When people think “computers,” usually it’s something like a laptop or your office computer that comes to mind. Computers are actually all around us, and can be broken down into separate categories depending on their size and processing power. Certain definitions have changed over time with the speedy advances in technology – we have computers that can fit in the palm of our hands now that have as much processing power as a computer that was the size of a whole room half a century ago! Still, most of the general qualifications for each category are the same, along with the many subcategories that might fit into each one.
So what are these categories of computer types? There are five main ones: supercomputers, mainframe computers, minicomputers, microcomputers, and finally mobile computers. In this guide, we’ll learn the details of each one, plus provide some useful resources for learning more about computer basics. For the essentials, you can start out with this introductory computer class.
Below you’ll find an extensive, descriptive list of the five types of computers, from supercomputers to mobile computers, and everything in between. If you’re interested in a career in engineering, check out this lecture course on computer science.
A supercomputer is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a term used to describe computers that have the most capable processing power of its time. Early supercomputers in the 60s and 70s used just a couple processors, while the 90s saw supercomputers with thousands of processors at a time. Today, modern supercomputers run hundreds of thousands of processors, capable of computing quadrillions of calculations in just a few nanoseconds. You probably won’t be needing that kind of power to access Facebook… Actually, supercomputers are used in computational science to calculate and carry out a plethora of complex tasks. Modeling molecular structures, weather forecasting, and the field of quantum mechanics, among others, rely on supercomputers and their intense processing power to solve their equations.
Like supercomputers, mainframe computers are huge, towering machines with lots of processing power. Mainframe computers are mostly used by corporations, government agencies, and banks – organizations that need a way to store large quantities of information. They are not the same as supercomputers. The processing capabilities of mainframe computers are measured in MIPS, or millions of instructions per second. Supercomputers, on the other hand, are measured in FLOPS, or floating point operations per seconds.
A minicomputer is a multiprocessing machine that can support up to about 200 users at the same time. It’s like a less powerful mainframe computer, and is about the size of a refrigerator. A server can be an example of a minicomputer, but not all servers are minicomputers. Despite their name, a minicomputer is not a personal computer like the desktop machine you might have at home or work. They are much larger than that. Because of the ways microcomputers – which we’ll cover next – have excelled in processing power even beyond minicomputers, and at a much smaller size, minicomputers have become pretty much obsolete.
Microcomputers are the ones people are most familiar with on a daily, non-professional basis, but of course that doesn’t mean they’re exclusive to the home. Microcomputers are smaller computers that run on microprocessors in their central processing units. They are much, much cheaper than supercomputers, mainframe computers and even minicomputers, because they’re meant for everyday uses that are more practical than professional. The range of capabilities for microcomputers are still vast, though. A film editor might use a microcomputer to run many intensive editing programs at once, while a student might use a microcomputer for Facebook and word processing. Need help with the basic functionality of microcomputers? Check out this basic computer skills guide for some tips.
The term microcomputer itself is pretty outdated, in this sense. Most people use what they would call personal computers, and even within this definition there are several variations. These include:
- Desktop computers: Desktop computers are not as dated as the non-computer savvy might think. They are still popular for the user’s ability to customize them, replace parts and fix them with much more ease than they would a laptop. It’s also more convenient to be able to connect peripherals like screens and keyboard and computer mice that fit your needs. In this sense, desktop computers could be used at the office for professional tasks, or at the home. Desktop computers can be specialized for things like gaming as well, equipped with high-end graphics cards and more RAM. Learn how to build your own gaming computer with this guide.
- Video game consoles: Some people don’t think of video game consoles as computers, but they are. They have many of the same hardware components as computers, but are usually less advanced, which is why they’re able to cost much less than a top-notch gaming computer.
- Miscellaneous: Other examples of microcomputers include video game arcade cabinets and smart TVs.
