Welcome to our best Mac buying guide 2016/2017. If you’re wondering which Mac to buy, you’ve come to the right place. Here, you’ll find everything you need to know about Apple’s range of Macs, including the iMac, MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac mini and Mac Pro, with expert buying advice to help you choose the Mac that’s right for you. Which is the best Mac 2016/2017? Read on to find out.
Don’t miss: Black Friday Mac Deals 2016
Apple makes six different kinds of Mac, and within each of those categories there are sub categories and variations in the specs and features, so things can get pretty complicated. That’s where this complete guide comes in, helping you make the right decision. In this feature we will take you through each Mac that is currently available from Apple; which Mac is best suited to which type of user; the Macs that are the fastest, and the Macs that are the cheapest; and the Macs that are the best value for money.
And if after that you are still stumped there is even a ‘Which Mac is right for me?’ quiz that you can take at the end.
You can skip to any particular Mac you’re interested in by using the table of contents above.
If you’re wondering about where to get a good deal on a Mac, and whether you should go for a brand-new, secondhand or refurbished Mac, take a look at these two articles: Should I buy a refurbished Mac? | Best place to buy a Mac
If you’ve already got a Mac and are looking to sell, read: Which Mac do I have: How to identify model, year and serial number | How to check your Mac’s tech specs
Which Mac should I buy: MacBook (or ’12-inch MacBook’)
Price: From £1,249
The first of the new-style MacBook models went on sale on 10 April 2015 (having a machine called simply ‘MacBook’ isn’t entirely new, but this was a resurrection of a brand that fell by the way side a few years ago). It’s built more for style and portability than for the practicalities of computing – it has only one port and a basic processor. But it does have a Retina display, and comes in gold, silver, Space Grey and pink, just like your iPhone.
Check out our comparison review of the MacBook Air and the MacBook, to find out which is the best lightweight laptop.
Which Mac should I buy? MacBook specifications explained
There are actually two standard MacBook models available, both with a 12in screen (measured diagonally). Dimensions for both units are identical: 28.05cm by 19.65cm, and 3.5mm at the edge tapering to 13.1mm thick (the MacBook Air tapers from 17mm to just 3mm). The MacBook weighs less than a kilogram at 920g.
The key difference between the two models is the amount of storage available, and the speed of the processor, although the most obvious difference is that there are four colour choices: gold, silver, rose gold and space grey, just like the iPhone.
The entry-level MacBook unit offers a 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core m3 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.2GHz), and 256GB PCIe-based flash storage. The other MacBook unit offers a 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core m5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz), and 512GB PCIe-based flash storage. Both models offer 8GB RAM and Intel HD Graphics 515. You can upgrade the processor further at checkout using the build-to-order options, too.
The new MacBook sports many new features including a Force Touch trackpad that utilises built-in force sensors so that when you click you receive haptic feedback, and Force Click – this adds a new dimension to clicking, a new way of right-clicking, perhaps. There is also a new keyboard with keys slightly more spaced out than previously. Many of the new technologies incorporated in the new design have allowed Apple to make it slimmer and as lighter than any other Mac. For example, thanks to the Core M chip the MacBook doesn’t require fans, and by slimming down the logicboard Apple has been able to utilize every last corner for battery. Apple claims the MacBook is the “world’s most energy efficient notebook”.
Even the Retina display is the thinnest screen ever on a Mac. It offers a 16:10 aspect ratio and a resolution of 2304 x 1440. It also uses less energy than Retina displays on other Macs.
Apple admits that the MacBook is designed for the wireless world, and it has to be: there is only one port. This next generation USB-C port supports power in and out, so you can charge your MacBook from it, as well as plug in a hard drive or other peripherals.
That’s the trade-off required for Apple to create such a thin Mac. The single port is USB-C, which is a new industry standard that offers 5Gbps data transfer via USB 3.1, as well as charging and DisplayPort 1.2. You will be able to plug anything into that port – but you will require an adaptor if you want to plug more than one thing in at a time. See: Best USB Type-C accessories for the Retina MacBook
Like the MacBook Air, the MacBook doesn’t feature an Ethernet port, so if you want to plug it into a wired network at work or on holiday you will need to purchase an adaptor. However, the MacBook does offer 802.11ac Wi-Fi so it’s unlikely that in today’s wireless world you will need to plug it into a network.
How fast is the MacBook?
The MacBook is certainly not Apple’s fastest Mac, however, it does at least feature a SSD drive to speed things up a bit. In our Geekbench tests, the 2016 mode of the MacBook scored higher than the 2016 models, and slightly faster than the current MacBook Air. With a price tag as high as the MacBook’s, we’d like to see a bit more speed to set the laptop further apart from its Air sibling, but it’s the price you pay for the gorgeous, sleek and stylish design.
Who is the MacBook best for?
There are many Mac users for whom the MacBook will not be ideal. This is not a particularly powerful computer and it is no replacement for the MacBook Pro. Nor is it necessarily a replacement for a MacBook Air while it is possible to upgrade to faster MacBook Air models for a lot less money.
If the majority of what you do on your Mac is everyday tasks, such as sending and receiving email, browsing the web, and using office applications, the MacBook should be quite capable of meeting your needs. (For really light tasks the even more portable iPad Air 2 tablet may be an alternative worth considering – see our iPad Air 2 vs new 12-inch MacBook comparison.) If you’re expecting to edit movies using Final Cut Pro this Mac won’t cut the mustard.
When to buy a 12in MacBook: Is a new MacBook coming out?
We’d advise buying the 12in MacBook in May, as its yearly update cycle takes place in April (or at least, it has done so far). Any time from May until January is pretty safe, but we’d advise waiting for the new model to come out if you are thinking about buying a MacBook in February, March or April. Even if you’re happy with the specs of the current model, the launch of a new one will inevitably mean that the price will drop on the current model saving you lots of cash.
Which Mac should I buy: MacBook Air
This is Apple’s ultrathin and incredibly light laptop, sometimes referred to as an ultrabook. While historically it has come in two screen sizes, 11-inch and 13-inch, Apple recently stopped selling the 11in model – it may be available to buy in third-party retailers for a little while longer, but it’s on its way out. The MacBook Air was first launched in 2008 and was Apple’s first laptop to feature an SSD (flash storage).
New models launched on 9 March 2015, and then again (with extremely slight modifications) in April 2016. See our MacBook Air (13 inch, early 2015) review and MacBook Air (11 inch, early 2015) review for more details.
If you like the MacBook Air but think it’s a bit above budget, check our roundup of the best alternatives to the MacBook Air for some similar options.
Which Mac should I buy: MacBook Air specifications explained
There are four standard MacBook Air models available, in two sizes. However, the only real differences between the different models are the size of the screen, the amount of storage available, and battery life.
All the MacBook Air units offer a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and Intel HD Graphics 6000 as standard. The 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air both offer either 128GB or 256GB SSD options, and the 13in model now comes with 8GB RAM as standard with the 11in model starting with 4GB.
There are also various build-to-order options which allow you to add a faster Intel processor, more storage and 8GB RAM in the case of the 11in MacBook.
As we mention above, the other key distinction between the different MacBook Air models is the battery life. The 11-inch MacBook Air offers 9 hours of battery life, compared to 12 hours on the 13-inch MacBook Air, which should be enough to last the length of a long haul flight, or a day’s work. The 13-inch Air features a better 54-watt hour battery compared to the smaller 38-watt hour battery in the 11-inch model.
The other difference is weight and dimensions: obviously the 13-inch MacBook Air is bigger than the 11-inch model. The 11-inch MacBook Air weighs 1.08kg, and the dimensions are 30cm by 19.2cm. The 13-inch MacBook Air weighs 1.35kg, and the dimensions are 32.5cm by 22.7cm. Both models are just 3mm thin at the edge, tapering to 1.7cm.
Due to its smaller screen the 11-inch MacBook Air offers fewer pixels than the 13-inch model. Up to 1366×768 at 16:9 aspect ratio, compared to 1440×900 at 16:10 aspect ratio on the 13-inch. That display is incomparable to the 13-inch Retina model, which offers 2560×1600 Retina resolution at 227 pixels per inch.
Note that the aspect ratio is different on the two Airs, the 11-inch model is the only Apple Mac to offer a 16:9 aspect ratio – which is the same as a widescreen TV. Some people find the narrower screen more restrictive.
The MacBook Air doesn’t have a great deal of ports, that’s the trade-off necessary for such a thin Mac and it certainly has more than the new MacBook does. The MacBook Air doesn’t feature a Ethernet port, for example, so if you want to plug it into a wired network at work or on holiday you will need to purchase an adaptor. However, the MacBook Air does offer built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi so it’s unlikely that in today’s wireless world you will need to plug it into a network.
The MacBook Air also lacks an optical drive. We don’t find we have much use for an optical drive these days, but if you really think you need one there is always the option of purchasing Apple’s USB SuperDrive for £65.
There are two USB 3 ports, but you can also connect accessories (including external storage and monitors) to your MacBook Air via the Thunderbolt 2 port, Apple’s high-speed connector. The 2014 MacBook Air had a Thunderbolt 1 port, which is slower than the Thunderbolt 2 port on the new model, but still faster than USB 3 (20Gbps for Thunderbolt 2, compared to 10Gbps for Thunderbolt 1, compared to 5Gbps for USB 2). You can purchase various adaptors that let you plug in FireWire 800 hardware, for example, into this port.
All the MacBook Air models feature the following ports and standards
- Mini DisplayPort
- Thunderbolt 2 port
- 2 USB 3 ports
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 4.0
- Stereo speakers
- Dual microphones
- Headphone port (including support for the iPhone headset with remote and mic)
- Full size backlit keyboard with ambient light sensor
- Multi-Touch trackpad
In addition the 13-inch MacBook Air features
Which Mac should I buy: How fast is the MacBook Air?
