What Is a “PC,” Anyway? | Biden News

What Is a “PC,” Anyway?

 | Biden News


Computer on desk in front of chalkboard

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” is packed with more nuance than you might have thought!

The 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, they to describe the living meaning of words rather than to prescribe what the word “should” mean.

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

Under this broad umbrella, a smartphone certainly counts as a computer. There is no fundamental difference between it 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 any software you like, 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 by artificial limitation.

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


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

Some confusion around the term “PC” is thanks to the 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 a desk. Other contemporary microcomputers included the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and BBC Micro.

IBM pushed the term “computer” to set the IBM PC apart from other microcomputers and larger business machines in its own product line. IBM’s design was cloned, creating a massive open market. While IBM may not have been thrilled at the time that so-called “IBM-compatible” computers were flooding the market, that’s why a computer is called a computer today 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?

The “PC” in “Gaming PC”

People refer to “PC Gaming” in the context of the IBM PC and its legacy. Every gaming computer can trace its lineage in a direct line back to the first IBM computers. They all use “x86” CPU architecture. In other words, the same processor “language” that sits at the core of the IBM computer still sits at the core of modern gaming computers.

When a game developer says it’s releasing a game “for PC,” it always means releasing it for an x86 PC. It almost always means that the software is intended for 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 desktop 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 vs. PC,” it refers to the differences between Macs and IBM PCs. Apple Mac computers competed directly with all other microcomputers, including IBM computers, and had a distinct architecture.

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

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

However, Intel Macs still did not have the open hardware support of typical computers, with Apple’s Mac firmware being quite different from standard PC firmware. We’re comfortable including Intel Macs in the PC family, but there will always be some debate about whether Intel Macs are really PCs.

The point is somewhat moot now, however, as Apple has 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 “computer” really is comes from modern video 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 return to form for Microsoft’s consoles rather than a radical change.

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

It is true that the core architecture of these devices is PC architecture, but the firmware is locked, and these systems contain proprietary hardware components for security and performance reasons. They are many ways, whether you think of them as “console” computers or computer derivatives. You cannot install whatever software or operating system you want or install drivers for hardware not approved by the console manufacturer.

Consoles can be considered computers based on their hardware architecture, but they certainly don’t count as computers broadly, having more in common with computing devices like iPads.

It Has Nothing To Do With Form Factor

Valve Steam Deck

Whether something is a computer or not, either in the broad sense or in the hardware architecture sense, has nothing to do with form factors. x86 laptops and x86 desktop are both computers. They have the same hardware architecture, run the same software, and conform to open industry standards.

This is why a portable computer 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. Everything you can do with a large gaming PC desktop, or gaming laptop, you can do with a device like the Steam Deck, Aya Neo or GPD Win computers.

While the meaning of words can and does change over time, nowadays, when someone says “PC” they probably mean a computer that can call a 1981 IBM PC its ancestor.

RELATED: Computers Before Windows: How to Use MS-DOS Actually


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