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In the world of home entertainment and video games, two terms that were commonly used to describe machines from the 1970s onward are "games console" and "home computer".

Some devices appear to straddle both terms. To give one example, Wikipedia's article on the Nintendo Entertainment System describes it as a "home video game console", but it was sold in Japan as the "Family Computer" or Famicom.

Is there a commonly accepted definition of what is a home computer, and what is a games console?

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    At some point there was customs benefit for computers va game consoles. I vaguely remember PS2 being sold (in some country) with keyboard and Linux to make it pass as a computer. Won’t make this into an answer, at least not yet, since can’t remember the details and don’t have time to dig into it right now – tuomas Jul 18 at 9:36
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    @tuomas Very vague recollection of having heard something like that... adding a keyboard to "pass as a computer" fits with my simplistic definition: Computers have keyboards; consoles have joysticks/controllers. – TripeHound Jul 18 at 10:12
  • @TripeHound So tablets are not computers? :)) SCNR – Raffzahn Jul 18 at 10:30
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    I would have thought that 'computers' are programmable by the user whereas 'consoles' are not - their programs are in ROM. – No'am Newman Jul 18 at 10:47
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    We should not argue about how Japanese call things in Engrish. At least they call it Computer, while e.g. in Germany, serious Computers have been called Rechner all time. (And nowadays, all computers are Rechner in Germany, because, they are all doing serious stuff with it.) – Janka Jul 18 at 16:28
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There's no single commonly-accepted definition; the dividing line has shifted over time.

In 1977 when the Apple II, PET and TRS-80 collectively invented home computing the difference was pretty obvious: the computers had the ability to display good-quality text, and provided a textual interface.

That codified into a home computer having a keyboard and starting up in some sort of operating enviroment into which software was loaded on top — computers mostly had decent quantities of RAM, whereas a console would have a negligible amount and would usually boot directly into a ROM dedicated to one piece of software, without anything much of an OS.

The idiomatic home-use machines also tended to provide a programming language as a shell for a while, but that ceased entirely with the 16-bit machines and was only a rule-of-thumb in the first place.

Another axis of distinction is peripherals and expansions: use cases for computers tended to vary enough that a diverse range of peripherals would appear, such as disk drives, printers and light pens. So computers had much greater internal hardware diversity. The Apple II is the archetype of that with expansion slots right in the case.

Nowadays consoles still tend to be more single-task focussed but that expresses itself only in appropriate specialisation of the OS; the distinction is more a question of positioning and business model. A console is built primarily for games and sold at a loss on the presumption that the user will buy enough different pieces of software to make up the difference whereas with a computer, if it comes with an office bundle and a web browser then it is expected that a user may never buy another piece of software again.

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The main difference is that games consoles only run games, not productivity software or a visible operating system.

For example, compare the Commodore 64 and C64GS, the latter being a dedicated games console. The keyboard was removed, the BASIC interpreter largely hidden (and useless due to the lack of a keyboard anyway) and games booted directly from cartridge.

A similar example is the Amstrad GX4000, which is a cut down Amstrad CPC computer with the keyboard and tape mechanism removed. Again the BASIC interpreter is hidden and it boots directly into games.

The Amiga CD32 console was another example. Essentially a full Amiga 1200 computer with CD-ROM add-on it could run most Amiga software, but lacked a keyboard.

Some systems did blur this line, primarily in Japan where accessories were sometimes released that turned games consoles into 8 bit computers. In the west the Playstation 3 console officially supported Linux, a fully desktop computer operating system.

  • On the Amiga example, any idea specifically what they added when the decision was eventually made that they would use the chipset to create a computer, not a console? – Tommy Jul 18 at 15:21
  • @Tommy that's a good question, and I don't know the answer. – user Jul 19 at 7:59
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According to Wikipedia, a video game console "is a computer device that outputs a video signal or visual image to display a video game that one or more people can play" while a home computer is a "personal computer designed for home use for a variety of purposes, such as bookkeeping, accessing the Internet and playing video games" (emphasis mine).

Based on this, we can conclude that the difference between the two is the intention in the design which usually also manifests itself in the end product. Games consoles are not designed to be used for bookkeeping or word processing so they tend to lack a physical keyboard for example. Naturally, like with all taxonomies, the lines can be blurry but many products do fall into one or the other side of the -albeit blurry- line between "designed solely for gaming" and "designed for gaming and other uses".

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Consoles had fixed hardware configurations, games you bought and owned physical read-only media for, that you could replay exactly as they were when you bought them, and that didn't change out from under you.

Home computers, well, don't. And neither do the things that are sold as "consoles" nowadays.

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    Atari 800XL or Commodore 64 (both home computers) have pretty much fixed configurations. And you could buy games for them in read-only cartridges. – cyco130 Jul 19 at 6:35
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Is there a commonly accepted definition of what is a home computer, and what is a games console?

Simply No.

If at all it's a case by case base incooperating design, technology and usage. One and the same device can be seen according to this in either role.


Let's see:

  • Computer is a technological term.
  • 'Home' is a designator for use, not technology.
  • Technology wise every game console with a MPU is a 'Computer'.
  • Likewise 'Game' - but it does as well not realy help to distinguish.
  • Thus a game console may be a home computer - but only at home.
  • PCs are not home computers, but countless are used at home - any more often than not for games.
  • Consoles not used for games (like browsing the web or running Linux) are what?
  • And in addition, quite a majority of home computers is designed as a single console.

This can be continued for pages, but I guess it starts to become clear that these categories are rather fuzzy ones. Great for human interaction and fast, rough communication, but not really usable for a hard, clear and common accepted definition.

Thus next to all definitions found are as well either superficial or as well fuzzy and depend on the angle the issue is viewed.

  • If about usage, one and the same device can switch between the roles.

  • If about technology, again they can switch between both.

More so over time as we should keep in mind that computer technology converges more and more toward a one fits all (*1)


*1 - At least for standard usage.

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