It’s not Apple’s fastest Mac, in fact, the entry level MacBook Air is one of Apple’s slowest current Macs – although the faster flash drive should speed things up compared to the £899 iMac and the £399 Mac mini which have processors that run at a similar speed. It’s certainly not the slowest Mac. However, whether that matters depends a lot on what you will be doing with it, and what your priorities are when looking for a new Mac.
If the majority of what you do on your Mac is everyday tasks, such as sending and receiving email, browsing the web, and using office applications, the MacBook Air is quite capable of meeting your needs. Even beyond that kind of use, you can happily use the MacBook Air for editing short videos, or for working with photos from your iPhone or point-and-shoot camera.
For most people the MacBook Air is plenty fast enough. This is partly thanks to its flash storage, which speeds things up considerably. When we ran tests on the MacBook Air and the standard non-Retina MacBook Pro (which features a hard drive) the MacBook Air outperformed its so-called Pro cousin. Flash memory is better because it is faster at reading data. This makes a huge difference when running your Mac: opening documents, starting programs and even booting up all happen much faster.
Which Mac should I buy: Who is the MacBook Air best for?
The MacBook Air is perfect for anyone who frequently needs to carry their laptop with them, especially students, commuters, and hotdeskers. Both models are lighter than any other Mac, and the 11-inch is not only light, it’s small too.
Because it’s so tiny it’s also a great option if you want a Mac to use at home or at work that doesn’t take up a whole lot of space. You can always plug it into a monitor on your desk, or even plug it into a TV screen (via an adaptor) if you feel you would benefit from a bigger display.
If you don’t wish to spend a few pounds more to buy a Retina MacBook Pro then you won’t be disappointed with the MacBook Air. But beware that the screen quality of the Air is no equal to the Retina display of the MacBook Pro, or for that matter the new MacBook.
When to buy a MacBook Air: When is a new MacBook Air coming out?
The MacBook Air tends to be updated early in the year, so we’d avoid buying one between January and April.
Which Mac should I buy: MacBook Pro
Available from: Apple
Price: From £1,249
There are actually four types of MacBook Pro available: a 2015 13in MacBook Pro with a high-resolution Retina display and flash storage, a 2015 15in MacBook Pro, also with a high-resolution Retina display but with more advanced processor and specs; and the 13- and 15in (Retina) MacBook Pro that was announced during Apple’s October 2016 event, boasting the new Touch Bar technology along with a design overhaul.
The Pro part of the name suggests that this is a more powerful machine than the MacBook Air, but that’s not all, as the 2016 13in MacBook Pro is also thinner and smaller than the 13in MacBook Air. There are two screen sizes of 2016 MacBook Pro available: a 13-inch and 15-inch version.
Wondering which MacBook is best for you? Check out our Which MacBook buying guide.
New MacBook Pro: Macworld podcast – Apple’s 27 Oct launch event
The UK Tech Weekly Podcast team discuss Apple’s 27 October launch event, including the new MacBook Pro, in episode 38, embedded below.
The UK Tech Weekly Podcast comes out every Friday. Follow the team on Twitter to get notifications of new episodes.
When to buy a MacBook Pro: When is a new MacBook Pro coming out?
The MacBook Pro was updated very recently, so don’t expect to see another MacBook Pro until at least October 2017.
Which Mac should I buy: MacBook Pro specifications explained
There are two versions of the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar – 13in and 15in – with two variations of each, totalling four models to choose from. As well as this, Apple announced a new 13in MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar (but featuring the same redesign) at a slightly cheaper price point. You can also pick up one 13- and 15in 2015 MacBook Pro from Apple too, offering a more powerful machine at a lower price point at the sacrifice of design. Unlike the MacBook Air these different models are substantially different, with the larger 15-inch models offering quad-core i7 chips, 16GB RAM and more.
One of the key selling points with these Macs is the newly introduced Touch Bar, which provides users with contextual controls depending on the app they’re using at the time – using Final Cut Pro X will offer shortcuts for different functions, while in Safari it’ll offer shortcuts to your favourite websites. The 2016 MacBook Pro series also featured a redesign, with the MacBook Pro now thinner and smaller than its MacBook Air equivalent.
The MacBook Pro range also has the Retina display, so called because it hits the sweet spot where our eyes are unable to actually detect any more pixels, so it’s about as precise as you can get, ideal for creative work. The 13-inch model offers 2560×1600 Retina resolution at 227 pixels per inch, while the 15-inch model offers 2880×1800 resolution at 220 pixels per inch.
It’s also worth nothing that both the 13- and 15in MacBook Pro with Touch Bar have removed the USB-A and SD card slots, opting to replace it with Thunderbolt 3 ports. The Thunderbolt 3 specification supports USB-C and thus, a single port can handle charging, data transfer, A/V and more but requires an adaptor to use legacy accessories.
