Categories / Sizes / Types of Computers

"One generation's supercomputers is a later generation's mainframes, and eventually some generation's handhelds, and even wearables".

Category General description GP/SP More
1. Supercomputers Most computing power there is to buy for money. Applications include weather forecasting, quantum mechanics, and other forms of most advanced research in biology, physics, et c. (More) SP  
2. Mainframes For thousands up to millions of parallel transactions and/or users, like reservation systems for airlines et c. More SP "You cannot move a mainframe" [Distinctive marks, wikipedia]

3. Minicomputers

  • Superminicomputer
  • Server
  • Workstation

Mini computers is more of a historical term with the trend of microcomputers becoming cheaper and more powerful and what traditionally was minis (with own HW, OSs, SW) has been replaced by racks of PC HW with OS like Mac OS X (Server), Linux (in various flavors), and Windows (Server).

GP "You can tilt a minicomputer",
"You can lift a workstation "[Distinctive marks, wikipedia]

4. Microcomputers

  • Tower PC
  • Mid-Tower PC
  • Mini-Tower PC
  • Personal Computer (PC)
More for personal use, for general purpose computing, using OSs like Mac OS, Windows, or Linux. GP

5. Nanocomputers

  • Arduino
  • Raspberry Pi
  • ...


Credit-card sized computers. "Nanocomputer is the logical name for a computer smaller than the microcomputer, which is smaller than the minicomputer." [wikipedia] More GP "You can hold it in the palm of your hand." [COMGT]

6. Mobile computers

  • Desktop replacement
  • Laptops
    • Notebook
      • Subnotebook
  • Tablet PC
  • Handheld computer (HC)
  • Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)
  • Electronic organizer
  • Calculator
  • Handheld game console
  • Smartphone (v. Feature phone)
  • Wearable computer

Maybe most characteristic difference* compared to all the above is user interface, human machine interface (HMI) - touch screen, no physical keyboard (and mouse), use of gestures and pressure.
*) Increasingly so: traditional laptops are also supporting gestures and getting touch screens.


What's a 'mobile' device? Important questions when designing user interfaces!

  • Is it a device that supports touch? Which increasingly also laptops and even desktops may have...
  • Is it a device with a small screen (what about retina iPads)?
  • Is it a device with a slow CPU?
  • Or a device with a slow Internet connection? Limitations in network bandwidth.
some GP, some SP "You can throw a laptop "[Distinctive marks, wikipedia]

7. Embedded

  • Single Board Computer (SBC)
  • Wireless sensor network components
  • Plug computer
  • Micro controller
  • Smartdust

Out of sight, special purpose, computing. Like in your washing machine (your home likely has multiple of tens of small computers without you know it), car (cars have tens up to hundred(s) of microprocesser-based devices, basically every industry segment has products with embedded devices, and more than most people can imagine, guess.


More SP  

GP/SP: General Purpose, Special Purpose [computing]

See also Printed Circuit Boards, PCB for sizes. enterprise mobile embedded web

User Interfaces has more on differences in how using different types of computing devices.

More reading, references: