Best Apple desktop: Mac Studio vs. iMac vs. Mac Mini

In the last two years, Apple has released three new Mac desktop computers, all based on Apple Silicon, yet these systems are wildly different. The new Mac Studio sits at the top, with the iMac and Mac Mini filling the lower tiers. Clearly, the most expensive model has the greatest performance. However, several thousand dollars might be wasted if it’s meant to be used for tasks that wouldn’t even stress the cheapest model, which is also quite speedy.

When shopping for a new Mac, it’s important to take a moment to think about how the computer will be put to work and what components from your current system can be reused. For example, if a nice monitor is already available, is there any advantage in getting an all-in-one iMac that includes a monitor? It might make sense if there’s a need for a second screen and all three systems can support multiple displays.

Let’s take a look at the top three Mac desktop systems to see which is the best for you.

Mac Studio’s massive performance

The Mac Studio and Studio Display at Apple's Peek Performance event.

Apple’s Mac Studio is an exciting new computer with incredible performance in a small package, and there’s no doubt it would be a great machine for anyone. There is a significant barrier for most shoppers, though, as the Mac Studio starts at $1,999 for just the mini-tower and power cord. Adding an Apple Studio Display, keyboard, and mouse bumps the price up to $3,896. Choosing the highest performance configuration more than doubles the cost to $7,999, making this a super powerful yet very expensive system.

With the option for an M1 Max with 10 CPU cores and 25 or 32 GPU cores or an M1 Ultra processor, which boasts 20 CPU cores and up to 64 GPU cores, the Mac Studio reigns supreme in Mac desktop performance, even beating the Mac Pro that towers above it in a massive 40-pound case. The Mac Studio fits into a remarkably small 7.7-by-7.7-by-3.7-inch body and weighs under 8 pounds. Apple claims its M1 Ultra is the most powerful chip in any personal computer, despite its relatively low energy demands and low-temperature design. Once more, Apple is pushing the PC industry to go further with its advanced chip technology that’s closely related to the processor used in an iPhone.

While there’s no doubt that the Mac Studio is a powerhouse that will meet almost any need, most people simply don’t require that much performance, and it would make more sense to consider Apple’s other Mac desktop computers.

Mac Mini brings power without the price

mac studio vs imac mini 2020 m1 with monitor keyboard mouse

The Mac Mini is a low-cost alternative that still packs a punch. It’s possible to buy an M1 Mac Mini for just $699. That doesn’t include anything beyond the tiny 1.4-inch tall computer and its power cord. However, for a budget computer, it’s a fair assumption that reusing existing accessories is OK. Plug in your existing monitor, keyboard, and mouse to use the Mac Mini to power through everyday tasks quickly and efficiently while leaving plenty of cash to purchase apps and upgrade accessories.

Its M1 processor was released in 2020, the first generation of Apple Silicon, and that means it lags a bit behind the M2 chip found in the latest MacBook laptops and can’t compete with the M1 Pro, M1 Max, or M1 Ultra-powered computers that launched in 2021 and 2022.

That doesn’t mean it’s a slow computer, though. The Mac Mini can run single-core tasks nearly as fast as an M1 Ultra, and that is the most common use of a computer. When processing videos, crunching a massive spreadsheet, running a demanding game, or handling heavily multilayered images or audio files, the difference might show. For browser tasks, photo adjustments, page layout, and word processing, an M1 chip blazes through most jobs with no problem and rarely needs to be cooled by the fan.

24-inch iMac includes everything

Man using a 24-inch M1 iMac.

Apple updated its iMac computer in 2021, giving it an M1 processor and refreshing the design with an ultra-slim 24-inch display. Starting at $1,299, it’s an all-in-one computer that completely eliminates the hassle of building a system. The M1 iMac comes with a Magic Mouse and Magic Keyboard, a big screen, and a 1080p webcam, so it only needs to be unboxed and plugged in to begin using it.

Since an iMac includes a screen, that’s an important factor when considering this computer. Is the display big enough, sharp enough, and bright enough? For most people, the 24-inch iMac display will look fantastic. With a 4.5K resolution and measuring 24 inches diagonally, it’s a large and crisp display that also boasts 500 nits of brightness. An expensive monitor, such as an Apple Studio Display or a pricey third-party monitor, would be needed to beat the iMac display.

Which desktop Mac is right for you?

The 2021 M1 iMac, with its bright and crisp 24-inch display, is a good all-in-one solution. At $1,299, it handles most daily computing needs and looks great on a desk, keeping everything tidy and compact with the focus entirely on the screen, keyboard, and mouse. As a first computer or when upgrading every component at once, it’s hard to beat.

For more flexibility, the 2020 M1 Mac Mini offers the same processor as the iMac and virtually disappears on a desktop with its low-profile 7.7-inch square footprint. For $699, it’s a powerful computer that can replace a tower as long as there isn’t a strong demand for intensive graphics processing. A keyboard, mouse, monitor, webcam, and speakers will be needed to build a complete system. There are two Thunderbolt/USB-C and two USB-A ports, HDMI, and Ethernet, as well as Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5 to connect various components and accessories.

The Mac Studio stands out as the powerhouse desktop that starts at a higher level than a fully-loaded Mac Mini or iMac. The base model contains an M1 Max chip that blasts through heavy workloads with four times the performance of an M1. If there is a need for more than 16 gigabytes of memory, the Mac Studio starts with 32 gigabytes and reaches as high as 128 gigabytes. This allows larger datasets to reside in memory so the processor doesn’t have to wait for information to be retrieved from storage. The $1,999 starting price is over double that of the Mac Mini but is often worth the cost when used for work.

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