The two 13in MacBook Pro with Touch Bar units offer a sixth-generation dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM and Intel Iris Graphics 550 as standard. Unlike with previous generations, both variants offer the same processor clock speeds: 2.9GHz, with Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz. The only real difference between the two is storage, as one offers 256GB and the other offers 512GB.
The various build-to-order options allow you to add a faster Intel processor, more RAM but interestingly, not more storage.
The 13in 2016 MacBook Pro without Touch Bar is £300 cheaper than its Touch Bar-enabled counterpart, but isn’t as powerful. It boasts a 2.0GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz, 8GB RAM, 256GB storage and an Intel Iris Graphics 540 GPU. It also has two Thunderbolt 3, compared to four offered by the standard Touch Bar models.
As mentioned, there’s also one 13in 2015 MacBook Pro still available and is the cheapest MacBook Pro currently in the range. It features a 2.7GHz Intel Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz coupled with 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD, Intel Iris Graphics 6100 and two Thunderbolt 2 ports. It’s worth noting that this is the only 13in MacBook Pro with standard USB ports.
Moving on to the 15in 2016 MacBook Pro, both offer 16GB RAM and a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, although there’s a slight difference in clock speed – 2.6GHz Turbo Boosted to 3.5GHz compared to 2.7GHz Turbo Boosted to 3.6GHz. Both offer Radeon Pro GPU, although the more expensive variant boasts the Pro 455 compared to the standard Pro 450, while both feature 2GB memory. There’s also a difference in storage, with 256- and 512GB variants available.
Interestingly, unlike with the 13in variant, you can upgrade the storage up to 2TB, boost the processor up to 2.9GHz (3.8GHz with Turbo Boost) and swap out the graphics card for a Radeon Pro 460 with 4GB memory.
There’s also a 15in 2015 MacBook Pro which features a 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 processor (Turbo Boost to 3.4GHz) along with 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Intel Iris Pro graphics and 2x Thunderbolt 2 ports. Like the 13in 2015 variant, this is the only 15in MacBook Pro with standard connectivity ports as Apple replaced the myriad of ports on the MacBook Pro with four Thunderbolt 3 ports on the 2016 variant.
Like the MacBook Air and the MacBook, the MacBook Pro doesn’t feature a Ethernet port, but it does have built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi and if you need to plug into a wired network you will be able to purchase an adaptor separately.
There are two USB 3 ports, but you can also connect accessories (including external storage and monitors) to your Retina MacBook Pro via the two Thunderbolt 2 ports (that’s one more than on the MacBook Air). Thunderbolt is Apple’s high-speed connector, which is faster than USB 3 (20Gbps compared to 5Gbps). You can purchase various adaptors that let you plug in FireWire 800 hardware, for example, into this port.
You will also find a HDMI port (for plugging in to you TV) and a SDXC card slot (for your camera’s memory stick) on both Retina MacBook Pro models.
Which Mac should I buy: How fast is the MacBook Pro?
If you want the fastest Retina MacBook Pro you really need to look at the 15-inch models. The 13in models have a dual core processor, while the 15in models have a quad-core processor. Those quad-core processors mean than the 15in models were around 60 percent faster than their 13-inch counterparts. Not that the 13-inch model is a slouch at all – you’ll still be able to achieve more powerful tasks with the 13in MacBook Pro models than you would with the MacBook Air or MacBook models.
Which Mac should I buy: Who is the MacBook Pro best for?
The main selling points of the 2016 MacBook Pro are its Touch Bar with built-in Touch ID, high res screen, powerful processors, and the fact that you get all that in a compact and light body. Battery life is better than that of the MacBook Air, and should suffice for daily use. We think the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is perfect for anyone who needs a powerful laptop that they can carry around without damaging their back, with a special focus on creatives.
As for whether you should buy the 13- or 15-inch model, this depends foremost on what you will be using it for, and secondly on how often you will be carrying the laptop around. If what matters most to you is having a laptop that is light enough to carry with you on your commute, but powerful enough to use for power hungry applications, then the 13-inch will suit you.
If your needs are a little more advanced, the 15-inch MacBook Pro will serve you well. With some of the best Speedmark scores of any Mac, and significantly higher than the 13-inch models, the 15-inch models are capable of pretty much anything. And if you are wondering whether an iMac might suit you better because it has a bigger screen, remember you can always plug into your 30-inch monitor and use that when you are at your desk.
Which Mac should I buy: Mac mini
The Mac mini is Apple’s compact desktop computer first introduced in 2005. It’s also Apple’s cheapest Mac, starting at just £479. One of the best features of the Mac mini is its HDMI port, which helps to make this Mac an excellent option for a home media centre as you can plug it directly into your TV screen.
When to buy a Mac mini: When is a new Mac mini coming out?
The Mac mini was last updated in October 2014, so there could be a new model soon. Read new Mac mini 2016 update rumours.
