The arguments over whether a tablet counts as a computer this rather lovely Ars Technica article on why they think a tablet is a PC as well as a chat conversation over this question got me thinking over what a PC is. This is a semi rant, but eh, considering that nearly everything is some flavor of computer-ish device, its quite relevant to me.

Ars claims that PCs have 4 elements

  • Real PCs require real keyboards.
  • Real PCs have preemptive multitasking.
  • Real PCs can be directly programmed at their own consoles.
  • Real PCs require an open architecture and open operating environments.

To me

  • Real PCs are General Purpose Computing Devices.
  • Real PCs run arbitrary software.

There's no doubt to me that say, a x86/x86-64 based laptop running one's OS of choice (and the ability to trivially install one's own OS is a defining feature of a 'general purpose computing device'. The Raspberry Pi counts on this - you can run whatever you want, on top of whatever OS.

Now, there's edge cases for the first feature. One rather obvious one that cropped up was a question where a console was being used to run ps3mediaserver. So, in this case the PS3 is being used as a general purpose computing device. In addition, this might be solvable by other means, maybe using a different encoder on the PC end.

I also think general purpose computing devices have a range of options for input and output (which phones don't have, but consoles do) and perform a range of tasks based on said IO devices - i can plug in a monitor to my laptop, but not a phone, and i can use a keyboard and mouse/trackball/mind reading device on my desktop.

The second tends to simply mean, i can download and run what i want - but nearly everything, and the toaster does it, but not an iPhone.

Opinions, and hopefully non rotten, non excessively hard flung fruit welcome.

  • A "Personal Computer" (PC) may be viewed by some people as being more specific than a "Computer" in general. It seems that the "personal" aspect is gradually disappearing (I believe "personal computing" was at its height when the Commodore 64 was popular back in the 1980s), with the whole industry sliding away into corporate bliss ever since. Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 1:11
  • well, personal to me, is as opposed to 'shared' like say, those old mainframes, or cloud based things - which also run on general purpose computing systems. I mean, i couldn't call them workstations, could i? ;p
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 1:14
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    What's the purpose of this question? Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 3:52
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    well, its more "What is a computer" for the intents and purposes of SU - we have a pair of "why arn't tablet questions welcome here" questions, and one more situation where a vaguely consolish question got moved from here, to gaming, and back. I suppose, the purpose, as such, is to, well, spark discussion.
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 4:47
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    So once Apple requires that applications be downloaded exclusively through the Mac App Store infrastructure unless the user clicks a checkbox in System Preferences (I can just imagine "Allow unsafe programs"), the Mac ceases to be a computer?
    – Daniel Beck Mod
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 5:23
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    Well, in my view, if they totally disallowed 3rd party software, and it required you to 'jailbreak' it, yes. It becomes, in effect, an embedded device. I wouldn't consider the iphone or appletv to be a general purpose device for that reason.
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 5:29
  • "Real PCs are General Purpose Computing Devices. Real PCs run arbitrary software" So I can ask questions regarding my graphing calculator here too? I think not. Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 13:03
  • The original IBM PC definitely did not (originally) do preemptive multitasking (or even round-robin multitasking). In fact, the IBM 7090 did not do preemptive multitasking and, by the definition above, would not be a "real computer", even though the thing occupied a large room. Commented Nov 15, 2011 at 1:16

2 Answers 2


Actually reading through the quoted article, ars isn't claiming those four bullet points as valid criterion for definition of PC's for a good reason. Older computers didn't utilize preemptive multitasking. What's the definition of a keyboard? To my limited knowledge Chrome OS doesn't easily allow for programming in languages (unless there's a web app for that). To be honest I don't know exactly what they mean by "open architecture", but if that means free to use or distribute Windows isn't free... and neither is MAC OS.

What is a computer?

While there are many definitions/opinions to be found on the net, but what really matters in this situation is how the Super User community defines computers. To be honest I think that most of us can figure this out by ourselves without having to pin it down to specific details, because once we do that, then most inevitably someone will come along and say:

Why are some questions allowed while mine wasn't?


But if it has such and such components then doesn't that make it a computer?

or what's to say that in this ever changing world of computing, that hardware and software changes will make these definitions that we set in place obsolete?

So what do we do? How about instead of defining what a computer is to Super User, we rather define what it isn't? Or in other words, and more importantly, what is on-topic for Super User and what isn't. It isn't really a definition of the word 'Computer' but rather what Super User considers to be on-topic for the site. In my opinion, these are not allowed on Super User for either the reason that they belong on a better suited site elsewhere in Stack Exchange, or just simply don't belong due to lack of 'conformity' with other content allowed:

  • iPads, Galaxy tabs, and other 'tablets'
  • phones of ANY kind
  • Media devices (including MP3 players, BD/DVD players, etc,.)
  • gaming consoles

Finally the all knowing wife of mine pretty much says it all:

"The computer is... a bunch of 1's and 0's combined with motherboards, and memories and video cards, that keep husbands away from wives!"

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    Couldn't agree more!
    – Pylsa
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 7:20
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    +1, especially because the final point that "the computer ... keep[s] husbands away from wives" is, unfortunately, a reality for many couples. Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 9:12

Before smartphones came along my teachers used to say that even calculators were computers. I think a computer is anything that can run software.

Update: I would say a computer is anything that computes. And some devices, appliances, objects such as a house have computers in them but they would not be a computer.

I would say there us a difference between an object that needs or uses a computer from a computer that uses an object.

For example, a refrigerator using a circuit board and running software to manage temperature and inventory versus a smart phone that uses an antenna and software to make phone calls. The smart phone is a computer.

It might be the difference between composition and inheritance. A house has a computer but it is not a computer. A smart phone has a phone antenna but it is not a phone.

Inheritance example:. Animal > Dog Animal > Cat

Both are Animals.

Composition example:. Cat.accesories = [collar]

Is Cat a collar? No. The Cat has a collar.

Composition is what something has or is brought into or contained within while inheritance is what something is or extends from.

  • "Smart" appliances contain software. By "software", you mean something that isn't already contained, that can be loaded and run? What about a player piano? (OK, that could be considered data rather than software.)
    – fixer1234
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 1:39

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