Is the iPad a PC?

What Exactly Makes a PC a "PC"?

woman using an iPad

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Is the iPad a PC? Tablets have increasingly expanded into the PC's territory, with tablets like the iPad Pro and Surface Pro becoming as powerful as mid-range laptops and desktop PCs. And many tablets are sold as "hybrids" with attaching or fold-away keyboards. 

So what makes a PC? Is it the operating system? Is it the hardware? Or is it what the device allows you to do?

The Operating System

An operating system has three main goals: (1) provide a platform for software applications, (2) manage the computer's hardware in such a way that services can be provided to those applications, such as a hard drive allowing an app to save data, and (3) provide an interface for the user to launch those applications and utilize those services.

At one point, MS-DOS was the defacto standard for an operating system on a PC. This text-based operating system forced users to move through folders on the computer's hard drive by typing commands like "cd applications/office". To launch an application, the user would need to navigate to the right folder using those commands and type in the name of the application's executable file to run the program.

Luckily, we've come a long way since the days of MS-DOS. Modern operating systems like Windows and Mac OS use a graphical user interface that makes it easy to find and launch software applications and manage hardware devices like the hard drive. In this regard, the iPad is very similar to any other operating system. It has the same icons we'd see on a PC, you can manage your storage directly through the user interface by deleting apps, and you can even search the entire device through Spotlight Search. In terms of passing those three main goals, the iPad not only meets expectations, but it also exceeds them.

The Hardware

A modern PC can be boiled down to just a few pieces of hardware working together. First, the computer needs a Central Processing Unit (CPU). This is the brains of the computer. It interprets the instructions given to it. Next, much like the human brain, it needs memory. Random Access Memory (RAM) is basically our short-term memory. It allows the computer to remember enough information to run an application, but this information is forgotten as soon as the application exits.

Of course, it doesn't do us much good if our PC can't remember what we tell it for long, so PCs come equipped with storage devices that can store and retrieve data over the course of years and even decades. These storage devices take the form of the hard drive, flash drives, DVD drives and even cloud-based services like Dropbox.

The last pieces of the PC puzzle are relaying information to the user and allowing the user to guide the process. This normally takes the form of a screen where we can see applications running and user interface devices like a keyboard or mouse that allows us to manipulate the PC.

So how does the iPad stack up? It has a CPU. In fact, the CPU in the iPad Pro outperforms many of the laptops you'll find in Best Buy or Frys. It has both RAM and Flash storage. It has a beautiful display and the touch screen plays the part of both a keyboard and a mouse. And when we include the accelerometer and gyroscope, which allow you to interact with apps by tilting the iPad, it has a few extras that you don't normally see in conventional PCs. In this sense, the iPad goes a little bit beyond the traditional PC.


If we are going to look at the PC as a "personal computer", the functionality of the device should provide for most of the needs of a standard user. We don't expect it to be capable of producing the same graphics we see in a Hollywood blockbuster or competing against humans on Jeopardy, but we do expect it to serve our needs in the home.

So just what do we do with our personal computers? Web browsing. Facebook. Email. We play games and write letters and balance our checkbooks in a spreadsheet. We store photos, play music and watch movies. That about covers it for most people. And, crazy enough, the iPad can do all of those things. In fact, it has a lot of functionality that goes beyond the personal computer. After all, you won't see the PC as a device where augmented reality is a common use. Very few people use their PC as a replacement for their GPS when taking a vacation.

Certainly, the iPad isn't capable of doing everything that a PC can do. After all, you can't develop applications for an iPad on an iPad. But then again, you can't develop applications for an iPad on a Windows-based PC either. You'll need a Mac.

There are plenty of popular games like League of Legends that you won't find on your iPad. But then again, League of Legends just dropped support for the Mac. We aren't kicking the Mac out of the PC group.

Suffice to say, the iPad cannot do everything that a Windows-based PC can do. But a Windows-based PC can't do everything that an iPad can do. Determining what is and what isn't a PC based on individual applications is an exercise in futility.

If an iPad can cover the basic functionality used by the standard person in their home, it seems only logical to call it a personal computer. No one system is right for everyone, but what seems in little doubt is that the iPad was made with the consumer in mind.

In a different world, would we even be having this discussion?

Imagine a world with no iPhone, but where the iPad has the same app ecosystem and popularity as it has now. Would anyone have a problem calling the iPad a PC? Did anyone have a problem calling the Windows-based tablets that preceded the iPad a PC?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle the iPad has to overcome in being able to achieve that "PC" label is the fact that the operating system originated on a smartphone. Without the iPhone, naming the iPad a personal computer doesn't seem that big of a stretch. It might just be the mere fact that the operating system originated on smartphones that obscures us from the true nature of the tablet computer: the next evolution of the laptop computer.