Choosing a new Mac is both a delightful and terrifying experience. On one hand you have the promise of a sparkling new machine, with all the joy that entails, but conversely you also have to dabble in a spot of clairvoyance as you decide what your next few years of computing will look like.
Deciding on the right machine to meet your needs can be tricky. The Retina iMac is a stunning machine, but if you want to work on a novel in Starbucks it's a bit of a handful. By the same token the 11-inch MacBook Air is supremely portable, but editing a Logic Pro project on it could quite possibly drive you insane due to the tiny screen real estate. It is indeed a challenge. Well, here at Macworld we always have your best interests at heart, so we've put together this guide to the comparative charms and compromises each machine affords a prospective buyer.
iMac vs MacBook Air: Which one is right for you?
The first question we pose whenever someone asks us which computer they should buy is this 'what do you want to use it for?' It might seem somewhat basic, but before you start comparing the tech specs and prices of various devices you have to know what it needs to deliver to make you happy.
If you're in the market for a general computer on which you can watch YouTube, Netflix, browse the web, keep up on social media, and write the odd report or two, then any Apple computer from the past few years will happily achieve all of this and more. In fact an iPad would be more than enough for these day-to-day activities, especially if paired with a bluetooth keyboard.
If you want to run more powerful apps, such as Photoshop, Logic, the full Microsoft Office suite, or manage your media collection through iTunes or iPhoto, then the larger storage capacities and power of the Mac range will definitely be your best port of call. Of course while iMacs offer beautiful screens and larger hard drives, MacBook Airs can also run external displays and USB (or Thunderbolt) storage devices when at home, doubling up their versatility. Among the less expensive models the power difference is also minimal, so the comparison between the two isn't as unbalanced as you might first think.
In the end use your judgement to decide how you're going to employ your device for the majority of the time, and the things that are the most important to you, then you'll no doubt be happy with whichever machine you pick.
iMac vs MacBook Air: The current MacBook Air range
Apple has kept the MacBook Air range very simple in recent years. At the moment your choices are straightforward and really come down to the size of screen fits your needs. The two variants - the 11-inch and 13-inch - both share the same 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and come in either 128GB or 256GB flash-storage options. It should be noted though that neither of the current models boasts a full HD screen, and there are lots of rumours that Apple will finally introduce a retina MacBook Air sometime this year. There is also the distinct possibility that a 12-inch version will also appear, possibly to replace the current smaller model, so if the 11-inch just seems that little bit too diminutive, then it might be worth waiting until the summer.
At the moment though you can buy the 11-inch Air with 128GB of storage for £749 or 256GB for £899, and the respective 13-inch alternatives are each £100 more, at £849 (128GB) and £999 (256GB). On the Apple website you can also use the built to order options to upgrade the CPU in any of the machines to a 1.7GHz Intel Core i7 for £120. This is a decent upgrade, but we'd advise you leave this and increase the amount of RAM instead, as it can't be upgraded later and could become restrictive far quicker than the existing i5 CPU. Moving from 4GB to 8GB costs £80, and is something of an essential purchase if you want to really future-proof your device.
iMac vs MacBook Air: The current iMac range
Things are a little more complicated on the iMac side of things. There are still two screen size options - 21-inch and 27-inch - but each model within those variants comes with a different CPU and graphics capability. The base model is cheap for an iMac, coming in at £899, but a fair amount of compromises were made to achieve this price, as the 1.4GHz dual-core,Intel Core i5 CPU, Intel HD 5000 graphics, and 500GB hard drive suggests. It's fine for general, light computing, but anything more testing will soon show up its limitations.
Spend a bit extra on a 21-inch model and you'll move up to either a 2.7GHz quad-core, Intel Core i5 (£1049) or 2.9GHz quad-core, Intel Core i5 (£1199) both of which come with 1TB hard drives, 8GB RAM, and, respectively, either Intel Iris Pro graphics or an NVIDIA GeForce GT750 graphics processor. This extra horsepower would certainly make them better choices if you want to play games or edit more effects-heavy home videos.
Moving up to the 27-inch models you'll find a 3.2GHz quad-core, Intel Core i5 (£1,449) or 3.4GHz quad-core, Intel Core i5 (£1599), which feature faster 1TB hard drives, more powerful NVIDIA graphics processors, and 8GB RAM which can be upgraded easily by the user to 16 or 32GB. For the very best though you'll need to go to the amazing iMac with 5K retina display (£1999), which boasts top notch components and of course that gorgeous display.
As with the MacBook Airs, you can upgrade various aspects of each iMac, including RAM, storage, and in some cases the CPU. The entry-level iMac is a notable exception, having only the option to upgrade the storage. We would definitely recommend this, as the extra £200 spent on a Fusion drive will noticeably improve the day to day performance.
iMac vs MacBook Air: Comparing the choices
With computers being so powerful these days, it makes good financial sense to not overpay for features you'll most likely never use. If your intended use for your device involves not much more than general media consumptions (watching films, listening to music), internet browsing, social media, and office-style productivity, then you should consider the entry-level models in both the iMac and MacBook Air line up.
While the MacBook Airs are still powerful laptops, they are intended more for day-to-day use rather than serious content creation, or computationally demanding task such as gaming. So, if these are your goals, then the more powerful iMacs will be a better fit, or indeed a MacBook Pro. If you're into photography or videography then the colour rich, expansive screens, and larger storage, of the iMacs are a distinct advantage when it comes to reviewing and editing your media.
