What Is a PC?

What constitutes a personal computer?

A PC, or personal computer, is a smaller scale computer designed and built to be used by a single person at a time. Today, that computer can take many different forms. Here's what you need to know about PCs, including how the PC came to be.

What Is a Personal Computer

Because PC is defined using very broad, general parameters, a PC can actually be a wide variety of computing devices, including desktop computers, laptops, tablets, 2-in-1s, smartphones, and even Macs. Yes, even though brand-wise, Macs are commonly thought to be different from PCs, Macs still fall under the general category and definition of personal computers.

From a branding standpoint, however, PCs are generally thought to be personal computers that also run Windows, which is why the term is also commonly understood to be a separate type of computer from Apple's Macs, which run macOS.

Black PC monitor, keyboard and mouse on a white desk, in front of a white wall.
Sanni Sahil/Pexels

The Development of the PC

The development of personal computers can be traced all the way back to the 1970s. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the very first PC was developed in 1974 and was known as the Altair.

However, the Altair wasn't particularly popular among the general public, and it wasn't until 1977 that we saw PCs start to become accepted by mainstream users. And that's because in 1977, three "pre-assembled mass-produced personal computers" were released. These computers were the Commodore Business Machines' PET (Personal Electronic Transactor), Apple's Apple II, and the Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80. According to PCMag, these early PCs generally featured a mere 64KB of RAM, 8-bit microprocessors, and the use of floppy disks for storage.

In the 1980s, PCs began to evolve to include faster speeds and increased "memory capacity." A leading example of this evolution in the 80s is the release of IBM's IBM PC. It was then that IBM became the most popular PC in the world and its popularity was largely due to the inclusion of Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet software, use of the Intel 8088 microprocessor, and an operating system that, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, was "adapted from Microsoft Corporation’s MS-DOS system."

But by far, one of the biggest most influential developments in personal computing was Apple's Lisa, a PC developed in 1983 that had a GUI (graphical user interface). The GUI of the Lisa led to the development of Apple's Macintosh in 1984. The Macintosh was particularly useful for desktop publishing since the GUI let users determine how to arrange elements on a page (like pictures) before printing them. But Apple's GUI wouldn't be alone in the market for long, as Microsoft released its own GUI operating system in 1985, called Microsoft Windows.

After the introduction of GUIs, the development of PCs only continued to evolve towards computers that featured ever-increasing speeds and storage, all of which are seemingly being packed into smaller and smaller sizes. And these innovations were only spurred on further during the 1990s and 2000s as the Internet grew popular among mainstream users and maintains its dominance today through smaller PCs like laptops, smartphones, and tablets.

The Popularity of PCs Among Consumers

Because the broad definition of a personal computer is very generic and encapsulates so many different computing devices, it's clear that today PCs are exceedingly popular. Even if you're just looking at smartphones (which are mobile PCs), you can see how dominant personal computers currently are in everyday life.

In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, as of June 2019, a whopping 81 percent of Americans own a smartphone. In addition, nearly 75 percent of adults in the United States own a laptop or desktop computer, and almost 50 percent of U.S. adults own tablet computers.