What Determines How a Computer is Categorized?

By Bert Markgraf

Computers are categorized by a wide variety of factors, including size, calculation speed, processor power, processor number, price and application. Some computer categories emphasize a leading capability in one particular aspect while others require a computer to have minimum capabilities in a wide range of characteristics. Many computers can work in several categories, but are optimized for a particular use. The nine categories listed demonstrate the wide range of applications found for computer technology.

Supercomputers

These are the most expensive and the fastest computers. They usually have many of the most powerful processors available, and evaluate complex models. They are categorized by the speed at which they can perform calculations, and are used for large, chaotic, dynamic systems like weather patterns or the turbulent flow of air around an airplane. Cray and IBM make supercomputers.

Mainframes

Mainframes are large, powerful computers characterized by their ability to handle thousands of incoming connections. Typically used by large institutions and companies to allow staff and customers to access data and perform operations, they usually don't have to handle complex tasks, but must handle many simple tasks simultaneously. IBM and Amdahl are mainframe suppliers.

Servers

While mainframes can be located remotely, servers in a business environment are usually on the local area network, and handle fewer connections. Servers deal with email, webpages and Internet connections and store company data. A company may have many servers, each dedicated to specific tasks. IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell are major suppliers of servers.

Workstations

At the other end of the connections handled by mainframes and servers are individual workstations and personal computers. Workstations have more powerful processors than personal computers and can handle complex calculations, scientific analysis and high-level imaging. Workstations are offered by a wide variety of manufacturers. Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Dell are among the largest.

Personal Computers

Personal computers are categorized by their comparatively low price and their ability to accomplish basic computing tasks in a self-contained manner. While not particularly powerful or fast in comparison to workstations and mainframes, they can do business calculations, word processing, email, Internet browsing and other business tasks adequately. Many companies build and supply personal computers. Hewlett-Packard and Dell are major PC suppliers and Apple offers the iMac.

Game Consoles

Game consoles are high-powered computers similar to personal computers, but with better graphics capabilities and a higher speed. Their category is determined by their use in playing video games, and by their ability to rapidly render complex, three-dimensional graphics generated by the games. The video game market is dominated by a few large players including Sony, with the PlayStation 3, and Microsoft, with the Xbox.

Mobile Computers

Mobile computers are personal computers that the owner can easily move around and carry when travelling. They include subcategories like laptops, notebooks and netbooks, but they still have a traditional operating system, and are usually compatible with the non-mobile personal computers. Apple, Toshiba and Acer are among the major suppliers.

Handheld Computers

Handheld computers are small computers with limited computing power. They have a small form factor and low power consumption, allowing the owners to carry them easily while the computers run on batteries. Instead of a traditional operating system running computer programs, these devices have operating systems specific to the device or device family, and run small programs called apps to accomplish specific tasks. Apple, with the iPad and iPhone, the Android family of mobile devices and the Blackberry are typical examples.

Embedded Computers

Embedded computers are processing units that carry out computing functions within a device that has a non-computer purpose. Typical examples are embedded processors in cellphones and computing units in cars. These embedded computers may be quite powerful, but their primary purpose is to allow the main device to function properly. Embedded computer suppliers tend to be specialized in their industry but Siemens is a major supplier.