What is a “PC”, anyway?


Everyone knows that “PC” is short for “Personal Computer”, but not everyone can agree on what counts as a PC or not. It turns out that the term “PC” is more nuanced than you thought!

The broad sense of the PC

Virtually all words have multiple meanings, depending on the context in which you use them and what you mean when you use them. Dictionaries record how we use words and how their meanings change over time. In other words, they describe the living meaning of the words rather than prescribe what the word “should” means.

The broadest meaning of “Personal Computer” covers any computer designed for personal use. In general, “computer” in this sense means a general purpose computer. One that can run any type of application and can be programmed infinitely. So while a pocket calculator is certainly a computer in the strictest sense, it is not the type of computer that “PC” refers to.

Under this broad umbrella, a smartphone certainly counts as a PC. There is no fundamental difference between this and a typical laptop. However, there is an argument that an Android tablet is a personal computer while an iPad is not.

Why? Because on an iPad, you don’t have the freedom to run whatever software you like, only Apple-approved software. On an Android tablet, you can install whatever you want. Although Apple advertises modern iPads as personal computers, they blur the line between a personal computer and a computing device, albeit due to an artificial limitation.

Undoubtedly, every Mac, Linux or Windows system is certainly a personal computer in the broadest sense. Still, most people wouldn’t think of referring to an Android smartphone as a PC, although it fits perfectly in the broad sense of the word.


The IBM 5160 PC with the IBM logo displayed on screen.
Twin Design/Shutterstock.com

Some confusion around the term “PC” is due to the IBM PCs. In 1981, IBM released the 5150 model, which was just another microcomputer. “Microcomputer” is a term that refers to small computers that you can use on a desktop. Other contemporary microcomputers included the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and BBC Micro.

IBM pushed the term “PC” to distinguish the IBM PC from other microcomputers and larger business machines in its own product line. IBM’s design was cloned, creating a huge open market. Although IBM may not have been thrilled at the time that so-called “IBM-compatible” computers were flooding the market, which is why a PC today is called a PC as opposed to all other names. used for computers suitable for personal use.

RELATED: 40 years later: what did using an IBM PC look like in 1981?

The “PC” in “gaming PC”

People refer to “PC Gaming” in the context of the IBM PC and its legacy. Every gaming PC can trace its family tree in a straight line back to the earliest IBM PCs. They all use an “x86” CPU architecture. In other words, the same processor “language” that sits at the heart of the IBM PC is still at the heart of modern gaming PCs.

When a game developer says they’re releasing a game “for PC”, it always means they’re releasing it for an x86 computer. This almost always means the software is for Microsoft Windows, but it’s important to remember that “PC” in this case refers to the hardware architecture, not the operating system. Linux, Windows, and a myriad of other x86 operating systems are all PC operating systems.

The “PC” in “Mac Vs. PC”

An Apple MacBook Pro next to an Acer Aspire laptop.

When Apple or Apple users talk about “Mac versus PC”, it refers to the differences between Macs and IBM PCs. Apple Mac computers were in direct competition with all other microcomputers, including IBM PCs, and had a distinct architecture.

Early Macs used Motorola 68000 processors, then moved on to IBM PowerPC, which ironically is another IBM architecture entirely different from the IBM PC x86 architecture.

After PowerPC, Apple moved to Intel processors and the x86 architecture. Suddenly the “Mac Vs. PC debate didn’t make much sense anymore. In practice, Macs were PCs and you could install Windows and run the same apps as any PC.

However, Intel Macs still lacked the open hardware support of typical PCs, with Apple’s Mac firmware being significantly different from standard PC firmware. We’re comfortable including Intel Macs in the PC family, but there’s always going to be some debate about whether Intel Macs are really PCs.

The point is somewhat moot now, however, since Apple left Intel behind for its own Apple Silicon hardware, based on the ARM architecture. Apple Silicon Macs are certainly not PCs in the IBM-compatible sense!

RELATED: What are ARM processors and will they replace x86 (Intel)?

What about x86 game consoles?

Another interesting wrinkle to the question of what a “PC” really is comes from modern game consoles. Microsoft and Sony moved to x86-based consoles with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. To be fair, the first Xbox was an x86 system, so the Xbox One was a throwback to Microsoft’s consoles rather than a change radical.

The Xbox Series and PlayStation 5 consoles retained this x86 hardware modification, so these devices are custom PCs. The core architecture and hardware are no different than what you would find in a typical laptop or desktop computer. In the case of Xbox consoles, even the software is essentially Microsoft Windows. So why these “consoles” and not “PCs”?

It is true that the base architecture of these devices is PC architecture, but the firmware is locked down and these systems contain proprietary hardware components for security and performance reasons. They are different in many ways whether you think of them as “consolidated” PCs or PC derivatives. You may not install any software or operating system of your choice or install drivers for hardware not approved by the console manufacturer.

Consoles might be considered PCs in terms of hardware architecture, but they certainly don’t count as PCs writ large, having more in common with computing devices such as iPads.

It has nothing to do with the form factor

Valve Vapor Deck

Whether something is a PC or not, whether in a broad sense or in a hardware architecture sense, has nothing to do with form factors. An x86 laptop computer and an x86 desktop computer are both PCs. They have the same hardware architecture, run the same software, and adhere to open industry standards.

That’s why a handheld like the Steam Deck is a PC, but not a console like the Nintendo Switch. The Steam Deck is an IBM x86-compatible open-platform personal computer. Anything you can do with a great gaming desktop or gaming laptop, you can do with a device like the Steam Deck, Aya Neo, or GPD Win computers.

Although the meaning of the words may change over time, for now when someone says “PC” they probably mean a computer that can call a 1981 IBM PC its ancestor.

RELATED: PC Before Windows: What Using MS-DOS Was Really Like


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