Computers have come a long way since the first computers were introduced in the 1940s. From the massive mainframe computers to the smaller microcomputers of today, there have been many technological changes, and it’s difficult to imagine a life without these gadgets today.
Various names are used to refer to different types of computers, from mainframes to microcomputers. However, these terms refer to the computer’s size, handling capabilities, use, or abilities. The four main types of computers include:
In this blog post, we will explore the various types of computers, from mainframes to microcomputers, and look at how they evolved.
What is a Computer?
To understand the different types of computers, you first need to know the word’s definition. A computer is any programmable device or machine that can process, calculate, or store data quickly, reliably, and repetitively.
The essential parts that enable a device to be classified as a computer include a central processing unit (CPU), storage memory (RAM and ROM), an input device, and an output device. Generally, a computer will be classified depending on any of these categories:
- Use – general purpose, special purpose/embedded
- Computer size/power – Mainframe, Minicomputers, Super Comps, Micro-computers PC (desktop, laptop, notebook, netbook, tablet)
- Handling capabilities – analog, digital, hybrid
Read on below to find out the various examples of computers that fall under each category.
#1: Types of Computers by Use
Here, computers are classified depending on the intended use/application. By use, we have a general purpose and special purpose computers. All computers will fall into any of these two categories before they can be classified further.
A general-purpose computer is programmed to undertake several tasks and interact with multiple devices or users. Most computers, including PCs, desktops, smartphones, and tablets, fall under this category because they can perform most computing tasks.
This is a microprocessor-based computer programmed to perform a particular software-controlled task or set of functions. Still, they cannot perform other general functions of a computer. They are also referred to as embedded computers. They can be used in industrial automation, space exploration, and digital signage.
Examples: Wi-Fi routers, automatic teller machines, dedicated gaming consoles, PlayStations, automatic vendor machines, robot vacuum cleaners, washing machines, etc.
This category consists of any technological device that you can wear on your body. They are programmed to enhance convenience, accessibility, more straightforward navigation, health, and fitness tracking, etc.
Examples: smart watches, implantables (pacers), smart patches, etc.
#2: Types of Computers by Size/Power
Since their inception, computers have evolved into different sizes. A computer can be as huge as occupying a whole room or a large building and as small as a laptop or handheld device.
A supercomputer is the fastest, largest, and most expensive type of computer that exists today. It comprises either 10, 100, 1,000, or more computers working simultaneously. They are only designed for special purposes that often require complex calculations, such as scientific research, weather forecasting, nuclear energy research, and geological data analysis.
In 2023, the U.S. Department of Energy is set to roll out one of the largest supercomputers, Aurora, which is worth about $500 million. The Aurora will process about a quintillion (260 or 1018) calculations in seconds.
The largest known supercomputers include (but are not limited to) Fugaku, which is used in Japan for scientific research, and Sierra, which is by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a U.S. federal agency, for nuclear weapons safety.
Mainframe computers are enormous (2,000 to 10,000 sq. ft.) and powerful computers mainly used in the data centers of large enterprises and organizations. They are typically found in a dedicated server room and can be accessed remotely by different users simultaneously.
Mainframes were invented in the 1950s and are capable of processing huge amounts of data (up to 30 billion transactions per day) quickly and accurately. Mainframes have upgraded security, scalability, and dependability levels, making them ideal for vital processes such as banking, government, or insurance.
Mainframe computers also control other systems, such as air traffic control, satellite tracking, and military defense systems. Mainframes typically feature several CPUs, interconnected to many other computers and gadgets to pool an even larger computing system.
Minicomputers are mid-sized computers, larger than microcomputers but smaller than mainframes. These multi-processing systems are ideal for 5 to 300 people and are primarily used in small businesses, colleges, research labs, and hospitals.
Minicomputers are cost-effective and deliver the functionalities of a mainframe computer at a more affordable price. Minicomputers can process data from various sources while handling large chunks of information. They are run by microprocessors and use operating systems such as Unix, Linux, or Windows.
Minicomputers applications include networking, communication, data processing and analysis, image processing, software development, and multimedia. Minicomputers can also store huge volumes of data and are ideal for banking, inventory tracking, accounting, and office automation.
Examples of minicomputers include IBM AS/400 computers and the MV 1500.
This type of single-user computer is specially programmed for engineering applications (CAM/CAD), software development, publishing, or any application that doesn’t require a lot of computing power. They feature advanced graphics, a huge RAM, and a graphical user interface (GUI).
Microcomputers are the smallest and most popular computer types. They are primarily used for personal use or startup business computing. Microcomputers are typically equipped with various components, such as a processor, memory, storage, and an operating system. The processor is responsible for executing instructions, while the memory is used to store data and programs.
Microcomputers come in various sizes and configurations, depending on their purpose. Examples include desktop computers, personal computers (PCs), laptops, netbooks, and tablets. Desktops usually feature larger components than laptops, which are designed to be more portable. Netbooks are lightweight, low-power versions of laptops that are ideal for casual computing tasks. Tablets offer similar capabilities as netbooks in a much more compact form factor.
These computers’ affordability, portability, and wide range of applications make them the most popular choice for general computing needs. They are suitable for various tasks, such as word processing, web browsing, streaming media, and gaming.
#3: Types of Computers by Handling Capabilities
Computers may also be classified according to how they are designed to function, or by their working methods. Thus, the three broad categories include analog, digital, and hybrid computers.
There may be some overlap with other categories here, but they are important distinctions to make. Let’s discuss them below.
As the name suggests, these types of computers are primarily designed to process and analyze organic (analog) measurable data. They don’t process numerical data but, instead, data captured from the real world, such as distance, pressure, temperature, speed, and length.
Examples include speedometers, thermometers, volt meters, calculators, and clocks.
These types of computers are designed to work on numerical data presented in the form of binary digits (0s and 1s). Thus, any input is usually converted into the binary language to enable the computer to process the data to produce information. They can compute mathematical calculations and also process logical/factual work.
Examples of digital computers include PCs, mobile phones, and tablets.
A hybrid computer is a blend of both analog and digital computers. They are designed for fast and efficient computations of complex calculations and factual work. They are mainly used in medicine, whereby raw input data (analog data) is converted into digital signals and processed to produce a numerical output.
Examples include electrocardiogram machines, ultrasound machines, and gasoline vending machines.
The First Successful Personal Computer
Although there are several types of computers, personal computers are undoubtedly the most popular. The first successful personal computer was the Altair 8800 which was developed in 1974. It used Intel Corporation’s 8080 microprocessor and featured 256 bytes of memory (expandable to 64 KB). The Altair 8800 was popular with hobbyists and computer enthusiasts, although it had little commercial appeal.
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