Computers have been part of our society in one way or another since the activation of ENIAC in the mid-1940s

Today, computers have evolved well beyond that original model and even beyond personal laptops and office machines. Some even fit in our pockets with amazing processing power. Computers perform key tasks for most business sectors. 

Here are the main computer categories and the types within them.


The definition of a supercomputer has changed over the decades. In 1951, the UNIVAC could process only a few thousand computations, or instructions, in one second. By 1975, the Cray 1 supercomputer ran 160 million instructions per second (MIPS) on large amounts of data.

In the 21st century, supercomputers have a similar setup as their ancestors. They take up a large amount of data center floor space. The main difference is instead of a few processors, they run multiple instances for each device. Together, they calculate billions of billions (quadrillions) of instructions per nanosecond. This is known as exascale supercomputing, where measurements change from MIPS to floating point operations (FLOPS).

These types of devices aren’t performing simple internet searches. Rather, supercomputers carry out the compilation of Big Data in the business and science sectors. For instance, they might be used for modeling molecular structures. Or government organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) might use them to forecast potential severe weather patterns. 

There are two types of supercomputers: general purpose and special purpose.

General purpose

This form of a supercomputer can be divided into three subtypes.

Vector processing supercomputers rely on array processors. These are similar to a central processing unit (CPU) of a standard computer. However, they perform rapid mathematical operations on a large number of data elements. These were the basis of the supercomputer industry in the 1980s and 90s, and today’s devices still have some form of vector processing instruction. 

Clusters refer to groups of connected computers that work together as a supercomputing unit. An example is a group that runs high-powered database programs that help produce results from the compilation of Big Data.

Commodity clusters are large numbers of standard-issued personal computers (PCs). They’re connected through high-bandwidth and low latency local area networks (LANs). 

Special purpose

Special purpose computers are supercomputers designed with an explicit purpose to achieve a particular task or goal. They normally use application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) for better performance. IBM’s Deep Blue is an example of one of these devices. 


Mainframe computers are towering machines with lots of processing power. Organizations that need to store large quantities of information still use them. However, mainframes aren’t supercomputers. Here are a few differences.

Though they were considered supercomputers at the time, original systems like ENIAC and UNIVAC would be considered mainframes today.

Midrange computers

The midrange is a step down from a mainframe. About the size of a regular refrigerator, this multiprocessing machine supports a maximum of 200 users at the same time. Despite its name, a midrange computer isn’t considered a PC. 

This category of machine, originally named minicomputer, was developed in the 1960s as an affordable alternative to mainframes. However, it had higher processing power. The main reason is that midrange computers are capable of running on higher-level programming languages. For example, in the 70s and 80s, they processed data through Fortran or BASIC.

While midrange computers still exist, they are nearly obsolete. The processing power they possessed is now found in desktops, laptops, and even smart devices.


A microcomputer is a smaller machine that runs on a microprocessor. This category costs far less than larger computers with immense power. Such “minicomputers” are used for regular and practical use.  

The age of the microcomputer began in 1970 when the microprocessor was released. Rather than a series of circuit boards or vacuum tubes, a single central processing unit was established. Since the size of a computer could be greatly reduced, the company MITS was able to release the first personal microcomputer, the ALTAIR 8800, in 1974. 


While the term “microcomputer” has been replaced with terms such as PC and smart device, this kind of machine is still in service. Actually, it’s probably used more in the 21st century than at any time since the introduction of digital computing. There are seven types of microcomputers. 

Desktop computer

Also called personal computers (PCs), desktop computers are universally used for casual and commercial purposes. It’s designed to be static — to remain in a fixed place, like a desk.

Desktop computers tend to be big, but not as large as they originally were. Their cases have gotten smaller as motherboards and their components have decreased in size. Despite this miniaturization, they tend to be the most powerful of the microcomputers. 

One advantage desktop computers have is the ability to be upgraded. This is not only related to the operating system (OS). Disk drives, random access memory (RAM), and video/audio cards can be swapped out to improve performance.  


A workstation is a high-end microcomputer that shares data on a work-based network like a server. Its function is to handle the operations of other desktops and servers within its local environment. They perform high-level tasks and share important information with the other computers.

A workstation’s goal is to be powerful enough to maximize efficiency across the LAN.  Where personal computers strive for versatility, workstations look for precision. It’s one reason why a company’s system administration team supports these devices.


Where a desktop computer is designed for use by an individual, a server is indirectly used by many people on a network. Additionally, other devices might rely on a server to handle tasks. 

Generally, servers across the globe provide what is available on the internet. Lately, many of them exist in the cloud to permit access from anywhere, which is why these servers must have a great deal of storage, RAM, processing power, and security. Furthermore, they need to back up their information to a backup server, another form of media, or both.  

