What is a “PC”, anyway?

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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 packed with more nuances than you might have thought!

The broad meaning of 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 instead of prescribe What does the 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 endless ways. So while a pocket calculator is certainly a computer in the strictest sense, it’s not the kind of computer that “PC” refers to.

Under this broad umbrella, a smartphone certainly counts as a PC. 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 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.

Without a doubt, every Mac, Linux or Windows system is without a doubt a personal computer in the broad sense. Still, most people wouldn’t think of referring to an Android smartphone as a PC even though it fits perfectly with the broad meaning of the word.

The IBM PC

The IBM 5160 PC with the IBM logo on the screen.
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Some confusion surrounding the term “PC” is due 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 desktop. Other contemporary microcomputers included the Commodore 64, the ZX Spectrum, and the BBC Micro.

IBM pushed the term “PC” to differentiate the IBM PC 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 flooded the market, this is why a PC is called a PC today, as opposed to all 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 PC can trace its family tree straight back to the earliest IBM PCs. They all use “x86” CPU architecture. In other words, the same processor “language” found in the core of the IBM PC is still found in the core of modern gaming PCs.

When a game developer says they’re releasing a game “for PC”, they always mean releasing it for an x86 computer. It almost always means that the software is designed 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 many 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.
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When Apple or Apple users talk about “Mac vs. PC” 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 different architecture.

Early 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 the IBM PC x86 architecture.

After PowerPC, Apple switched to Intel CPUs and 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 the same applications as any PC.

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

However, the point is somewhat moot now, as Apple has 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.

RELATED: What are ARM CPUs and are they going to replace x86 (Intel)?

What about x86 game consoles?

Another interesting aspect of the question of what really is a “PC” comes from modern game consoles. Microsoft and Sony both moved to x86-based consoles with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. To be fair, the first Xbox was an x86 system, so Xbox One was a return to form for Microsoft consoles rather than a game changer. radical.

The Xbox Series and PlayStation 5 consoles retained this switch to x86 hardware, making these devices custom PCs. The core architecture and hardware are no different than what you’d find in a typical laptop or desktop. In the case of Xbox consoles, even the software is essentially Microsoft Windows. So why are 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 different in many ways, whether you consider them “consolidated” PCs or PC derivatives. You cannot install the software or operating system you want, or install drivers for hardware not approved by the console manufacturer.

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

It has nothing to do with the form factor

valve vapor cover
Valve

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. Both an x86 laptop and an x86 desktop are PCs. They have the same hardware architecture, run the same software, and adhere to open industry standards.

That’s why a laptop like the Steam Deck is a PC, but a console like the Nintendo Switch isn’t. 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.

While the meaning of words can and does change over time, for now, when someone says “PC,” they’re probably referring to a computer that may call a 1981 IBM PC its ancestor.

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