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Mac Mini vs. MacBook Air

Picking the right Mac 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 comparison, we pit Apple’s fantastic Mac mini against the MacBook Air. Let’s see which comes out on top.

Design

Macbook Air (2018) Review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

The Mac mini and MacBook Air build upon the design choices of their predecessors. Both devices are exceptionally well-built, with sturdy frames that don’t creak or bend.

The Mac mini is a thin slab with a metallic casing that’s incredibly understated in its design. It can be an attractive centerpiece in your office or remain hidden beneath a monitor or under the desk. You can essentially put it wherever your monitor cables can reach, but it’s still a desktop, meaning it’s designed to remain stationary.

The MacBook Air is a different beast entirely. It’s a laptop, after all. It’s longer and broader than the Mac mini due to the integrated screen, but it’s also much thinner. Since it’s a laptop, you can use it anywhere, unlike the Mac mini.

For connectivity, 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 and Bluetooth 5.0.

Performance

The hardware options for the MacBook Air are limited, with only a choice of processor, memory, and storage affecting the price.

The base configuration starts at $999 and comes with a 1.1GHz dual-core 10th Gen Intel Core i3-1000NG4 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of solid-state drive storage. Its performance is decent enough, but it falls well behind the MacBook Pro and 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 ($200) and up to 2TB of storage ($800 max). Other customization options only include 10th Gen Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs.

The graphics chip in every MacBook Air is Intel’s onboard Iris Plus Graphics based on its 10nm Gen 11 GPU design. It’s fine for media viewing and should deliver semi-playable frame rates in the least intensive of games. However, don’t expect to play anything better than that, though you should see better performance with the Core i7 configuration than the Mac mini.

The Mac mini has a much lower starting price of $799, but its hardware configuration is slightly weaker in turn. It sports an older 8th Gen Intel Core i3-8100H quad-core CPU, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. Its graphics processor, the onboard Intel UHD Graphics 630, won’t do much beyond entry-level gaming.

At a comparable price, however, the Mac mini becomes far more powerful than the MacBook Air. At $1,099, it comes equipped with a choice of a six-core Intel Core i5-8400B or a six-core Core i7-8700B, both of which are leaps and bounds ahead of the MacBook Air’s dual-core CPU.

However, storage upgrades reach 2TB and are just as expensive as the MacBook Air’s options. The RAM is also upgradeable up to 64GB, though that costs up to $1,000 extra.

You could always upgrade the Mac mini yourself after buying one 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 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 great recommendations) — depending on your preferences, that could be a major expense to add on top of the Mac mini’s already inflated cost.

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 and now features True Tone technology, with a high resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 pixels. We did find it a little dull, 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. At just 2.8 pounds and 11.97 by 8.36 by 0.61 inches, it’s a lean and lightweight laptop that can be used on the go. It has 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 workday 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 compact, measuring 7.7 by 7.7 by 1.4 inches. It’s also very light, weighing 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

In the era of smartphone computers in everyone’s pocket, portability isn’t as important as it once was. While the Mac Mini is not a laptop and is not a portable computer, it does offer some advantages over the similarly priced MacBook Air.

The Mac mini offers more options for connectivity. You are less likely to run out of room if you run multiple peripherals. You can stay connected without using hubs that tend to slow device performance down. Given its range of ports in a small footprint, you can plug almost anything in with ease. On the off chance that you are missing a compatible connector on this device, it is likely you can find an adapter.

If you are running the MacBook Air, you are limited to just two ports. While you can still use hubs and adapters to get the setup you want, you will have to choose between portability and usability. You may find yourself continually swapping them in and out if you use numerous external devices throughout the day. 

Factoring in the devices you need to connect may help sway you in one direction or the other. If you favor working from home rather than being mobile, the convenience of a more permanent desktop setup may be appealing.

Consider this: The Mac mini’s hardware is much more capable than the MacBook Air, and it’s still pretty competitive at its entry-level price, too. If you already have a mouse, keyboard, and display, you can get a lot more bang for your buck. If you don’t already have the peripherals, you will need to purchase them to use the Mac Mini. Make sure to include the costs of additional hardware in your budget. Compatibility could be a challenge here, too, so think about adapters and connectors again.

The MacBook Air is an outstanding laptop, and the Mac mini is a great desktop. Directly 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 MacBook Air. We can’t argue with reliable performance and connectivity. Unless you need a laptop, in which case you already knew you would favor the MacBook.

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