What is a “PC” anyway? | Job Binary

Computer on a table in front of a blackboard

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

Broad meaning of PC

Almost 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, them to describe rather than the vivid meaning of the words prescribe what does the word “must” mean.

The broadest meaning of “personal computer” includes any computer designed for personal use. In general, “computer” in this sense means a general purpose computer. One that can run any kind of application and can be programmed in infinite ways. So while a pocket calculator is a computer in the strict sense, it is not the type of computer that “PC” refers to.

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

Why? Because on an iPad, you don’t have the freedom to run any software you want, only software approved by Apple. 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 an artificial one.

Undoubtedly, every Mac, Linux or Windows system is a personal computer in the broadest sense. However, most people wouldn’t think of referring to an Android phone as a computer even though it fits the broad meaning of the word well.


IBM 5160 computer with the IBM logo on the screen.
Twin Design/Shutterstock.com

This is due to some confusion surrounding the term “PC”. IBM PC. In 1981, IBM released the Model 5150, which was just another microcomputer. “Microcomputer” is a term that refers to small computers that you can use on your desk. Other microcomputers of the day were the Commodore 64, the ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro.

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

RELATED: 40 years later: What was it like to use an IBM PC in 1981?

“PC” in “Gaming PC”.

People mention “PC Gaming” in the context of the IBM PC and its legacy. Every gaming PC can trace its family tree in a direct line back to the first IBM PCs. All use the “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 computers.

When a game developer says they are releasing a game “for PC”, they always mean releasing it for an x86 computer. It almost always means that the software is intended 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 dozens of other x86 operating systems are PC operating systems.

“Mac Vs. Computer” in “PC”

An Apple MacBook Pro next to an Acer Aspire laptop.

When Apple or Apple users talk about “Mac vs. PC,” they’re referring to the differences between Macs and IBM PCs. Apple Mac computers competed directly with all other microcomputers, including IBM PCs, and had a different architecture.

The first Macs used Motorola 68000 CPUs, then switched to the IBM PowerPC, which in a rather ironic twist, is another IBM architecture completely different from the IBM PC x86 architecture.

Following PowerPC, Apple switched to Intel CPUs and the x86 architecture. Suddenly, “Mac vs. The PC” debate didn’t make much sense. In a practical sense, Macs were computers and you could install Windows and run the same applications as any PC.

Although Intel Macs still lacked the open hardware support of typical PCs, Apple’s Mac firmware was very different from standard PC firmware. We’re comfortable including Intel Macs in the PC family, but there will always be some debate as to whether Intel Macs are actually PCs.

The point is now debatable, however, as Apple left Intel behind for its own Apple Silicon hardware, based on the ARM architecture. Apple Silicon Macs are definitely not computers in the IBM-compatible sense!

RELATED: What are ARM CPUs, 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 gaming 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 return to form for Microsoft’s consoles rather than a radical change.

The Xbox Series and PlayStation 5 consoles retained this change in x86 hardware, so these devices are custom computers. The basic architecture and hardware is no different from what you’ll find in a typical laptop or desktop computer. In the case of Xbox consoles, the software is also essentially Microsoft Windows. So why are these “console” and not “PC”?

It is true that the main architecture of these devices is PC architecture, but the firmware is locked, and these systems have proprietary hardware components for security and performance reasons. They differ in several ways, whether you think of them as “console” PCs or PC-derivatives. You may not install the software or operating system you want to install or drivers for hardware not approved by the console manufacturer.

Consoles can be considered PCs in terms of hardware architecture, but they certainly don’t count as PCs, having more in common with other computing devices like iPads.

It has nothing to do with the form factor

Valve Steam Deck
The valve

Whether something is a PC, in the broad sense or the hardware architecture sense, has nothing to do with form factors. They are both x86 laptops and x86 desktop computers. They have the same hardware architecture, run the same software, and adhere to open industry standards.

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

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

RELATED: Computers before Windows: What it was really like to use MS-DOS

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