What's the Difference Between a Mac and a PC?

They're more alike than you think

In the strictest definition, a Mac is a PC because PC stands for personal computer. However, in everyday use, the term PC typically refers to a computer running the Windows operating system, not the operating system made by Apple.

So, how does a Mac differ from a Windows-based PC?

Mac vs. PC or Mac and PC?

A 27 inch iMac with 5K Retina display.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The Mac vs. PC showdown started when IBM—not Apple or Microsoft—was the king of the computer. The IBM PC was IBM's answer to the flourishing personal computer market that started with the Altair 8800 and was being led by companies like Apple and Commodore.

IBM was thrown a curveball when IBM-compatible personal computers, commonly referred to as PC clones, started popping up. When Commodore dropped out of the personal computer market, it became mostly a two-company race between Apple's Macintosh line of computers and the legion of IBM-compatible computers, which were often referred to (even by Apple) as merely PCs. As Apple framed it, you could buy a PC, or you could buy a Mac.

Despite Apple's attempts to distance itself from the PC, the Mac is now—and has always been—a personal computer.

How a Mac and a Windows-Based PC Are Similar

Because a Mac is a PC, it probably won't surprise you to learn that Macs have more in common with Windows-based PCs than you might think. How much in common? Well, while this wasn't always the case, you can install the Windows operating system on a Mac.

Remember, the Mac is just a PC with Mac OS installed on it. As much as Apple prefers the Mac to be thought of as something different than a PC, it's never been more similar. You can install both Windows and Mac OS on your MacBook or iMac, switch between them, or run them side-by-side (or, more accurately, run Windows on top of Mac OS) using software such as Parallels or Fusion.

Some of those similarities are:

  • They both use the same basic hardware components.
  • They are both compatible with third-party keyboards and mice, including wireless keyboards and wireless mice.
  • They both have a similar interface that allows you to save apps to your desktop, click on apps to run them, browse files in folders, and other actions.
  • They both have a virtual assistant. The Mac has Siri, and Windows-based PCs have Cortana.
  • They both allow you to use cloud services such as Dropbox, Box.net, and Google Drive.
  • Popular browsers Chrome, Safari, and Firefox are available for both, with Microsoft's Edge browser remaining one of the few popular browsers that is for Windows only.
  • The documents you create in Microsoft Office and other popular office suites can be viewed on both Mac and Windows PCs.

How a Mac and a Windows-Based PC Are Different

The Mac OS supports both a left-click and a right-click for the mouse. In addition, you can hook up the mouse you use on your Windows PC to a Mac. While Apple's Magic Mouse may seem like it is a single button, clicking it from the right side produces a right-click.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for people transitioning from the Windows world to a Mac is keyboard shortcuts. The first time you try to use Control+C to copy something to the Mac clipboard, you realize that Control+C doesn't copy anything to the clipboard. On the Mac, Command+C does. As simple as that difference sounds, it can take some getting used to before it feels natural.

The differences include:

  • Microsoft Windows has more software written for it, including proprietary software some people need for work.
  • Microsoft Windows supports both touch screens and the familiar keyboard and mouse setup, so it is available on desktops, laptops, and tablets. MacOS doesn't support touch screens, so it is only available on a laptop or desktop.
  • The Mac has a connected relationship with the iPhone and the iPad. Not only can the Mac share files with the iPhone or iPad wirelessly using AirDrop, or iCloud, it can also open documents that are open on the iPhone or iPad and receive phone calls routed through the iPhone.
  • More viruses and malware target Windows-based PCs. However, malware is written specifically for the Mac.
  • Windows-based PCs are built by many different manufacturers, including HP, Dell, and Lenovo. This keeps prices down on PCs, which are usually less expensive than Macs.
  • Macs are built and sold by Apple. This tighter control of the hardware leads to fewer problems, which can result in better stability, but it also means fewer options.
  • Microsoft Windows has better support for gaming. This includes support for Virtual Reality hardware such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
  • It is easy to upgrade a Windows-based PC part by part. Although most people find it more convenient to buy a new PC, techies can boost the longevity of their computers by upgrading the RAM used by applications, the graphics used by games, or the storage used by music, movies, and other media.

What About the Hackintosh?

Despite the obvious connotation, the term hackintosh doesn't refer to a Mac that's been hacked. Remember that a Macbook or iMac can run Windows because the hardware is virtually the same? The reverse is also true. A PC meant for Windows may also be able to run the macOS, but the process is tricky.

All the hardware in a PC meant for macOS must be recognized by macOS. Typically, a hackintosh is a PC someone puts together themselves specifically to run macOS on it, and it takes a lot of research to get the right components,

Even with the right components, there's no guarantee Apple won't make future updates incompatible with that machine.