Which Mac should I buy: Mac mini specifications explained
There are three Mac minis available. The cheapest Mac mini has the same 1.4GHz dual-core processor and integrated graphics chip as the MacBook Air and the entry level iMac, so it’s no surprise that the new Mac mini’s processor and graphics performance is close to the current MacBook Air range. The MacBook Air has the edge due to its flash storage, while the Mac mini and iMac still feature a hard drive as standard.
The other two Mac minis offer Intel dual-core i5 2.6GHz and 2.8GHz processors with Intel Iris Graphics. These are comparable to the processors inside the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, but as with the MacBook Air, you can expect the faster flash storage to give these models a boost. The 21.5-inch iMacs offer 2.7GHz and 2.9GHz quad-core processors, so even expect them to be significantly faster, even with the burden of movable storage.
The Mac mini offers only Intel i5 dual-core processor options as standard, there are i7 processors available at point of sale, but these are still only dual-core. The previous generation of Mac mini models offered better quad-core processors.
The Mac mini weights 1.22kg and the dimensions are 19.7cm by 19.7cm. It’s just 3.6cm tall.
When it comes to the amount of space the unit will take up on your desk, its footprint is smaller than the 11-inch MacBook Air, with dimensions of 30cm by 19.2cm.
The top of the range Mac mini has a new build to order option. You can now get a 2TB Fusion Drive for an extra £90 when you buy the £949 model, bringing the price to £1,039. Only the top of the range model has this option. If you think you might need the extra RAM we recommend that you purchase the extra RAM when you buy the Mac mini, it used to be possible to upgrade the RAM in a Mac mini but this is no longer possible as Apple has soldered the RAM on. We would recommend the Fusion Drive option as the SSD part of the storage will speed things up considerably, while the extra capacity of the hard drive is likely to come in handy. If you are setting the Mac mini up as a home media centre you may miss the fact that it lacks an optical drive, but you can always purchase a SuperDrive for £65, and continue to play DVDs and CDs that way.
The 2012 Mac mini server version offered a 2TB hard drive, which made it a popular choice among those looking for a media server, so Apple’s decision to offer this 2TB fusion drive is likely a reaction to this. Read also: Mac mini vs MacBook Air and Mac mini vs MacBook Pro
The Mac mini offers an HDMI port, and perhaps for this reason it is a very popular Mac for those wishing to set up a Mac media centre in their living room. You will also find four USB 3 ports, an SDXD card slot, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, and even an IR receiver. The Mac mini features an Ethernet port, and built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi like all the newer Macs.
The Mac mini also lacks an optical drive, as we said above, the only Mac to still feature a CD/DVD drive is the MacBook Pro (non Retina). We don’t find we have much use for an optical drive these days, but if you really think you need one there is always the option of purchasing Apple’s USB SuperDrive for £65.
The Mac mini used to offer a FireWire 800 port, which will be important to those who have previously made big investments in FireWire peripherals, although you could purchase a Thunderbolt to FireWire adaptor and continue to use them (there are two Thunderbolt 2 ports on the Mac mini which offers a throughput of 20Gbps). Now the only Mac to offer FireWire is the non-Retina MacBook Pro.
All the Mac mini models feature the following ports and standards
- 2 Thunderbolt 2 ports
- 4 USB 3 ports
- HDMI port
- SDXC card slot
- Gigabit Ethernet
- Audio in/out
- IR receiver
- 802.11n Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 4.0
Which Mac should I buy: How fast is the Mac mini?
The Mac mini is not one of Apple’s fastest Macs, however, you can get a surprisingly speedy Mac for just £479. Even the 2012 generation of Mac mini was a pretty speedy beast.
Which Mac should I buy: Who is the Mac mini best for?
The Mac mini is a great second Mac, or perfect for anyone who uses their Mac for browsing the web and writing emails, and doing general office work. It’s powerful enough to do a good job with photo and home video editing (although we wouldn’t recommend using it to create the next Hollywood blockbuster). If you are looking for a Mac that will just sit on your desk, or in the study, the Mac mini is a great option.
The Mac mini is also a popular choice for a living room Mac. A lot of people plug it into their TV screen via an HDMI cable (the Mac mini retains its HDMI port).
When the Mac mini stopped featuring a optical drive back in 2011 there was a bit of an outcry from those who though it was an ideal home entertainment centre. Three years later and DVDs aren’t as popular as they were then, so chances are you won’t miss the lack of an optical drive, but if you think you would benefit from one in your living room, you can always purchase a Super Drive for £65. You won’t be able to play a Blu-ray movie via the SuperDrive though. You might find that there is a digital version of the movie available with the disk that you can download onto your Mac mini though. Read: Connect your Mac mini to a TV: turn a Mac mini into a media hub.
The mini has an IR receiver so you can use it with Apple’s remote (£15), that way you can controlled it from the sofa. You could also use an Apple Wireless Keyboard or a Magic Trackpad for more control. Alternatively download the Apple Remote app on your iPhone.
Which Mac should I buy: iMac
Apple’s iMac is probably its most famous Mac. First introduced in 1998 and causing shockwaves in personal computing, over the years the iMac has lost its old bulky CRT monitor, and slimmed down. Now it is incredibly thin, but the whole computer is still concealed behind that gorgeous display (there is no tower to hide away under your desk).
