Many Mac owners are interested in developing their own apps, and Apple makes it incredibly easy to create and build (and sell) apps for both the Mac OS X and iOS platform. In this feature we look at which Mac users should buy to develop apps.
Apple is gearing up to release a whole new programing language called Swift, which will make it even easier to develop apps for both Mac, iPad and iPhone. Thanks to Swift and the popularity of the Mac platform we could be looking at a fresh new wave of exciting app development. If you’re keen on learning app development this article will also give you some pointers as to what you need to develop apps, and what features are less relevant.
Updated 4 November 2016 with new Mac mini and iMac pricing after Apple adjusted prices in the UK.
Also read: Complete guide to marketing a successful iOS app on the App Store.
Best Apple Mac for app development: Balancing power
Choosing the right Mac for development can be a challenge. Apple creates a whole range of Mac laptops and desktop computers. All Apple Macs are great computers but some are better suited to app development than others.
Apple has always refreshes its Mac range, and often introduces lower prices for its older MacBook and iMac computers.
With this in mind we’ve created this guide to buying the right Mac for app development. In this article we take a look at what a computer requires to be truly great for creating apps, and the features you pay more for. We then look closely at the range of Mac computers available, and the custom built to order options available that make sense for developers.
Finally we will look at some of the accessories, software and learning resources available that will help keen developers get started.
Read next: The best Mac to buy.
Developing apps on a Mac: how do you create a program on a Mac
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Apple goes to great lengths to make it easy to develop apps (or small programs) for both Mac OS X and iOS. The development environment used to create apps for both is called Xcode, and this is a free download from the Mac App Store.
With Xcode you can build apps using two programming languages, the old Objective-C language, and the newer Swift programming language.
Uploading and selling Apps via iTunes requires a yearly subscription to the Apple Developer connection, but it’s good value at $99 per year (approx £60). You only need this to upload and distribute apps via the Mac and iOS App Stores however, you don’t need to pay this fee just to test and create apps.
You do need a Mac to develop apps for the iPhone and iPad. You can’t code the programs using a Windows or Linux PC. But once you’ve got a Mac, any current model, you are pretty much good to start.
Also see: How to get started in iOS app development | How to get started with Apple Swift | Best way to learn Swift: books, courses, guides.
Developing apps on a Mac: how much power do you need?
Software development scales up depending on the size and complexity of the program you are making. Macs vary in power from the entry-level MacBook right up to the new Mac Pro.
If all you want to do is start to learn development and get a regular app onto the app store then you can use any Mac you want.
If you’re an independent developer, creating a small iOS app then you can use just about any Mac (it doesn’t even need to be a particularly recent model). Unlike creating video or music; creating code doesn’t use up huge amounts of hard drive space, and if you’re creating iOS apps you don’t need a lightning fast processor, or a high-end graphics card.
In short: any Mac will probably do. So then it becomes a question of how much money you want to spend, and which will provide the best coding environment.
Apple’s Mac range for developers: what do you really need to program
Because coding is a high-end and complicated task, you may be tempted to veer towards Apple’s pro line-up. You don’t need the fast innards of the Mac Pro or MacBook Pro to develop apps.
What is useful for software development, however, is screen estate. Coding is a complex task that sometimes requires intense focus, but more often it requires research and tracking. Coders often need to have several programs and windows open at once: the Xcode developer environment, web browser, and perhaps a separate text editor, SQL Database editor, and much more. Development seems to be one of a task that requires everything Mac OS X has to offer.
So you need a Mac with a big screen, or you need to attach a big screen to your Mac. With this in mind we’re going to rule out all of Apple’s MacBook range. Let’s be clear: if you value a notebook and portability is important to you, then a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro with Retina display will do just fine for app development, and you can attach a monitor to these models for larger screen estate. But with a MacBook Air or Pro you pay a lot extra for a small screen that will feel cramped when programming.
Apple’s Mac range for developers: Mac mini is best value
The Mac Pro is overkill for most developers so the choice is between an iMac or Mac mini with separate display.
At £479 the Mac mini is the best value Mac, and it offers more than enough power and storage for app development. What it doesn’t come with is a display, so you’ll need to source one separately.
Normally the idea with the Mac mini is that you attach an old display, keyboard and mouse and it represents top-flight Apple computing at a fraction of the cost. However, for app development we suggest that you get a large display, so you might want to consider Apple’s 27-inch Thunderbolt Display. Then again, at £899 you might want to shop around.
There is now a huge range of sub-£200 monitors that offer 27-inch displays. Some developers prefer picking up two 24-inch displays and placing them side-by-side.
Also see: Display reviews | Mac Pro 4K monitors round-up | How to make a 32-inch Retina Display.
Apple iMac: Best Mac for large-screen app development environment
If you are looking for a powerful Mac with a big display then Apple has you covered in the form of the iMac. You should get a model with a 27inch display, which starts at £1,749. It’s not as cheap as the Mac mini but you do get a lot of extra for your money. The 27-inch iMac is a veritable powerhouse: a 3.2Ghz Intel i5 processor, 1TB hard drive, discrete AMD graphics card with 2GB video memory, and of course that massive 27-inch IPS display. If you’re looking for a large-screen Mac that also has enough power for gaming then this is the one to go for.
Read next: iMac range review.
Which Mac to get for App development?
We’d advise most new developers to go for the Mac mini with the AOC display. The Mac mini is a cheaper option than the iMac and the extra cash can be put towards software or training courses.
The 27-inch iMac is a better Apple Mac and you get a lot of extra features: such as the fast processor, large 1TB hard drive and AMD graphics card. They’re nice features, for sure, but they offer little towards developing apps. Mind you, if you’re also planning to use a Mac for gaming and general all purpose computing you might appreciate the extra power.
Also see: 5 reasons why you should buy a Mac mini | 5 reasons why you shouldn’t buy a Mac mini | New Mac mini release date & rumours | Buying advice: iMac or Mac mini.
Apple Mac accessories and software for developers
Developers don’t need as many accessories as other Mac users. A good Mac, a decent sized display and a good reference library and you’re good to go. The only exception we’d make is to invest in a good backup system in case there are any problems. Apple’s own Time Capsule is a great solution. Alternatively invest in a good USB external hard drive and use Apple’s Time Machine software to perform regular backups.
There is also wealth of software that’s good for developers. Here are some recommendations:
- Acorn: A powerful image editor that’s a fraction of the cost of Photoshop
- BBEdit: Industry favourite text editor
- CodeRunner: Great alternative to Xcode for light programming tasks.
- Dev Color Picker: Makes getting colours out of programs and into your apps a breeze.
- Dropbox: Great for syncing files for remote access.
- Evernote: Perfect place to store programming notes.
- Little Snapper: Ability the take detailed screen grabs of programs and websites.
App development for Mac: learning Xcode and Swift
If you are planning to start App development for Mac or iOS, then you will need to learn Apple’s programming language Swift. There is a range of courses available, and you will be able to quickly get up and running with Swift.