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. And as of 2023, both of these are available with Apple's more powerful M2 chip.
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 don't want to buy those features additionally, 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.
This guide covers both the M1 and M2 versions of each device. You can see our MacBook Air M1 review, our Mac mini M1 review (which has now been superseded by the Mac mini M2), our MacBook Air M2 review, and our new Mac mini M2 review for more detail. Also note that you can still buy an Intel-based Mac mini. With us covering all those angles, by the end of this article, you should have a good idea of which one you should buy.
Mac mini vs MacBook Air: design
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, the M2 version weighing 1.24kg and measuring 30.41cm by 21.5cm by 1.13cm. That tiny footprint makes it perfect if you have to work on the go and visit different clients throughout your workday. 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 very small for a desktop though – 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 Mac mini the clear winner over the MacBook Air when it comes to connectivity. The MacBook Air M2 is limited to just two Thunderbolt 3 ports (with transfer speeds of up to 40Gb/s), a headphone jack, and a MagSafe 3 charging port.
The M2 Mac mini, on the other hand, has two Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB-A ports, an HDMI 2.0 slot, an Ethernet connector, and a headphone jack, just like its M1 predecessor. 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 over the MacBook Air.
Mac mini vs MacBook Air: features
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 an integrated webcam. The M2 has upgraded this to a 1080p Full HD camera, while the M1 features a more pedestrian 720p proposition. 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
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 and M2. These are impressive chips, ones that can keep up with much more expensive rivals, as we detail below in our benchmark breakdown.
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.
The Mac mini will pull ahead in more demanding tasks, like multitasking several graphic-design apps at the same time, especially with the whiplash-inducing power of the M2 Pro chip.
Mac mini vs MacBook Air: benchmark scores
When it comes to comparing Mac mini vs MacBook Air benchmark scoring, you can see the difference between the M1 and M2 chips perhaps most plainly. The M1 variants of the Mac mini and MacBook Air both scored a hair over 7,400 in the Geekbench benchmark testing software, making them highly capable devices and more powerful than similarly priced Windows laptops (where just under a grand would get you a laptop that would struggle to reach a benchmark score of 6,000).
The more serious-looking M1 Max chip in the MacBook Air, however, would score around 12,700 in Geekbench, making it a serious alternative to professional creator machines (and more powerful than the 2021 MacBook Pro, somehow).
But the M2 chip steps things up further. Geekbench reports scores of 8,700 for the M2-chipped MacBook Air while the M2 Mac mini scores 9,000, so not only do both models speed things up from the M1 versions, but the Mac mini seems to be slightly better optimised for the M2 chip than the MacBook Air.
This processing advantage becomes more pronounced when we look at the souped-up versions of their chips, the M2 Max in the MacBook Air and the M2 Pro Mac mini. While the MacBook Air M2 Max scores around 13,800 in Geekbench testing (a notable increase from the M1 Max), the Mac mini M2 Pro scored a blistering 15,198 in our Geekbench test, making the top-end Mac mini a genuine alternative to the more expensive Mac Studio for creative professionals needing to run several demanding pieces of graphic software at once. We ran Premiere Pro running 4K video and Photoshop at the same time, for example, and this monster didn't even flinch.
If you want sheer power, the M2 Mac mini is your choice of the bunch, with the M2 Pro chip offering professional studio-level performance.
Mac mini vs MacBook Air: software/compatibility
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 and M2 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 and M2 computers. There’s nothing for you to do, as it’s all automatic. Plus, developers have updated their apps with native M1/M2 support – Adobe apps like Photoshop and Illustrator run without a hitch, for instance.
Mac mini vs MacBook Air: price
Given their impressive performance, both the Mac mini and the MacBook Air are excellent value for money. You can get the MacBook Air M1 for $999 / £999 and the M2 from $1,199 / £1,249, which is a bargain considering you get the M1 or M2 chip and an excellent display with support for the P3 wide colour gamut, which is vital for creatives, and easily outperforms most Intel/AMD-powered Windows laptops in the same range.
The Mac mini is even more affordable at $599 / £649 for the M2 chip ($799 / £849 for the 10-core version) and is the cheapest way to get either. It doesn’t come with a monitor, mouse, or keyboard, but if you already have those then you probably won’t be fussed. The M2 Pro, meanwhile, is $1,299 / £1,399, which is similar to the top-spec MacBook Air. 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: which should you buy?
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 same chips. This performance gap has grown with the M2 chip from the M1.
But either way, both the MacBook Air and the Mac mini are superb machines for creative work. The spec differences offer you a range based on your specific needs, and you won’t regret getting either.