There are two different sizes of iMac available: the 21.5-inch iMac and the 27-inch iMac. In October 2015 Apple updated the iMac range, there are now three 21.5in iMacs, one of which sports a 4K Retina display; and three 27in iMacs, all of which now come with a 5K Retina display. Read Which iMac should I buy
When to buy an iMac: Is a new iMac coming out?
As mentioned above, the iMac range was last updated in October of 2015 so it’s quite possible that it will be updated again before 2016 is over. We’d recommend waiting a month or two to find out whether the iMac is in for a refresh. Find out more in our new iMac 2016 release date rumour round-up.
Which Mac should I buy: iMac specifications explained
The full iMac range was updated in October 2015 – more than two years after the last time Apple updated the 21.5in models. Over the years that followed, Apple updated the 27in models with the new 5K Retina iMac model introduced in October 2014 and then another Retina model introduced in May 2015 (read the review here: 3.3GHz Retina iMac review) there was also a new entry-level 21.5in model introduced in June 2014, along with lower prices across the range. However, the rest of the iMac range had been left untouched since September 2013.
The iMac line up includes three 21.5-inch models and three 27-inch models, one of the 21.5in iMacs offers a 4K Retina display, while all three of the 27-inch Retina display models now offer 5K Retina displays.
You’ll find a variety of processor speeds, but you will find different processors depending on the machine you choose. The 21.5in model run from Intel’s Broadwell processor, while the 27in models use the newer Skylake chips. Apple says that it couldn’t use Skylake in the 21in models because Skylake doesn’t have an integrated graphics chip yet, which it relies on for these models. Still, even the Broadwell processors are an update on the Intel’s Haswell generation processors that were being used previously.
You’ll also find different hard drive sizes, graphics cards and RAM options, we’ll go in to more detail below:
The entry-level iMac, which costs £1,049, features a 1.6GHz dual-core i5 processor, 8GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 6000, and a 1TB hard drive.
Next up is an iMac that for another £100 gives you a faster 2.8GHz i5 processor, 8GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 6200, and a 1TB hard drive.
For another £200, the top-of-the-range 21-inch iMac offers a 3.1GHz i5 processor, 8GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 6200, and a 1TB hard drive for £1,449. The crucial difference between this model and the rest of the range is its 4K Retina display, which offers 4,096×2304 pixels.
The 27-inch iMacs also offer i5 processors (unlike the 15-inch MacBook Pros which introduce i7 processors at the high-end). However, the processors in the 27-inch iMacs are quad-core, so you can expect more power from them compared to the smaller iMacs.
The entry-level 27-inch iMac features a 3.2GHz quad-core i5 processor, it also features 8GB RAM, AMD Radeon R9 M380 and a 1TB hard drive. This seems identical to the older model, which also offered a 3.2GHz quad-core i5 processor, 8GB RAM and a 1TB hard drive, but of course the processor and graphics card are better, and the new entry-level 27in model now offers a 5K retina display for the same price: £1,749.
For another £200 there is the mid-range, also with a 3.2GHz processor and RAM as standard, it offers a slightly better AMD Radeon R9 M390 and a much faster 1TB Fusion Drive. This model previously offered what might appear to be a faster 3.3GHz processor (although the new processor is a next generation Skylake), 8GB RAM as standard and a 1TB hard drive.
The top-of-the-range iMac offers a 3.3GHz Quad-Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM as standard, AMD Radeon R9 M395 and a 1TB Fusion Drive. This model used to offier a 3.5GHz processor, which again looks like a faster processor – but you should note that this is a next generation processor, and should be faster. That Retina iMac cost £1,999 when it launched in October 2014, but the price was increased to £2,249 in October 2016.
There are various RAM configurations available for the 27in models. While they ship with 8GB RAM, you can upgrade this to 16GB or 32GB, and in fact there is a 64GB RAM option coming, with some third parties promising to offer it when the RAM configuration becomes available – this is possible because the RAM in the 27in models is user upgradable – rare from an Apple product.
The 21in models offer 8GB or 16GB RAM options but these aren’t upgradable later on, you would have to opt for more RAM at point of purchase.
There is also a build to order 4.0GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7 at point of purchase of the 27in iMacs.
You may be wondering why the iMacs don’t yet feature SSD flash drives as standard (with the exception of the Fusion Drive in the mid-range and top-of-the-range 27in iMacs – Fusion Drives combine flash storage and hard drive). Knowing how much of a boost an SSD gives to a Mac we find it surprising that Apple continues to include hard drives as standard in its iMacs. Luckily there are various build-to-order options which allow you to add Fusion Drives and flash storage. The flash storage options include: 256GB SSD for £160, 512GB SSD, and the option of adding a Fusion Drive, which combines flash storage with a hard drive. We think that the Fusion Drive is a great solution, allowing you to benefit from more storage capacity and a faster experience. We would like to see Fusion Drives as standard across the range. For example, read why we recommend that you buy the Fusion Drive to go with the £899 iMac here.
