Mac Mini vs. MacBook Air

Apple's Mac Mini and MacBook Air are both great, but which is better?

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Picking the right Mac device for you isn’t an easy task. Do you want a laptop or a desktop? Something lightweight with long battery life or a powerhouse with the most capable components? While the answer to either of those questions is dependent on your situation, there are some universal truths about all hardware that are worth taking note of to make your choice easier.

In this head to head we pit the Apple’s fantastic Mac Mini versus the MacBook Air. Let’s see which comes out on top.

Design

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

Both 2018 refreshes of the Mac Mini and MacBook Air build upon the design choices of their predecessors. The Mac Mini is a thin slab with a metallic casing that’s incredibly understated in its design. That lets it form an attractive centerpiece of your office, or be hidden away beneath a monitor or under the desk — you can put it wherever your monitor cables can reach, because it’s tiny.

It is a desktop though, which means it’s designed to sit statically on your desk. The MacBook Air is a different beast entirely because it’s a laptop; though it too is thin and light. It’s longer and broader than the Mac Mini because it has to incorporate a screen, but it is much thinner. Both devices are exceptionally well built, with sturdy chassis that don’t creak or bend.

The Mac Mini packs its smaller footprint with a wide array of ports. It offers four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB-A 3.0 ports, an HDMI 2.0 output, a Gigabit Ethernet connector, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The MacBook Air is far more restrictive with only two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a 3.5mm headphone jack. You don’t necessarily need a huge selection of video outputs with a laptop, but the Mac Mini is far more versatile when it comes to wired connections.

Both devices support Wi-Fi 5 (802.11.ac) wireless networking, but the Mac Mini supports Bluetooth 5.0, where the MacBook Air only supports Bluetooth 4.2.

Performance

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The hardware options for the MacBook Air are limited, with only a choice of memory or storage affecting price. The base configuration starts at $1,200 and comes with a dual-core Intel Core i5-8210Y CPU, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of SSD storage. Compared to other MacBooks it holds its own rather well, but falls well behind a number of Windows machines in the same price bracket. Still, that configuration has enough oomph behind it to handle everyday tasks like web browsing and document work with ease, as well as media viewing and photo editing.

If you want a little more headroom on the memory and storage front, you can upgrade to 16GB of RAM for an additional $200, or up to 1.5TB of storage (although depending on your choice that can cost as much as $1,100 more). The graphics core in every MacBook Air is Intel’s onboard UHD Graphics 617, which is fine for media viewing and should deliver semi-playable frame rates in the least intensive of games. Don’t expect to play anything more than that though.

The Mac Mini has a much lower starting price point of $800, though its hardware configuration is slightly weaker in turn. It sports an Intel Core i3-8100H quad-core CPU, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. Its graphics core, the onboard Intel UHD Graphics 630, is more powerful, but it won’t do much beyond entry-level gaming.

At a comparable price-point, however, the Mac Mini becomes far more powerful than the MacBook Air. At $1,100 it comes equipped with a choice of a six-core Intel Core i5-8400B with 256GB of storage, or a six-core Core i7-8700B with 128GB of storage, both of which are leaps and bounds ahead of the MacBook Air’s CPU. Storage upgrades reach 2TB and are just as expensive as the MacBook Air’s options. The RAM is also upgradeable to as much as 64GB, although that costs up to $800 extra.

You could always upgrade it yourself after buying for far less, but it’s difficult enough that we don’t recommend it. Still, a 6/10 repairability score on iFixit is pretty good for an Apple product.

Macbook Air (2018) Review

The Mac Mini is more capable at the same price point as the MacBook Air, but it’s important to note that where the Apple laptop can be used right out of the box, the Mac Mini lacks all the peripherals required to use it correctly, like a keyboard, mouse, and speakers or headphones. It doesn’t have its own display either (here are some recommendations), which depending on your preferences could be a major expense to add on top of the Mac Mini’s already inflated price tag over its predecessors.

In comparison, the MacBook Air has a keyboard and touchpad built into the frame. While we aren’t huge fans of the keyboard Apple is improving its design with each generation and this one is the best of recent years. The display is a classic Apple Retina design, with a high resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 pixels. We did find it a little dull though, so it’s likely that an external Mac Mini display would end up looking better. It would certainly be far larger and likely hit a higher resolution and contrast.

Portability

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

There’s no denying that the MacBook Air is the more portable of the two pieces of hardware. At just 2.75 pounds and 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.61-inches, it’s a lean and lightweight laptop that can be used on the go. It’s got the best battery life of any MacBook we’ve tested, which isn’t fantastic by modern laptop standards, but it’s enough to keep you going through a full work day and well into the evening.

The Mac Mini isn’t designed to be used on the go, so there’s no built in display, keyboard, or battery. However, it is very light. It weighs just 2.9 pounds, which is only slightly heavier than the MacBook Air. We aren’t saying you’ll want to take it on the train with a display, keyboard, and mouse to use on your commute, but if you travel between offices and want to take your hardware with you, the Mac Mini does make it possible. It’s certainly a far cry from major desktop systems like the iMac, or big Windows gaming machines.

Don’t need a laptop? The Mac Mini is mightier

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It would be a waste of everyone’s time if we were to end this comparison and simply suggest the following: If you want a laptop, get the MacBook Air, and if you want a desktop, get the Mac Mini. It’s an important factor to consider, but it’s not the only part of this story. The Mac Mini has a vast array of ports that make it a much more versatile computer for connecting various devices. You can get an adapter for almost anything that you want to connect to the MacBook Air, but just two ports means you might need a few of them, or to constantly swap them in and out if you use multiple external devices throughout the day.

The Mac Mini’s hardware is much more capable than the MacBook Air at a comparable price. It’s still pretty competitive at its entry-level price too, which is much more affordable — especially if you already have a monitor, keyboard, and mouse ready to use. If you don’t, make sure to factor that into your budget for a new system.

The MacBook Air is a great laptop and the Mac Mini is a great desktop. Comparing two different pieces of hardware like this isn’t easy, but the Mac Mini is a more capable device in enough ways that we’re confident in recommending it over the Air. Unless you really need a laptop. In which case, you already knew which one you were going to buy.

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