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Mac mini vs MacBook Air: which is right for you?

Mac Mini vs MacBook Air product shots on a versus orange and blue background
(Image credit: Apple/Future)

If you’re looking to get an Apple Mac without breaking the bank, the Mac mini and MacBook Air are your two best bets. Though the two devices are quite different, they are both excellent machines for creatives looking take advantage of the Apple ecosystem.

That said, there are some areas where they can’t really be compared. The Mac mini lacks a display, internal battery, and camera, for example, so if you need those features then the MacBook Air is the clear choice. Yet this comparison is hardly a foregone conclusion, and the Mac mini offers a lot that will appeal to creative users.

In this guide, we’ll mainly be focusing on the M1 versions of each device, see our MacBook Air M1 review, our Mac mini M1 reviews for more detail. Also note that you can still buy an Intel-based Mac mini. Both machines are expected to be updated this spring, so our guidance could change in due course. But by the end of this article, you should have a good idea of which one you should buy.

Once you've decided which one is right for you, see the best deals on both with our MacBook Air deals or Mac mini deals pages, or check today's best prices below.

Mac mini vs MacBook Air: design

The 2020 MacBook Air with M1 chip on a desk.

We've got to admit, the MacBook Air looks good (Image credit: Future)

This is the starkest difference between the Mac mini and the MacBook Air. We’ll start with the latter. The MacBook Air is Apple’s lightest laptop, weighing 1.29kg and measuring 30.41cm by 21.24cm. It’s 1.61cm at its thickest point. That tiny footprint makes it perfect if you have to work on the go and visit different clients. As with all Macs, it’s made from solid aluminium.

The Mac mini, on the other hand, is a desktop Mac that’s not designed to be portable, given it lacks an internal battery. It’s still small – 19.7cm by 19.7cm and 3.6cm tall – and easy to stash behind a monitor. Like the MacBook Air, the Mac mini is built from aluminium, making it very sturdy. Both products are beautifully designed, but the MacBook Air is more portable.

Mac mini vs MacBook Air: connectivity

The rear ports on the Mac mini with M1 chip.

The Mac mini has more ports than the Air (Image credit: Future)

Whether you go for an M1 or Intel Mac mini, it’s the clear winner over the MacBook Air when it comes to connectivity. The MacBook Air is limited to just two Thunderbolt 3 ports (with transfers speeds of up to 40Gb/s) and a headphone jack.

The M1 Mac mini, on the other hand, has two Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB-A ports, a HDMI 2.0 slot, and Ethernet connector, and a headphone jack. And if you go for the Intel model, you’ll get everything from the M1 version, plus two additional Thunderbolt 3 ports. If you need to connect plenty of external devices and don’t want to find yourself in dongle hell, the Mac mini has a distinct advantage versus the MacBook Air.

Mac mini vs MacBook Air: features

The keyboard and Touch ID button on the 2020 MacBook Air with M1 chip.

Do you need Touch ID? (Image credit: Future)

The MacBook Air has some handy features that you won’t find on the Mac mini. Most obviously, it comes with a built-in display. This works with the P3 colour gamut, which is essential in creative work, and has a 720p webcam. There’s also the Magic Keyboard and its included Touch ID button – great for logging into your accounts and verifying purchases. It can support one external display up to 6K resolution at 60Hz.

The Mac mini is more of a barebones device, and as such it lacks the display, webcam, keyboard, and Touch ID of the MacBook Air (however, you can buy all of these yourself). Speaking of displays, the Mac mini can connect to two external monitors – one at up to 6K resolution at 60Hz and one at up to 4K resolution at 60Hz.

Mac mini vs MacBook Air: performance

The Mac mini with M1 chip on a desk.

Inside, the Mac mini has the same chip as the Air (Image credit: Future)

Comparing the performance of the Mac mini and the MacBook Air is an interesting game because they both use exactly the same chip: The Apple M1. This is an incredibly impressive chip, one that can keep up with much more expensive rivals. Get either of these computers and you’ll be happy.

Impressively, the MacBook Air manages this while being completely fanless and thus totally silent. But that’s not to say the Mac mini is a noisy machine – it’s still barely audible. In other words, neither device is going to distract you during your work.

Note that the Mac mini might pull ahead a little in more demanding tasks thanks to its fan, but the differences will be minor. There’s also a high-end Intel Mac mini, but it’s expected this will be phased out in place of a model bearing the M1 Pro or M1 Max very soon.

Mac mini vs MacBook Air: software/compatibility

The MacBook Air running macOS Monterey.

The MacBook Air in action (Image credit: Apple)

Both the Mac mini and the MacBook Air use macOS as their operating system, meaning they both have access to the same apps. You can install apps from the official App Store or from third-party websites, and both machines can also run iOS apps natively.

Even though M1 Macs like the Mac mini and MacBook Air run on a different software architecture to Intel-based Macs, there’s no need to worry about incompatibilities. Both Macs use a tool called Rosetta 2, which “translates” Intel apps so they run on M1 computers. There’s nothing for you to do, as it’s all automatic. Plus, developers are updating their apps with native M1 support – Adobe apps like Photoshop and Illustrator run without a hitch, for instance.

Mac mini vs MacBook Air: price

The Mac mini in front of a monitor.

The Mac mini is the cheapest way to get an M1 chip (Image credit: Apple)

Given their impressive performance, both the Mac mini and the MacBook Air are excellent value for money. You can get the MacBook Air for $999 / £999, which is a superb bargain considering you get the M1 chip and an excellent display with support for the P3 wide colour gamut, which is vital for creatives. You can even pick up a case 

The Mac mini is even more affordable at $699 / £699 and is the cheapest way to get the M1 chip. It doesn’t come with a monitor, mouse, or keyboard, but if you already have those then you probably won’t be fussed. Our best monitors for Mac mini and best mice guides might come in handy if not. If the M1’s performance is your priority, the Mac mini is worth considering for its low price of entry.

Mac mini vs MacBook Air: the verdict

The rear of the 2020 MacBook Air with M1 chip.

The MacBook Air is lightweight and easy to travel with (Image credit: Future)

Deciding whether to pick the Mac mini or the MacBook Air depends on your needs. If you travel a lot for work, meeting clients and working on the go, the MacBook Air is going to be much better suited to you. Its lightweight form factor and excellent performance mean it won’t hold you back when you’re away from home.

The Mac mini, on the other hand, is perfect if you don’t need something so portable. It has far more ports, can connect to more external monitors, and its built-in fan means you can probably eke out more performance than the MacBook Air, despite them sharing the M1 chip.

Either way, both the MacBook Air and the Mac mini are superb machines for creative work. You won’t regret getting either.

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Alex Blake is a freelance tech journalist who writes for Creative Bloq, TechRadar, Digital Trends, and others. Before going freelance he was commissioning editor at MacFormat magazine, focusing on the world of Apple products. His interests include web design, typography, and video games.