The £1,049 iMac used to feature the exact same processor and graphics as the MacBook Air, perhaps that Mac laptop will soon see a similar update. The other iMac’s are more comparable to Apple’s Retina MacBook Pro (also due an update). Obviously a big part of your decision if you are choosing between the two will be your need for portability. Remember that if you choose a laptop you can always plug it into a screen when you are at your desk.
Wondering how much space the iMac will take up on your desk? The 21.5-inch iMac dimensions are 52.8cm wide by 45cm high. The 27-inch iMac dimensions are 65cm wide and 51.6cm high. The screen is just 5mm thick (or should that be thin). The base at the bottom of the iMac measures 17.5cm on the 21-inch and 20.3cm on the 27in. The iMacs weigh 5.68kg or 9.54kg, so we don’t recommend carrying them around.
Like many Macs, the iMac offers an SDXC slot, USB slots, 802.11ac WiFi, and Ethernet. Now that all the models have been updated they all feature Thunderbolt 2 ports. Previously, with the exception of the Retina iMacs, the other iMacs were still using the old Thunderbolt 1 standard.
There is no FireWire port on the iMac, if you want a dedicated FireWire port you’re only options are the non-Retina MacBook Pro and the Mac mini – but you can plug a FireWire adaptor into one of the two Thunderbolt ports. You will find four USB 3 ports, which is the same number available on the Mac mini and Mac Pro.
The iMac lacks an optical drive, Apple traded in the built in SuperDrive when it slimmed down the monitor to a super-thin 5mm. As we said above, the only Mac to still feature a CD/DVD drive is the non-Retina MacBook Pro. We don’t find we have much use for an optical drive these days, but if you really think you need one there is always the option of purchasing Apple’s USB SuperDrive for £65. You can buy a SuperDrive here.
All the iMac models feature the following ports and standards
- 2 Thunderbolt 2 ports
- 4 USB 3 ports
- SDXC card slot
- Gigabit Ethernet
- Headphone port (with support for Apple iPhone headset with microphone)
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 4.0
Which Mac should I buy: How fast is the iMac?
The Retina iMac is one Apple’s fastest Macs, even comparable to the Mac Pro. In fact we would tend to recommend the Retina iMac over the Mac Pro thanks to it’s gorgeous 5K Retina display (an equivalent display would cost around £1,500 on top of the price of the Mac Pro).
Which Mac should I buy: Who is the iMac best for?
It’s a desktop Mac, so the iMac is obviously best for someone who doesn’t mind being tied to their desk. Perhaps you already own a laptop and need a decent work machine. The great thing about buying an Apple computer is that because everything is tied to your iCloud account all your Safari bookmarks, iCloud documents, and applications will be available to you on all of your Macs.
The type of person for whom the 21-inch iMac is ideal will be different to the type who would require a 27-inch iMac.
The 21-inch iMacs are great options for most general use. If you are a gamer we would steer you away from the £1,049 iMac as the graphics card doesn’t support many popular modern games. The other 21-inch iMacs, particularly the £1,249 model, which has an Nvidia graphics card, will do a better job.
For professionals who need a powerful Mac the 27-inch models are excellent options. It is likely that for this category of user the choice will be between the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, iMac, and Mac Pro.
The Mac Pro is obviously even faster but it’s also a lot more expensive, and as we note above, you can upgrade your iMac and spend less and get a machine gives the Mac Pro a run for its money.
The difference is the fact that you get a 27-inch screen with the iMac, but many professional Mac users will already own a 30-inch display that they can plug into a MacBook Pro. (You will still hear complaints about the older iMacs and their super glossy screens, luckily Apple listened to the complaints and for the past few generations, those using the iMac haven’t had to spend their days gazing at their own reflections.)
The Retina iMac is ideal for those who work with video and images, it’s also great for gaming.
Which Mac should I buy: Mac Pro
The Mac Pro is Apple’s professional Mac with a price tag to match, starting at £2,999, up from its original £2,499 price tag. It’s a fully fledged workstation aimed at those who need the ultimate in power, or the true Mac fanatic.
Apple’s Mac Pro gained a whole new revolutionary design back in December 2013, although very few people were able to get their hands on one before the beginning of 2014. To jump straight to the Mac Pro section click here.
