Computers exist in a wide range of sizes and power. The smallest are embedded within the circuitry of appliances, such as televisions and wristwatches. These computers are typically preprogrammed for a specific task, such as tuning to a particular television frequency, delivering doses of medicine, or keeping accurate time. They generally are “hard-wired”—that is, their programs are represented as circuits that cannot be reprogrammed.
Programmable computers vary enormously in their computational power, speed, memory, and physical size. Some small computers can be held in one hand and are called personal digital assistants (PDAs). They are used as notepads, scheduling systems, and address books; if equipped with a cellular phone, they can connect to worldwide computer networks to exchange information regardless of location. Hand-held game devices are also examples of small computers.
Portable laptop and notebook computers and desktop PCs are typically used in businesses and at home to communicate on computer networks, for word processing, to track finances, and for entertainment. They have large amounts of internal memory to store hundreds of programs and documents. They are equipped with a keyboard; a mouse, trackball, or other pointing device; and a video display monitor or liquid crystal display (LCD) to display information. Laptop and notebook computers usually have hardware and software similar to PCs, but they are more compact and have flat, lightweight LCDs instead of television-like video display monitors. Most sources consider the terms “laptop” and “notebook” synonymous.
Workstations are similar to personal computers but have greater memory and more extensive mathematical abilities, and they are connected to other workstations or personal computers to exchange data. They are typically found in scientific, industrial, and business environments—especially financial ones, such as stock exchanges—that require complex and fast computations.
Mainframe computers have more memory, speed, and capabilities than workstations and are usually shared by multiple users through a series of interconnected computers. They control businesses and industrial facilities and are used for scientific research. The most powerful mainframe computers, called supercomputers, process complex and time-consuming calculations, such as those used to create weather predictions. Large businesses, scientific institutions, and the military use them. Some supercomputers have many sets of CPUs. These computers break a task into small pieces, and each CPU processes a portion of the task to increase overall speed and efficiency. Such computers are called parallel processors. As computers have increased in sophistication, the boundaries between the various types have become less rigid. The performance of various tasks and types of computing have also moved from one type of computer to another. For example, networked PCs can work together on a given task in a version of parallel processing known as distributed computing.