These are exactly what they sound like – computers that are super small and mobile. You could argue that a desktop computer is mobile if you need it to be, but mobile computers usually describe computers that are meant to be carried around and taken from place to place. If a desktop computer is a microcomputer, then a laptop is a mobile computer. There are so many different types of mobile computers though, even beyond laptop-like devices. Below is a list of devices that could be categorized as mobile computers.
- Laptops: Portable computers designed to be carried from place to place. All of its components are contained inside a panel that functions also as the keyboard, with an attached screen that can be folded over. Because of their size and convenience, these are some of the most popular computers for everyday use. However, despite the convenience and ease of use, they aren’t without problems, as outlined in this guide to laptop problems and possible solutions.
- Netbooks: Much smaller laptops.
- Tablet: A flat, keyboard-less screen (though some of them come with keyboard attachments) that utilizes touch-screen functionality for navigation and use. Learn more about the history and function of tablet computers in this course.
- Handheld game console: Devices like the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Sega Nomad, PlayStation Portable (PSP), and PlayStation Vita are handheld game consoles. Just like regular consoles, these are tiny computers that let people play games on the go.
- Calculators: Calculators are computers that carry out computers’ most basic tasks – calculations! There are many different types of calculators. Basic calculators, graphic calculators, scientific calculators, programmable calculators, and calculators used for accounting and other financial purposes.
- Portable media players: Also known as MP3 players. That’s right – your iPod is a mobile computer too.
- Cellphones and smartphones: The iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy are examples of powerful smartphones that are also mobile computers. Thinking of getting a smartphone? Find the best smartphone for you with this detailed guide.
Categories of Computer Parts
We know the different types of computers now, but what categories of computer components exist? In simple terms, we could divide this into four categories: input, output, processing, and storage devices. Most computers need all of these components to function. For more info, learn how to build your own computer from scratch with this course.
For an even more specific breakdown of the various types of computer components, check out this extensive guide on essential computer knowledge.
- Input Devices
Input devices allow us to interact with computers in a variety of ways. If we couldn’t interact with the machines, what use would they be to us? Most input devices come in the form of peripherals, and can be divided into subcategories of their own: visual, audio, etc. Some examples of input devices include computer mice, keyboards, scanners, copy machines, webcams, microphones, MIDI keyboards, synths, game pads and controllers, and so on. Basically, anything you can plug into your computer that lets you input information or carry out tasks is an input device.
- Output Devices
Output devices are the opposite of input devices. These are peripherals that essentially allow the computer to interact with us – they display information that we need to make decisions about how we interface with them. In more technical terms, output devices convey results from processes run by the computer. The most obvious example of an output device is a computer monitor, or screen, because this lets us see the various processes our computers are running in a substantial, visual manner. Other output devices include headphones and speakers, which convey sound, printers, and even CDs, which we can tell the computer to output information onto.
- Processing Devices
Processing devices are exactly what they sound like. They are the devices that enable the computer to process information in the first place. All computers have some form of a processor. The computer you’re on right now likely has a CPU, or central processing unit, embedded onto its motherboard. This is where the computer carries out its complex calculations, processes info, and sends it out to its output devices to be conveyed to you in a manner that makes sense. You can read this guide for a deeper explanation of the way motherboards work.
- Storage Devices
Most computers have some form of storage device that lets the machine record data on a temporary or permanent basis. Your standard personal computer will come with a primary storage device, which is a storage device that is a part of the hardware itself. This includes RAM and processor registers or caches. Your computer’s central processing unit is continuously retrieving and scanning data from these storage devices, and computing as required. On the other hand, secondary storage devices are a more permanent means of storage, that do not require the central processing unit to be running in order to save its information. Devices like a hard drive, a solid state drive, and other external storage devices like USB flash drives, DVDs, CDs, and floppy disks, are all secondary storage devices.
Need to learn how to get your lost data back? Check out this guide on recovering formatted hard drives.
Now that you’re familiar with the computer basics, from types of computers to categories of computer components, why not learn how to build your own computer with this course? You can also check out this introduction to computer repair. If you’re looking to get into computer programming, Java is a good place to start. Begin your coding journey with this introduction to Java programming course.