But, of course, if you're a student, travel a lot with work, or don't have a lot of space at home to dedicate to a desk, the MacBook Airs are amazingly light, and will get most jobs done with little fuss.
iMac vs MacBook Air: How the cheapest models compare
At first glance the £749 11-inch MacBook Air and £899 21-inch entry level iMac might seem a world apart, but they actually share much of their internal components. In fact the iMac has the same 1.4GHz dual-core, Intel Core i5 CPU as all the MacBook Airs, and also shares the same graphical capabilities. It's no great surprise then that when we compared the iMac and the 11-inch MacBook Air in our labs we discovered that the MacBook Air actually managed to outperform its big brother in some areas, scoring 139 in our Speedmark 9 tests, compared to the 116 score of the entry-level iMac.
This is most likely down to the MacBook having flash-storage fitted, as opposed to the slower traditional hard drive in the iMac. The desktop machine did fare slightly better in our Geekbench 3 test, where it narrowly beat the MacBook, and both machines scored exactly the same in Cinebench R11.5.
Essentially, at its core, the entry-level iMac is a MacBook Air with a bigger screen, bigger (but slower) storage, and a little more RAM. This means that you could turn either MacBook Air into an iMac just by plugging in a screen, mouse and keyboard, with the option of external storage. Admittedly all of this costs money, but you would end up with a desktop and a laptop for not much more than the price of the iMac itself.
This only holds true for the entry-level model though, as once you step up to more powerful iMacs the gap in power begins to show. There is still the factor of the hard drives in the iMacs (which Apple could eventually change by offering a Fusion drive as standard), but the graphical prowess and CPU speeds are certainly a big improvement, with the 2.7GHz 21-inch iMac scoring a respectable 179 in Speedmark 9 tests, easily ahead of the Airs and the slow entry-level iMac.
iMac vs MacBook Air: Storage options
The tradeoff for the performance boost of the flash-storage in the MacBook Airs is actual storage space, as flash-storage remains expensive for higher capacity units. If you want to keep all your music, home videos, or music collection on your computer, then the Airs will fill up a lot faster than the capacious iMacs. Of course you can use an external USB hard drives, and they are quite affordable these days, with a quick look on Amazon showing that you can buy 1TB drives for less than £50.
Another option would be to buy the 256GB version of the 11-inch MacBook Air, which costs the same as the entry-level iMac (£899). This still leaves it with half the storage, but would be more than enough for most people, especially now that cloud storage is becoming so ubiquitous and cheap.
Conversely you could upgrade the internal drive in the iMac to a 1TB Fusion drive (a mixture of flash-storage and HD) or the same 256GB flash-storage as the MacBook Air, either of which add £200 to the base price of the machine, taking it to £1099. This will definitely improve performance but by that point you're actually getting into the higher specced iMac price range, with a 21-inch model featuring a faster 2.7GHz Intel core i5, Iris Pro Graphics, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB hard drive, costing £1049.
iMac vs MacBook Air: Maxing out the specs
If your budget allows, then fully kitting out either an iMac or MacBook Air will get you a serious machine, and a noticeable difference in price. The 13-inch MacBook Air with the build to order spec of a 1.7GHz dual-core, Intel Core i7 CPU, 8GB RAM, and 512GB flash-storage comes out to a grand total of £1449. Add Apple Care to that price and you come in at £1649 for a very quick, lightweight, and capacious laptop. If you stick with the non-Retina iMacs, then you can configure a 27-inch with a 3.5GHz quad-core, Intel Core i7, 8GB RAM (as this is a user serviceable part, you can buy more RAM later from third party suppliers such as Crucial instead of paying Apple's high prices), 512GB flash-storage (1TB is available, but the £400 price tag seems a little excessive) and even upgrade the graphics card to an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M, all for £2,319. Apple Care will add a further £139 to the price.
At nearly a grand apart you would expect these machines to be different, and of course you'd be right, with the iMac being an absolute beast. In fact at the start of 2014 a very similar version (which had a 3TB Fusion drive rather than the 512GB flash-storage in our spec), was the second fastest Mac we've ever seen at Macworld, beating out the two off the shelf versions of the Mac Pro in our Speedmark 9 lab tests.
Of course if you're shopping at this end of the street, then the iMac with 5K Retina display will be the one to go for, as you can add a 4.0GHz quad-core, Core i7, 512GB flash-storage, and upgrade to the AMD Radeon R9 M295X GPU all for £2,639.
iMac vs MacBook Air: Buying advice
It's pretty obvious that iMacs and MacBook Airs are built for different purposes, but if you're considering the lower-end models then it's worth nailing down whether you really want a desktop or a laptop, or both. If your intention is that the computer will sit on a desk all its life, then the iMac is the way to go, but we're not entirely happy recommending the base model unless your needs are light. At the very least you'll need to upgrade the hard drive, and if you're doing that then we'd recommend you save a little bit longer and go for the 21-inch model with the 2.7GHz CPU (and then still upgrade the hard drive to the 1TB Fusion is you can).
If you want to keep your spending under £1000 though, and don't mind a bit of non-Apple equipment, then the 11-inch MacBook Air, upgraded to 8GB RAM, is available for £829 and is easily the match of the base-level iMac. Add to this a third party display (around £80), bluetooth mouse, keyboard, external hard drive, and with a bit of shopping around you can have the best of both worlds for under a grand. Either way we'd suggest you hold off until the early summer, as a 12-inch, Retina MacBook Air could change the game once more.