Back to School Buyers Guide: Which desktop is the best Mac for college?

in General Discussion
It's easy to assume that a student will need a notebook Mac, but if you're going to be based in one place, a desktop one can be a much better value. You just have to know which features really matter when choosing the best Mac for college.

A 27-inch iMac showing a Mac mini on its screen for college
A 27-inch iMac can be the best Mac for college students needing a desktop

All things being equal, a notebook is often the best Mac for college students, because you can take it with you to class, you can have it with you everywhere. Yet there is a price to be paid for that portability -- and we don't just mean the one you'll be paying in dollars.

Desktop Macs, in fact all desktop computers, give you more for your money than all notebooks. Without the constraints of having to be small and light, or to work with batteries, a desktop Mac will always provide more processing power for your buck.

Right now, Apple does have its 2013 Mac Pro, although it's increasingly hard to find. The company also has its forthcoming 2019 Mac Pro, but that won't be out in time for your studies.

So for this Back to School season, your desktop Mac choices are the Mac mini, the iMac and the iMac Pro.

Dispensing with the iMac Pro

Let's get one of those out of the way immediately. If your studies really need you to have the power of an iMac Pro, you already know it. You've already signed up for Live Stream Production 101 or An Introduction to 3D Molecular Modelling.

True, even if you're an English major, there are situations where the horsepower of the iMac Pro will make your studies go faster. And it's also true that a machine like this will last you for years after you graduate.

However, you're a student and if we will always say that price can't be your only consideration, you can't ignore it, either.

The base iMac Pro costs $5,000, and while it is worth that money, it's unlikely to be worth it for your studies.

Mac mini

The base Mac mini, on the other hand, costs $799, or more than six times less. It's less powerful, but for writing term papers, you will not be able to tell the difference.

The Mac mini is the basic option, but it is a sensible one and the machine is far from underpowered for the majority of people with the majority of work they need to do on it.

Only, there's being sensible, and there's being practical. The Mac mini might very well be the best Mac for college for a giant number of students, but it automatically has two issues that you have to consider.

The most immediately apparent is that it doesn't come with anything. No monitor, no keyboard, no mouse or trackpad.

The Mac mini is unusual in that you can't even add those items when you're buying one online from Apple. Where every other Mac gives you options to add on keyboards and trackpads, the Mac mini does not.

It's the one machine where you need them, but it's the one machine where Apple makes you beg. Or at least makes you search through the separate Mice & Keyboards section of the Apple Store before you check out.

When you do that, you also find out how much these items add to the cost. If you already have a keyboard, monitor, mouse or trackpad, you can ignore all of this. But if you don't, then these essentials add up.

The 2018 Mac mini
Apple's latest Mac mini

The regular Apple Magic Keyboard will add $99 to the cost of your Mac mini, and if you're going to be doing a lot of financial work, you're better off paying $129 for the Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad.

Then there's the Apple Magic Mouse 2, which costs $79, or the Magic Trackpad 2, which is much more at $129.

There are alternatives to Apple products, and Apple itself even sells some Logitech full-size keyboards and Belkin numeric keypads.

Even though we're still saying that the Mac mini is the most economic Mac to buy, don't skimp on the keyboard and mouse or trackpad. You're going to use them a lot and it's important to have good ones both because an irritatingly plasticky one will irritate you throughout your studies, but also because the good ones last longer.

Depending on the work you're going to be doing, though, you might consider taking a chance on the monitor. If you're doing graphic design work, forget it, you've got to have a great screen.

For everything else, however, you could look to get a basic monitor for your Mac mini now and replace it when you graduate.

The hidden issue

We did say that there were two issues with the Mac mini. You'll immediately understand the second one, but you won't actually feel it until you've been using the machine for a few days or weeks.

It's the limitation on storage space and RAM.

While you can buy the entry-level model with its 8GB RAM and upgrade that later, you're stuck with the storage space you get.

And the entry-level's storage space is 128GB of SSD. It is not enough. Trust us on this. You know you'll have to be careful with your storage, but you don't know how frustrating it's going to be when an image editor uses up lots of temporary space and your Mac won't download anything else.

This is the sole thing we would actively warn you against. Don't get the base-level Mac mini because you will regret it. Instead, get the next one up.

For $1,099, you get 256GB SSD, and you also get a six-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor instead of a quad-core i3. In general use, you wouldn't be bothered by having the slower processor, but if you're going to spend any more money on the Mac mini, this is the way to spend it.

