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

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

So, how did the quite generic term PC end up causing so much confusion? And 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.
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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.

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

But despite Apple trying to distance themselves from the PC, the Mac is, and has always been, a personal computer.

How Are a Mac and a Windows-Based PC Similar?

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

We know. Your mind is now officially blown.

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

Let's look at some of those similarities:

  • 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, etc.
  • 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 like Chrome, Safari, and Firefox are available for both with Microsoft's Edge browser one of the few popular browsers to remain only Windows only.
  • The documents you create in Microsoft Office and other popular office suites can be viewed on both Mac and Windows PCs.

How Are a Mac and a Windows-Based PC Different?

Be prepared for your mind to be blown a second time: the Mac OS supports both a left-click and a right-click for the mouse. More than that, you can hook up the mouse you use on your Windows PC and use it on a Mac. And while Apple's Magic Mouse may seem like it is a single button, clicking it from the right side produces a right-click.

In fact, one of the biggest stumbling blocks people coming from the Windows world comes down to keyboard shortcuts. The first time you try to use control-c to copy something to the clipboard, you realize that control-c doesn't copy anything to the clipboard. You see, on the Mac Command-c does. And as simple as that sounds, it can take some getting used to before it feels natural.

So what's different?

  • Microsoft Windows has more software written for it, including proprietary software some people need for work.
  • Microsoft Windows supports both touchscreens 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 as 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, but it can also open documents that are open on the iPhone or iPad and even receive phone calls routed through the iPhone.
  • Because Windows is more popular than macOS, there are more viruses and malware that target Windows-based PCs. However, there is malware written specifically for the Mac.
  • Windows-based PCs are built by many different manufacturers such as HP, Dell, and Lenovo. This helps drive prices down on PCs, which are generally cheaper than Macs.
  • Macs are built and sold by Apple. This tighter control of the hardware leads to fewer problems, which can mean better stability, but it also means fewer options.
  • Microsoft Windows has better support for gaming, especially "hardcore" gaming. This includes support for Virtual Reality (VR) hardware such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
  • It is easier to upgrade a Windows-based PC part-by-part. While most people find it easier to simply buy a new PC, techies can boost the longevity of their PC by upgrading the RAM memory used by applications, the graphics used by games or the storage used by music, movies and other media.

What About the Hackintosh?

If you've heard the term hackintosh used, you might be a little confused. But don't worry, it doesn't mean a Mac that's been hacked. At least, not in a bad sense. Remember how 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.

All of the hardware in a PC meant for macOS must be recognized by macOS so, generally, a hackintosh is a PC someone puts together themselves specifically to run macOS on it. It takes a lot of research to get the right components and there's no guarantee Apple won't try to make future updates incompatible with that machine.