In between my chores as a hardware tester, I’m an IIBT board-certified troller and can successfully argue with anyone about anything, anywhere, at any time.
These days, one of the many issues I get to spar with people over is, “What is a PC?” That might seem about as basic as opining on the color blue, but the distinctions are extremely important. Just this morning, I was reading a headline stating that Apple’s new mini tablet could very well “hurt the PC market.” Of course, on the very same news site, six months ago, was a story about how analysts had deemed Apple the world’s largest “PC maker.” That’s not because Apple sold more PCs than HP, Dell, or Lenovo, but because it sold more iPads, which as we know, should be counted as PC sales, right?
That’s part of my frustration. It wasn’t so hard to figure this out in the early days of computing, before the PC wiped out pretty much everyone except for Apple. Why is it so hard today?
In the strictest definition, a PC was an IBM PC running PC-DOS on an Intel x86 processor. That would later expand to a PC-compatible machine running MS-DOS on an x86 CPU. These days, I’d say, the definition is pretty liberal: any x86 or x86-64 machine running a stand-alone x86-compatible operating system. It doesn’t even mean you have to run a Microsoft OS, but you should be able to install any compatible OS you want. After all, a ThinkPad running Ubuntu is as much a PC as a corporate “Wintel” box. And yes, I think that x86 boxes with secure UEFIs that don’t let you install Linux or other alternative OSes fail to live up to the definition of a PC. And yes, the Mac is just an overpriced PC.
How does my litmus test work on today’s hardware? Let’s see. Is the iPad a PC? No, it’s not x86 and it’s pretty well locked down. Is it a personal computer? Yes. Is a Citrix terminal running Windows XP remotely a PC? No. Is it a personal computer? No, it’s a terminal. Is your smartphone running Android 4.1 a PC? No. Is it a personal computer? Yes. Is a Windows 8 Pro convertible tablet a PC? Yes. Is Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet running Windows RT a PC? No. Is it a personal computer? Yes. Is a Google Chromebook a PC? If it’s x86, then yes, but not when it’s running Chrome OS. Why not? Chrome OS is far closer to being a terminal than a personal computer.
During the next few years, the lines will get blurred. The media will get confused. But I’m certain that if it looks like, smells like, and boots like a PC, I’ll know it.
Gordon Mah Ung is Maximum PC’s deputy editor, senior hardware expert, and all-around muckraker.