need two fans to keep it cool (possibly because of the inclusion of that retina screen), but in my experience, these M1 machines never get hot, no matter what you throw at them.
This article isn’t the place for the 8GB versus 16GB of RAM debate, but I do have plenty of thoughts there, too.
To all intents and purposes, the 24” iMac simply has an M1 Mac mini squashed into its chin. So, the choice between the two again comes down to the all-in-one versus separates decision.
But, there is one other big difference between the two.
That retina screen
Nothing beats an iMac’s screen at the price.
When you consider that the base level iMac is $1,299 and the equivalent Mac mini is $699, you’re essentially paying $600 for a 24” 4.5K, high pixel density screen.
This is a very good deal – trust me. It’s why I’ll always push back on anyone who says iMacs are typically ‘Apple expensive’. The inclusion of such a wonderful screen makes it a bit of a bargain, in my book.
For instance, if you want anything that offers anywhere near the same colour depth, sharpness and brightness at the same price, you’d have to opt for the LG UltraFine. But that’s dreadfully ugly and has never been particularly well received by reviewers.
The other options get very expensive indeed. For example, if you want an ultra-widescreen monitor which features retina-level sharpness, you’ll have to spend well over $1,000. And that pushes up the price of a Mac mini somewhat, doesn’t it?
The iMac’s Retina display is as crisp as the one on your iPhone, plenty bright enough at 500 nits and wonderfully rich, thanks to a P3 colour space.
If you want the best possible screen for the price and no messy cables, the iMac is the one to go for, hands-down.
The smaller stuff
There are some smaller differences between the new 24” iMac and the M1 Mac mini which need to be taken into consideration.
If you’re into colourful computing, you might be a little disappointed to discover that the Mac mini is only available in silver. The iMac, by comparison, is available in seven vibrant colours – although you’ll have to stump up an extra $200 to get orange or purple (no, really).
The iMac also features a 1080p webcam, which is a big improvement over the outgoing generation. You’ll need to buy a third-party webcam if you opt for the Mac mini, and while that opens up your options somewhat, it is yet another purchase you don’t have to make with the iMac.
When it comes to ports, the base level Mac mini offers gigabit ethernet, whereas the iMac only offers this as an upgradeable option. This probably won’t matter for most people, but if connecting your computer directly to your router is preferable, it’s definitely a consideration.
The Mac mini features two USB-A ports alongside two Thunderbolt/USB-4 ports, whereas the iMac only offers two of the latter on its base version and two extra USB-3 ports if you upgrade to the next model up. You can, of course, buy dongles for either machine, but if you’re the sort of user who has specific peripherals that need connecting, the comparatively different connectivity offered by either device will need some consideration.
If playing audio through your computer is something you enjoy doing, there’s no contest. The M1 Mac mini’s speaker is absolutely dreadful. By comparison, the iMac’s has been refined by Apple’s talented audio team and will outperform the Mac mini’s without breaking a sweat. It may not be quite as ‘room filling’ as Apple suggests, but the iMac’s audio capabilities will leave the Mac mini with its tail between its legs.
Lastly, the new iMac is available with a Magic Keyboard featuring Touch ID. At the time of writing, it’s not clear if this is compatible with other Macs when bought separately (if, indeed, it can be bought separately), therefore if biometric security is something which floats your boat, the iMac is the only choice (the Mac mini doesn’t feature Touch ID or Face ID).
On paper, the iMac might look far more expensive than the M1 Mac mini, but you receive one huge benefit for that extra spend. That’s right – the iMac’s screen really is hard to look past (literally).
The iMac is also far more colourful than the Mac mini if that’s your thing, and a far tidier package overall.
But the Mac mini enables you to dive more wholesomely into the world of third-party peripherals. It demands that you do so, in fact, and it’s a pretty nice place in which to find yourself.
Therefore, we must come to the conclusion that if you want the best possible screen at the lowest price and the most computing convenience possible, the iMac is the one to go for. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous and can either stump up the funds for an expensive monitor or put up with the absence of a retina quality panel, the Mac mini takes some beating.