We expect that the Mac Pro will be updated soon. Read more: Mac Pro release date rumours
Which Mac should I buy: Mac Pro specifications explained
Having neglected the Mac Pro for a few years, Apple in 2013 updated the Mac Pro. For many this 2013 Mac Pro didn’t ship until spring 2014 though. There are two standard Mac Pro models, a quad-core 3.7GHz Intel Xeon E5 (£2,999) and a 6-core 3.5GHz Intel Xeon E5 (was £3,299, now £3,899). As well as sporting more cores and a different processor, the top-of-the range Mac Pro also features 16GB RAM (rather than 12GB RAM), and faster graphics cards, the Dual AMD FirePro D500 with 3GB GDDR5 VRAM each (rather than the Dual AMD FirePro D300?with 2GB GDDR5 VRAM each). Note that those are dual graphics cards, one of the selling points of the Mac Pro. Apple have engineered a powerful GPU architecture for the Mac Pro. Apple claims that with the additional power, users will be able to “seamlessly edit full-resolution 4K video while simultaneously rendering effects in the background – and still have enough power to connect up to three high-resolution 4K displays.”
Both standard units also feature 256GB flash storage, with build-to-order options for 512GB or 1TB of flash storage.
We’ve heard that Intel is shipping new Xeon E5 chips so we expect that Apple will be updating the Mac Pro soon. Read more about what we expect from the 2016 Mac Pro here.
Most people buying the Mac Pro will be choosing from the various build-to-order options, of which there are many. Choices include a 12-core 2.7GHz processor, 64GB RAM, a 1TB flash drive, and the Dual AMD FirePro D700 GPUs with 6GB of GDDR5 VRAM. If you were to build the ultimate Mac Pro it would cost you £7,299.
Wondering how much space the Mac Pro will take up on your desk? The Mac Pro has a diameter of 16.7cm and is 25.1cm tall. It weighs 5kg, a fraction less than the 21-inch iMac. The old aluminium Mac Pro is a giant in comparison.
The Mac Pro offers six Thunderbolt 2 ports – that’s enough to drive three 4K displays or six Thunderbolt displays, if you wanted to. You’ll also find Dual Gigabit Ethernet – two Ethernet controllers, each connected to it’s own lane, ensuring that there is enough bandwidth to operate at full speed. As you would expect the Mac Pro also offers 802.11ac WiFi.
There is no FireWire port on the Mac Pro, but as we’ve already mentioned above, you can get a Thunderbolt to FireWire adaptor. There are four USB 3 ports, the same number as you will find on the Mac mini and iMac.
The Mac Pro lacks an optical drive. We don’t find we have much use for an optical drive these days, but if you really think you need one there is always the option of purchasing Apple’s USB SuperDrive for £65.
All the Mac Pro models feature the following ports and standards
- 6 Thunderbolt 2 ports
- 4 USB 3 ports
- Dual Gigabit Ethernet
- HDMI 1.4 UltraHD
- Headphone port
- Microphone port
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 4.0
Which Mac should I buy: How fast is the Mac Pro?
As you would expect from Apple’s flagship Mac, the Mac Pro is fast. The surprising fact is that the year-old 27-inch iMac (235) and the top-of-the-range 15-inch MacBook Pro (280) aren’t that far behind the entry-level model (291). And if you bump up your iMac when you buy it with build to order options you can get a pretty speedy Mac for your money (326) that rivals even the six-core Mac Pro model (323).
However, there is more to the Mac Pro than the speed and many users will be attracted to many of the advanced technologies that come with it, such as the dual GPUs, the powerful multicore processors, the Thunderbolt 2 ports, and the super-fast flash storage. For many the build-to-order options will allow them to build a professional and powerful workstation that will be able to do things an iMac user could only dream of.
We tested one build-to-order model with the 8-core set up and the ultimate graphics card (it would have cost £5,219). For now that is the fastest Mac we have ever tested, scoring 350. But if we manage to get our hands on the 12-core version we expect to be astounded.
Which Mac should I buy: Who is the Mac Pro best for?
The Mac Pro is the Mac for professionals who need extreme processing capability. For example, someone who wants a “video editing powerhouse” as Apple says, or those who use 3D applications.
If you are a power used the Mac Pro might intrigue you, but you will likely find that the iMac or Retina MacBook Pro are sufficient for your needs.
Which Mac should I buy: Everything else you need to know about Apple’s Macs
Upgradability: Essential upgrade options for Macs
Unfortunately over the years Macs have become nigh on impossible to upgrade, as in its efforts to slim down the units Apple has glued components in place. Apple is also notorious for using its own proprietary standards, so if you were to try and add a new SSD drive at a later date, for example, expect to be stumped. The best advice is to build the Mac you need for the future when you purchase it from Apple. Our first recommendation would be to always upgrade the RAM to as much as you can afford. And where available opt for an SSD or a Fusion Drive. You can always plug in an external hard drive or use a wireless NAS drive.
Luckily the RAM in the 27in iMac is user accessible, but beware that you might void your warrenty if you open up the Mac to fiddle about.
Macs also support the following standards, but you will need to purchase an adaptor to use them:
- DVI output using Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter (sold separately)
- VGA output using Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter (sold separately)
- Dual-link DVI output using Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter (sold separately)
- HDMI audio and video output using third-party Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter (sold separately)
- Apple Thunderbolt to FireWire Adapter (sold separately)
- Apple Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter (sold separately)
Take our ‘Which Mac is right for me?’ quiz
Also read: Best free Mac Apps
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