Everyone knows that “PC” is short for “Personal Computer,” but not everyone can agree on what counts as a PC or doesn’t. It turns out that the term “PC” is packed with more nuance than you might have thought!
The Broad Meaning of PC
Virtually all words have multiple meanings, depending on the context you use them in 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 words rather than prescribe what a word “should” mean.
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 in infinite ways. So although a pocket calculator is certainly a computer in the strictest sense, it’s not the type of computer that “PC” refers to.
Under this broad umbrella, a smartphone certainly counts as a PC. There’s no fundamental difference between it and a typical laptop computer. However, there is an argument that an Android tablet is a personal computer while an iPad isn’t.
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 like. Although Apple advertises modern iPads as personal computers, they blur the line between a personal computer and a computer appliance, albeit due to an artificial limitation.
Undoubtedly, every Mac, Linux, or Windows system is certainly a personal computer in the broad sense. Still, most people wouldn’t think to refer to an Android smartphone as a PC despite it neatly fitting the broad meaning of the word.
The IBM PC
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 you can use on a desk. Other contemporary microcomputers included the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and BBC Micro.
IBM pushed the term “PC” 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 to have so-called “IBM-compatible” computers flood the market, this is why a PC is called a PC today as opposed to all the other names used for computers suitable for personal use.
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 first IBM PCs. They all use “x86” CPU architecture. In other words, the same processor “language” that sits at the core of the IBM PC still sits at the core of modern gaming PCs.
When a game developer says it’s releasing a game “for PC,” it always means releasing it for an x86 computer. It almost always means the software is meant 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 myriad other x86 operating systems are all PC operating systems.
The “PC” in “Mac Vs. PC”
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 PCs, 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’s entirely 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 PCs and you could install Windows and run all the same apps as any PC.
However, Intel Macs still didn’t have the open hardware support of typical PCs, with Apple’s Mac firmware being substantially 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 truly PCs.
The point is somewhat moot now, though, since Apple left Intel behind for its own Apple Silicon hardware, based on the ARM architecture. Apple Silicon Macs are definitely not PCs in the IBM-compatible sense!
What About x86 Gaming 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 shift.
The Xbox Series and PlayStation 5 consoles retained this change to x86 hardware, so these devices are customized PCs. The core architecture and hardware are no different from what you’d find in a typical laptop or desktop PC. In the case of Xbox’s consoles, even the software is essentially Microsoft Windows. So why are these “consoles” and not “PCs”?
It’s true that the core 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 “consolized” PCs or PC-derivatives. You can’t install whatever software or operating system you want or install drivers for hardware not approved by the console maker.
Consoles can be considered PCs in terms of their hardware architecture, but they certainly don’t count as PCs broadly, having more in common with computer appliances such as iPads.
It Has Nothing to Do With Form Factor
Whether something is a PC or not, whether in the broad sense or in the hardware architecture sense, has nothing to do with form factors. An x86 laptops and an x86 desktop computer are both PCs. They have the same hardware architecture, run the same software, and conform to open industry standards.
This is why a handheld computer like the Steam Deck is a PC, 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 big gaming PC desktop, or a 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 do change over time, for now, when someone says “PC” they probably mean a computer that can call a 1981 IBM PC its ancestor.
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