Choosing the right M1 Mac: 24-inch iMac or 13-inch MacBook Air?

The new Apple laptop and desktop share similar specs, but there's one visible difference that may be worth the extra $300.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
3 min read
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Have you been thinking of a shiny upgrade since Apple's Spring Loaded event? Are you stuck on whether the 13-inch MacBook Air or 24-inch iMac is better for you? After all, for many years we referred to the old Intel-powered smaller iMac "a MacBook on a stand." They were both entry-level devices that cut features and sometimes had slower processors. I can imagine that work-from-home types may be trying to decide if they should invest in desktops with a biggest screen or smaller-screen portables for when the coffee shops and coworking spaces of the world reopen. 

Read more: Apple's colorful new iMac looks back to go forward

It's the same M1 processor 

We're in a strange situation now, where nearly every Mac computer (as well as the new iPad Pro) has an identical M1 processor. There are a few variants where the 8-core central processing unit is paired with either seven or eight graphics processing unit cores, but other than that, the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac Mini and new 24-inch iMac essentially have the same computer brain. 

Our previous benchmark testing of the Air, Pro and Mini shows the performance differences between the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro (13-inch) and Mac Mini are minimal. We haven't tested the new 24-inch iMac yet, but suspect it will line up neatly with the other M1 systems. 

Watch this: What we think of the new colorful 24-inch iMac

It may be difficult to figure out which new Mac to buy, especially if you're used to weighing processor speed as one of the primary deciding factors in a new purchase. (If you're not ready to abandon the Intel world, the 16-inch MacBook Pro, 27-inch iMac and a throwback 21.5-inch iMac -- still available, but who knows for how long -- run Intel CPUs.)

I recently looked at the difference between the new iPad Pro and iMac, and at least there you're dealing with two entirely different operating systems. But I also warned of an eventual Apple device singularity, where the differences between tablets, phones, and computers all but disappear. 

Read more: MacBook Air M1 review: Big changes from Apple silicon and Big Sur 

The differences are in the (finer) details

Yes, one's an all-in-desktop and the other is a laptop. And the iMac starts at $300 more, for the same CPU, RAM and storage. 

Once you get past that, the most important difference is the new webcam in the iMac. It's similar to the 1080p (or full HD) camera in last year's 27-inch iMac, making those the only two current Macs with full HD cameras. In the 27-inch iMac, I loved the camera, and it was miles better than the 720p camera in every single MacBook. Those MacBook webcams weren't considered great pre-COVID, and they hold up even less well now that so many people spend so much time in video meetings. 


The M1 MacBook Air

Dan Ackerman/CNET

Apple says the 24-inch iMac camera is actually even newer hardware than the camera in the 27-inch iMac, and further, that the M1-optimized camera software can control lighting, color temperature and exposure even better. We'll see, but I'm already sold on the 1080p camera from last year. 

Read more: Apple iMac review: A 27-inch work-from-home beast with a killer webcam

The iMac also has more and larger speakers, and a larger, higher-resolution display (that also gets brighter, according to Apple). 

On the other hand, the MacBook Air now includes Touch ID built right into the keyboard. In the iMac, you'll have to either trade up from the $1,299 model to the $1,499 one to get the keyboard with Touch ID built in, or else add it as an upgrade to the $1,299 build, although we don't know how much extra it will cost yet. The Touch ID keyboard (yes, in corresponding colors) won't be available as a separate purchase, at least initially. 

When we get the new iMac in for benchmarking, we'll have a much better sense of just how it performs and compares to the MacBook Air. In the meantime, the chart below sums up just how similar, and how different, they are.

24-inch iMac vs. MacBook Air

24-inch iMac13-inch MacBook Air
Base price $1,299, £1,249, AU$1,899$999, £999, AU$1,599
CPU 8-Core CPU 7-Core GPU8-Core CPU 7-Core GPU
Storage 256GB storage256GB storage
Ports Two Thunderbolt / USB 4 portsTwo Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports
Display 24-inch, 4,480x2,520 pixels, 500 nits 13.3-inch, 2,560x1,600 pixels, 400 nits
Audio Six-speaker systemStereo speakers
Webcam 1080p FaceTime HD camera720p FaceTime camera
Touch ID Available with an upgraded keyboardIncluded

iMac throwback: Apple's candy-colored history, from 1999 to 2021

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