Costs add up

However, if we're saying you should be buying the $1,099 version of the Mac mini, we're also saying you need these other peripherals. Buying Apple's regular Magic Keyboard and the excellent Magic Trackpad will bring the cost of your Mac mini up to $1,327.

You'll notice that we've not included the price of a monitor there. Monitors range phenomenally in both price and features, but there is one that we would say is extraordinarily great value.

It's the one that comes with an iMac.

Choosing the 21-inch iMac

Seriously, the monitor that is built-in to the iMac is tough to beat. And if you're going to be spending more than a grand on your desktop Mac, you've got to consider an iMac.

The iMac comes in two sizes
The iMac comes in two sizes, making the slim all-in-one desktop great for college

For $1,099, the same cost as that upgraded Mac mini without a monitor, you can get a 21-inch iMac. It comes with a keyboard and mouse, too, and compared to the Mac mini, it has much better storage capacity -- in theory.

That entry-level iMac comes with 1TB of storage, but it is with a spinning drive instead of an SSD. We all lived with hard drives for decades, but they are less reliable and they are dramatically slower than SSD.

So if you possibly can, spring for an SSD. It'll cost you $200 to get a 256GB PCI-E SSD instead of a 1TB SATA hard drive. You'll long for the greater space, but you'll love the speed.

What you won't love is that you'll never be able to upgrade the RAM. Whatever RAM you get when you buy the machine, that's it forever unless you're inclined to crack the case open -- which you absolutely should not do if you're still under warranty.

And what you might not love entirely is the size of the 21.5-inch display. It is a good monitor, and you can get a 4K Retina version in the iMac starting at $12,99.

Yet it is just 21.5 inches, and there's a reason Apple only ever shows you the bigger 27-inch iMac in demos.

Choose the 27-inch iMac

The best value desktop Mac that Apple makes is the 27-inch iMac. The screen isn't just bigger, it is also a Retina 5K one looks fantastic.

This iMac starts at $1,799 and it is more powerful than the 21.5-inch model, too.

At that entry level price, you again get a 1TB drive, but this time it's a Fusion one. This hybrid of an SSD and a spinning disc does get you more storage space and some more speed than a regular drive. Yet it is still a hybrid, it's a compromise, and you'll be better off going all-SSD if you can.

You can't buy a 1TB Fusion drive now and change it later, either. However, you can upgrade the RAM later, and that will prolong the life of the machine.

Easy and hard choices

If a desktop Mac always gives you more power than a notebook, then an iMac always gives you better value than a Mac mini.

However, that may be better value, but it's still more money. And for all the benefits of having a superb monitor built in, it's still built in.

You'll never beat a notebook for portability, but with a 27-inch iMac you won't even try. Whereas it is perfectly possible to carry around a Mac mini when you need to.

We've done this, sometimes carrying a cheap monitor in the boot of the car, and sometimes just using our iPad as a screen.

Both the Mac mini and the iMac are exceptional machines. If you focus first on what you're going to need them for, and in particular where you're going to use them, you won't regret either of them.

Where to buy

If you're looking for the best Mac for college, Apple Authorized Resellers are offering back to school deals on Apple products through instant rebates and/or exclusive coupon discounts, without the need to hand over a student ID or supply a .edu address.

To compare prices across the Mac line of your choice, check out the AppleInsider Apple Price Guides for the latest deals and product availability. Updated throughout the day, the AI Apple Price Guides feature the lowest prices on current and closeout hardware across top resellers, with savings that can often exceed $1,000 off, putting more money back in your pocket when purchasing the best Mac for college.

Latest Mac mini savings Current iMacs Save hundreds with closeout iMac deals Mac mini clearance deals Keep up with AppleInsider by downloading the AppleInsider app for iOS, and follow us on YouTube, Twitter @appleinsider and Facebook for live, late-breaking coverage. You can also check out our official Instagram account for exclusive photos.


