Laptops, Desktops, and Minis

Why pick one over the other?

A friend recently bought a new desktop. I asked why he chose that over a laptop or a mini. He said he wasn’t planning to move it around so no need for a laptop but then he said he’d never heard of a mini. That’s what we’ll cover this time. I’ll discuss the Windows world first then talk about the Apple world.

Many of us are familiar with Windows laptops and desktops but minis aren’t so well known. A mini is just what it sounds like - a smaller version of a desktop with limited internal expansion. But that doesn’t mean they can’t have as much power as a desktop! Really, the only limiting factor for a mini is its size which tends to be a few inches tall by a few inches wide and a few inches deep. A desktop, on the other hand, tends to be anywhere from 6 inches tall all the way up to several feet tall, several feet deep and 6 or so inches wide. Windows and Linux desktops are meant to be upgraded so they have slots for more internal drives, more RAM, video cards, etc. Buy a desktop once and upgrade it for several years, including its main system board (also called a “motherboard”) which contains its CPU and RAM and many of its external ports. A Windows/Linux desktop is a purchase for the future whereas a mini is something you will use until it’s too underpowered to be of much use.

The costs can be quite different, too. I have a nicely configured mini with 16G RAM and 512G internal SSD that I got from Amazon for less than $250 and it came with Windows 11 Pro (search for “mini pc” on Amazon). It doesn’t have a great processor but it’s sufficient for what I do, which is web browsing, some limited office-type work, and some audio and video streaming. But you can get a really powerful mini for $700-$1000 if you think you need it, as well as anything in between. My mini can take another internally mounted SSD if I want to expand my storage internally although I’ve been perfectly happy plugging in a 2TB external SSD to one of its 5 USB 3 ports. It has 2 HDMI ports for monitors. This has been enough for me - I haven’t owned a Windows or Linux desktop in over 10 years! And minis are small enough that they can be attached to the back of a monitor so they’re totally out of the way.

My friend is a Windows user and the choices there are not quite so well defined as in the Apple world. In the Apple world if you have modest needs and don’t intend to move around, a Mac Mini is a good choice. Note, you cannot upgrade RAM or internal disk on the current Apple Mac products but you can add external storage by way of their ports, the same as just about any other computer you purchase nowadays. Prices for a Mac Mini start at around $600 today for 8G RAM and 256G internal SSD and the prices and the configurations go up from there, topping out at $4,500 for 32G RAM and 8TB SSD. If you want to move around then a Macbook Air or a Macbook Pro is the order of the day. A Macbook Air can often be had for a little less than $1,000 in its starting configuration. And they can be quite powerful with a fully configured Macbook Pro costing more than base price of their least expensive desktop, the Mac Studio and even their higher end Mac Pro (check the Apple site for current prices). For completeness, the Mac Studio is their lower end desktop and the Mac Pro is their much higher end desktop, used by professional video editors.

So, I hope you can see that in the Apple world, you have definite choices based on your needs with respective jumps in cost. Least expensive is a Mac Mini if you’re not moving around. If you expect to have to move around, like working from a coffee shop, then you should expect to pay around $1,000 for a Macbook Air, and if you have significant computational needs like extensive video editing, you can choose between a well configured Macbook Pro laptop or one of their desktops.

That's all for this week's column. I hope this helps you understand the differences between laptops, desktops, and mini PCs and why you might choose one over another. Don't hesitate to write to me if you have questions!

As always, my intent is to help you understand the basics and equip you to search for more detailed information.

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I want to take this opportunity to thank two people without whose help this newsletter would probably be a mess! Rene for doing the yeoman’s job of proofreading my content because, for some reason, I can’t do it myself. And my friend and colleague, Louise, for providing the graphics that appear in my newsletters. Those that know me, know that I’m not a graphics guy. Without Louise’s support this would be a boring old, pure text newsletter.