Though a powerful desktop computer can be declared a server, it needs additional capacity, not only to maintain large amounts of data, but also to run 24 hours a day. In other words, a microcomputer that becomes a server must be dedicated to the purpose. 

Mobile computers

Mobile computers are small and meant to be taken from place to place. Today, many mobile devices have the same power, if not more, as a desktop computer. Furthermore, because they are destined for use in different locations, they are more versatile. 

There have been waves of mobile computing over the years. Each of them has seen advancements that made the devices smaller. Yet, they still had the same performance abilities.

  1. Portability: This concept began with the introduction of the Dynabook in 1968. Though it was originally considered for children, developers realized a portable computer could be used for everyday needs. The first official portable computer, the GRiD Compass, came out in 1981 and was the size of half a briefcase.
  1. Miniaturization: By the 1990s, the size of computer hardware had reached a stage where small mobile computers could be introduced into the market. Thus, the concept of the personal digital assistant (PDA) was created. The PDA wasn’t considered a substitute for a desktop. Rather, it was a supplement for those who spent long periods away from their PCs. 
  1. Connectivity: This wave is connected to wireless communications. In 1973, a team at Motorola patented a mobile phone concept. A decade later, it produced the DynaTAC 8000X, the first commercial mobile phone small enough to carry. As technology improved, items like a short message service (SMS), calendars, and internet browsing were introduced to extend connectivity.
  1. Convergence: The next wave took place when manufacturers decided to combine specialized mobile devices into hybrids. The first phase was the smartphone. This combined a PDA’s functionality with mobile phone operations. This created a large series of innovations that included mini-QWERTY keyboards and touchscreens. 
  1. Divergence: Meanwhile, other manufacturers suggested an “information appliance” approach. Here, a mobile computer was designed to perform a specific activity. This is where machines such as the iPod and the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) appeared on the market.

The concepts created during these waves are still active today. Those that aren’t, like PDAs, are incorporated into other devices. Below is a list of contemporary mobile computers.


Laptops are designed to be used in different locations. Components are contained within a single panel that has the functions of a keyboard, mouse, and power switch. An attached screen folds over, so the laptop is easily carried.

As their size and weight decreased over the years, laptops have become more popular. When attached to a docking station, they have the same abilities as a desktop. For instance, multiple monitors can be attached to the station for a larger display. 


The netbook is a smaller version of a laptop. It’s intentionally designed to be lighter and less expensive. For instance, it might have a screen that’s six or seven inches wide, compared to the 11-inch to 13-inch screen of a standard laptop.

Everything in a netbook is miniaturized. Low-voltage, low-power CPUs are installed due to size restraints. To maintain its lightness, a netbook has smaller hard drives.

While popular in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the netbook market has eroded in place of smart tablets.


A tablet, also called a smart tablet, is a flat mobile computer. Rather than having a keyboard and mouse, it uses touch-screen functionality for navigation. Tablets tend to be more versatile due to the wide range of third-party applications they can leverage.

Several types of tablets exist. Specialized models like the Amazon Kindle are primarily used for items like reading ebooks. However, they also allow users to watch videos and play games.

Hybrid tablets, like the Microsoft Surface, have a similar style to this mobile computer. However, they come with a desktop-style OS and keyboard extensions to act like a microcomputer.

Handheld game console

Before the popularity of smart devices, handheld game consoles ruled the market. Some of the most popular of these were Nintendo’s Game Boy & DS and the Sony PSP. Currently, the Nintendo Switch is the market leader as other consumers turn to their smartphones and tablets to play games. 


People use smartphones more than their PCs or laptops. Though smartphones might not have the same storage capacity, the increasing use of the internet cloud helps them do the same things as the bigger models. Due to rapid technological advancements, audio, video, and image quality tend to be far superior. 

Overall, smartphones have become so sophisticated that they should no longer be part of the mobile computer category. They deserve one of their own.


Microcontrollers, also known as embedded systems, are minicomputers that store data. Additionally, they execute simple commands and tasks. These are located in places that form the world called the “internet of things” (IoT).

IoT comprises those computing devices that operate out of other systems. Your vehicle’s onboard computer is an example. Not only does it maintain the regular operations of your car, but it also sends information to the manufacturer or, in the case of trouble, a third party that alerts emergency services.

Microcontrollers are also part of appliances, including smart refrigerators and manufacturing machines. If it can reach the internet through an app or a wireless connection, the microcontroller is part of the IoT.

This review of computer categories reveals how far the technology has come. Originally immense devices that took up entire rooms, devices now fit into your pants pocket. On top of this, many of today’s devices, especially supercomputers, have more processing power than the earliest models.

Now that you have an idea of the types of computers available, let’s go over the basics of how to use a computer

Page Last Updated: August 2021