  • Reply 1 of 8
    Interesting article, but you'd have to have a very specific set of requirements to get a college kid a desktop nowadays.  My daughter heads off to college in a few weeks, and she may never own a desktop computer in her lifetime.
    edited July 2019 watto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 8
    sdw2001sdw2001 Posts: 17,424member

    There is zero reason for almost any college student to own a desktop computer. Most of them will be absolutely fine with a notebook or an iPad.  In fact, I would love to see the actual sales figures for college students. I would bet 90% or more buy a notebook or tablet.  In fact, many colleges actually provide notebooks for their students. I assume many provide iPads as well.  
  • Reply 3 of 8
    Lets see, the Mac mini is a waste of money with no GPU. The iMac Pro is 2 years old now and the iMac is very outdated because Apple is dragging their feet giving it a proper update. That thick bezel hasn't been updated in over 2 years and it still has no T2 chip. Dame Apple... It is becoming harder and harder to tell anyone to buy your desktops. Get off your feet already and update your Desktops! 
  • Reply 4 of 8
    seanismorrisseanismorris Posts: 1,624member
    I also don’t see an iMac suitable for college.  I see it as a good shared machine for high school.

    I suppose if you already had a newer iPad, you could get away with buying an iMac... but it just seems a poor fit.
  • Reply 5 of 8
    That intro to 3D molecular modeling class sounds cool.
  • Reply 6 of 8
    cgWerkscgWerks Posts: 2,633member
    The article really should mention the T2 chip and that aside from the CPU, the iMac is still kind of the un-updated Mac out of the lineup. That doesn't make it a horrible deal, but people should be aware of that. Also, while you certainly can use a 'spinning disk' machine, that would be a deal-breaker as far as I'm concerned, so that SSD should certainly be factored in.

    Where I'm more torn (were I starting school at this point) is on the laptop thing. Picking an Apple laptop in the past would have been almost a no-brainer. However, currently, not only are they more expensive than they should be, but if I remember correctly, school involved a TON of note-taking and typing. I wouldn't want one of the new keyboards for that.

    As convenient as a laptop is (ie. easier to use on a lap if necessary, or a tiny desk, etc.) I'd seriously consider an iPad with a real keyboard, and then go the desktop route if a computer is needed as well.

    I think the mini is an incredible deal for what you get, and while the iMac monitors make it a good deal too, a descent monitor isn't that expensive ($100-$200), unless you're going into graphic arts or something. Yes, the GPU isn't anything to write home about in the mini, but it's also adequate for about everything most students would do except gaming. If they want to do that, then just add an eGPU puck or something.

    The 'all-in-one' aspect of the iMac certainly makes a cleaner desk, but you're also paying a high price in future inflexibility.
  • Reply 7 of 8
    macplusplusmacplusplus Posts: 2,027member
    iMac 4K + iPad is an excellent combination for college students. 1 TB HDD provides enough space to partition for BootCamp and to store fairly decent games on both Mac and Windows. Everyone suggests getting rid of the HDD but this is not the correct upgrade path, RAM comes first, then Fusion Drive or SSD in precedence. If Windows will not be installed initially, then Fusion drive or SSD may be chosen when buying, RAM may be upgraded later.
    edited August 2019 watto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 8
    cgWerkscgWerks Posts: 2,633member
    iMac 4K + iPad is an excellent combination for college students. 1 TB HDD provides enough space to partition for BootCamp and to store fairly decent games on both Mac and Windows. Everyone suggests getting rid of the HDD but this is not the correct upgrade path, RAM comes first, then Fusion Drive or SSD in precedence. If Windows will not be installed initially, then Fusion drive or SSD may be chosen when buying, RAM may be upgraded later.
    Yeah, I think if you're just going to be note-taking in classes, and then can do the work back in the dorm, etc. the Mac + iPad combo is pretty powerful, or possibly just an iPad for some students. Of course, as the article states, a laptop might cover all the bases best, too.

    The thing about the SSD vs RAM, is that unless you're running a virtual machine (or some heavy software), most won't notice the difference between 8GB and 16GB of RAM. I'd certainly go for 16GB of RAM if possible, just to have it (unless easily upgraded), but the SSD will make a LOT more difference in the feel of the machine. I wouldn't touch the Fusion Drive with a 10-foot-pole, but that's me.

    Also, I'm not completely sure I agree with the article on the '128GB SSD... just don't do it' advice. Certainly, you want to buy more than you need (as it can't be upgraded) if you have the money. But, I ran on a laptop with 128GB for years, even doing web-design and other heavier tasks. It's so easy to add (fast) external storage, especially for a desktop. You just have to be sure 128 isn't going to crunch you too much in terms of 'working space', but the OS/apps generally don't take all that much of the 128GB up. If you're going to have a big music/photo/video library (the reason most people need more storage), that's some really expensive space just to store that kind of stuff.

    So, if one can afford it, certainly get more storage and RAM... but if the budget is tight, I think 8GB RAM / 128GB SSD would serve the average user just fine, too.
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