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Macs Are PCs! Can We Stop Pretending They Aren’t?

mac-is-a-pc

There was a time when Macs and PCs were very different, but they’re now basically the same. Open a MacBook up and you’ll find the same hardware you’d find in a PC Ultrabook.

The time for dividing computers into “PCs” and “Macs” is over. With more and more people are using mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, Mac OS X is just another PC operating system alongside Windows and Linux.

The Historical Meaning of “PC”

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“PC” has several different meanings. On one extreme, PC just means “personal computer,” and smartphones and tablets are just as much PCs as laptops and desktops. On the other extreme, “PC” originally meant “IBM PC-compatible.” These were computers that were compatible with IBM’s PC architecture. They had a BIOS and could run all the same operating systems, like IBM’s PC-DOS and Microsoft’s MS-DOS. This was a standard architecture computers could conform to so they’d be compatible with the software that ran on other IBM PCs or IBM PC-compatible PCs. IBM no longer makes PCs, so this description isn’t accurate.

IBM PCs became less common and eventually vanished, so the term”IBM PC-compatible” fell out of favor. “Wintel” PCs replaced them — Windows-compatible PCs with an Intel x86 chip inside.

People continued to use the term “PC” for those Windows-on-Intel-x86 machines. But there was nothing intrinsically Windows-only about a PC. PCs originally ran DOS, and today many PCs run Linux. There have been other PC operating systems like IBM OS/2 and BeOS, too. “PC” may be synonymous with Windows to many people, but it shouldn’t be — Linux is also a PC operating system.

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Macs Moved From PowerPC to Intel

In the past, a Macintosh’s hardware was very different from a PC’s. Where those Wintel PCs had Intel x86-compatible chips inside, Macs had PowerPC chips. PowerPC was a completely different architecture, so Windows just couldn’t install on a Mac, and Mac OS just couldn’t install on a PC. The difference wasn’t just the operating system, it was the architecture. That’s why a computer that came with OS/2 or BeOS could be considered a PC, but a Mac wasn’t a PC — it wasn’t “PC-compatible.”

In 2006, Apple began transitioning Macs to run on Intel’s x86 chips instead of the PowerPC architecture. This wasn’t just swapping out a chip manufacturer — Mac OS transitioned from being a PowerPC operating system to being an x86 operating system. Macs now use the same Intel chips found in “PCs.” The last version of Mac OS X to even run on PowerPCs at all was Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard back in 2009.

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Macs and PCs Have Practically the Same Hardware

Some people seem to think that the hardware in a Mac is very different from the hardware in a PC, but this isn’t true.

The CPU in a Mac is the same Intel CPU you’ll find in Windows Ultrabooks. Companies like Samsung, Toshiba, and SanDisk provide the solid-state drives used in a Mac — these companies make the SSDs you’ll find in Wintel laptops, too. LG and Samsung make the displays. In Mac world, a motherboard is known as a “logic board” — but the logic board is basically the same thing as a motherboard that you’ll find in a PC.

Install Windows on a Mac with Boot Camp and Apple will provide a Windows driver package for you. Many of the drivers in this package are the typical drivers you’d get on a Windows PC.

Some hardware — like those nice trackpads — are specific to Apple’s laptops. But, overall, a MacBook’s internals are practically the same as a PC’s. The hardware may seem higher-quality because Apple’s MacBooks start at $899 with higher-end hardware — there’s no way to buy a $199 Mac with the cheap PC components you’d find in a $199 Windows laptop.

inside-a-macbook-pro

Windows, Linux, and Mac Are All PC Operating Systems

In the past, you couldn’t run Windows on a Mac without an emulator. If you wanted to run Linux on a Mac, you’d have to use the PowerPC port or hunt down a special Linux distribution for Macs, like Yellow Dog Linux. You couldn’t install Mac OS on a PC that came with Windows, either — those operating systems ran on different CPU architectures.

Now, Windows can be easily installed on a Mac and Apple makes the process as simple as possible with Boot Camp. This doesn’t emulate Windows at all — Windows installs on the hardware and runs just as fast as it would on a laptop that came with Windows with the same hardware. You can install the standard version of your Linux distribution of choice on a Mac, too.

Mac OS X can even be installed on PC hardware — this is what’s known as a “hackintosh.” It isn’t officially supported by Apple. However, it’s possible because you can get PCs with very similar hardware to what you’d find in a Mac. Those hardware drivers Apple writes specifically for its Mac hardware can work just as well on a PC with the same hardware.

os-x-on-hackintosh

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Macs Make Great Windows or Linux PCs

Macs can even make great Windows or Linux PCs. If you’re searching for a great PC laptop, it doesn’t make sense to restrict yourself specifically to only computers that come with Windows or Linux. Many people buy Macs specifically to run Windows or even Linux on them.

If you’re looking at a more expensive laptop, Apple’s MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops are some of the best you can buy. Comparable Ultrabooks with basically the same hardware often cost significantly more than a MacBook. When it comes to PCs that cost over $1000, over 90 percent of them are Macs. Apple has a big advantage over the Windows PC manufacturers here — they have an economy of scale and can afford to drop prices, while those PC manufacturers have to keep prices high because they sell so few. Sure, you have to buy a Windows license separately for $100 or so if you plan to run Windows, but it may still be a good deal.

windows-7-on-a-macbook-air


Macs are PCs — nice and expensive ones, but PCs nonetheless. Not all PCs are Macs, but all Macs are PCs.

Image Credit: Brent Ozar on Flickr; Die Medienzeitmaschine on Flickr; Tea, two sugars on Flickr; Ambra Galassi on Flickr; Travis Isaacs on Flickr; raneko on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 08/25/14