Classifying computers

We have a natural tendency to pigeonhole and classify things, and computers are not an exception. In this post, we are going to see the most common way of Classifying computers.

If we wonder what type of computer our laptop is, you might think that it fits perfectly into the category of minicomputer however it isn´t, it is really a microcomputer. But how important is this for me? What matters if my laptop is a minicomputer or a microcomputer? Well, even if you are never going to work with another computer than your laptop, it is always good to know that there are other categories of computers with other features, many more than those of your laptop. Who knows, maybe on some occasion you will have to face some task too big for your laptop.

The most common way to classify computers is according to their performance. We distinguish 5 types or categories.

The Supercomputer

Just because of the name, it should be good, but: how is it? what benefits does it have?, does it deserve its name?….

Supercomputer MareNostrum
Supercomputer MareNostrum

It is a computer with great computing capacity, reserved for solving complex problems that require a high calculation speed. They are mainly used in the field of research and there are very few.

In Spain, the first supercomputer that comes to mind is the one known as MareNostrum, in Barcelona, at the BSC.  It is used in very diverse research projects ranging from climate change research, AIDS vaccines or fusion energy production simulations.

If you are very interested, you can find information about supercomputers on the website of the institution that manages them. In the case of MareNostrum I leave you a link to the Technical Information, this already for the very Geeks.

The Central Computer

Not everything is calculation in computers field, the ability to handle data is also very important, and the Central computer is a  supercomputer in this feature.

Central Computer
Central Computer

These are computers with great capacity for data processing. They are not focused on the calculation with that data, as the supercomputers are, but on the handling and classification of this data. The central computer is focused on solving problems that require a large number of input and output devices, and high reliability.

They are used by large companies that need to work with a lot of information. Such could be the case of a bank, for example, using it for the processing of all banking transactions. I can also think of other more unpleasant uses, such as the Treasury recording and sorting all our financial data.

The Minicomputer

Nowadays, we can assimilate the term Minicomputer to server. It is therefore a computer with good computing and data processing capabilities, although they are far away from supercomputers and central computers features.

And, how is it possible that we name minicomputer to a server? There is a historical reason, in the sixties, all computers were central computers only at the reach of very few companies. Then emerged the so-called “Minis”, computers of smaller capacity than the central ones but much cheaper and accessible to small companies. Later the personal computer appeared and as the term “Mini” was already caught, in a waste of imagination, they were called “Micro”.

A minicomputer has a much lower data processing speed than a central computer and can service a very small number of workstations. Although it is difficult to put a number, when a computer serves more than 100 remote workstations it could already be considered a central computer, although this can serve thousands of these remote workstations.

The workstation

There are certain needs that are not covered by microcomputers, either because greater graphic processing capacity or greater computing power are needed. And at the same time, there is no possibility to face the high prices of minicomputers or simply does not compensate financially.

Here is where the workstation finds its place. In a way, the workstation can be considered as a high-performance microcomputer for a single user, specialized in some type of application such as graphic design or computer-aided engineering.

The Microcomputer

And finally we get to our computer, the one we have on our desk, the microcomputer. The most common are PCs, personal computers, but other devices such as tablets, video game consoles or even smartphones fall into this category.

These are devices with a CPU and therefore with processing power, they are not dumb terminals that have to connect to a central server. And in general, they provide the most common services that the user demands: video and music playback, writing documents, simple calculations, email…

And for now, here I leave it. I trust that this quick classification of computers by their performance, will help you to get a helicopter view of types of computers and that you know that your personal computer is at the bottom of the pyramid, even though it were a MAC ;.)


This post is part of the collection “Computer Architecture” that reproduces the class notes that I use to teach the subject at ESIC. You can see the index of this collection here.