Types of Computers & Their Differences, Advantages, Disadvantages & Characteristics
By Michael Cox
Today's computer buyer has such a wide array of options, it's almost hard to believe that until very recently the choice was simple for most people: a desktop or laptop. However, with the popular adoption of netbooks and touchscreen tablets, there's a computer with a form factor for everyone. Whether you want massive screen real estate, high-powered processors, great industrial design or the ability to check your email while you walk down the street, there's a computer for you.
The term "desktop" may be a misnomer, with most people stowing "tower" computers under or beside their desk, leaving only the connected mouse, keyboard and monitor on the desktop. A desktop case houses only the computer itself, leaving the user to use either included peripherals or third-party products. The most customizable form factor, desktops offer easy access to RAM slots, hard drives, interface cards and even processors, enabling tinkerers to build and customize their machines for a specific use. This upgradability and capacity makes desktops the computers of choice for many gamers and those using professional video or CAD software.
Of course, portability is not an option for a desktop user, but a well-equipped desktop can act as a server or backup station for a home network, enabling you to access files or stream your music or video remotely to a laptop. While a desktop box can be inexpensive compared to a laptop with similar capabilities, make sure to include the price of a monitor in your calculations.
In 2005, laptops overtook desktop computers in overall popularity, and many of today's laptops offer features and versatility that used to be the exclusive realm of desktop models. With high-resolution integrated displays, full-size keyboards and multi-core processors, laptops are usually powerful enough to run most applications as quickly as a desktop. The portability of a laptop enables you to work from wherever you want, and virtually all of today's laptops include Wi-Fi.
Sizes and capabilities vary widely, however. Compact "netbooks" offer inexpensive, lightweight, Internet-capable computers but may skimp on storage, processing power and even screen and keyboard size. Larger "desktop replacement" models include screens as large as 17 inches, interfaces for connecting peripherals and additional monitors, and processors suitable for gaming, but also carry a much higher price tag and shorter battery life. Even "middle-of-the-road" models with 13-to-15-inch screens offer varying capabilities. With such a broad range, there's a laptop for almost every need and budget.
The iconic Macintosh was the first widely accepted all-in-one computer: a desktop machine with an integrated screen. Apple reinvented its flagship all-in-one in 1999 with the iMac, and today it and others like the Acer Veriton and HP Omni have similar form factors: the "works" of the computer hide behind its screen for a sleek look. USB connections offer you a choice of mice and keyboards, and newer models such as the HP TouchSmart include touch screens as well.
The downside of an all-in-one computer is that it lacks the portability of a laptop as well as the upgradability of a desktop tower. However, if you want an unobtrusive computer for your home or a machine for a small space or kitchen, you may find an all-in-one to be the best option.
The newest computer form factor, tablets became popular in 2010 when Apple introduced the iPad. The lightest, most portable computer design, a tablet uses a touch screen as its primary interface, although external keyboards are available for most models. Some, like the Asus Transformer, connect with a keyboard and track pad to mimic a laptop. Most tablet brands offer 3G or 4G LTE connectivity as an option, with Wi-Fi only on their base models. The low-power processor in a tablet means longer battery life than a laptop, and a tablet can be ideal for connecting to email or making notes on the road, reading e-books or giving presentations around a table.
While most tablets are limited by their Android, iOS or Windows RT operating systems and the tablet-optimized apps available from dedicated app stores, Microsoft's Surface Pro adds the ability to run the full Windows operating system. Like laptops, tablet form factors vary, from the Surface's 10.6-inch display to the iPad's 9.7-inch screen and the Kindle Fire's 7-inch screen. Storage in most tablets is fixed, although some feature memory-card slots for expansion. As with other form factors, tablet prices vary widely depending on capabilities, operating system and connectivity, but you can find basic tablets running Android for less than $200.
Michael Cox writes about lifestyle issues, popular culture, sports and technology. In a career spanning more than 10 years, he has contributed to dozens of magazines, books and websites, including MSN.com and "Adobe Magazine." Cox holds a professional certificate in technical communications from the University of Washington.