3.1 Introduction to computers

1. What is a computer?

A computer is an electronic device that stores and processes data.  

The infographic below shows the different stages of the information processing cycle.

Diagram of inputs, processing, outputs and storage within computers

Types of computers

There are many different types of computers. The first computers were very large physical devices and usually took up several rooms. They were first developed around the 1940s. Over the years, the size of computers has decreased, whereas their power and efficiency have increased due to the discovery of technologies such as transistors and integrated circuits.

The Desktop or Personal Computer (PC) also known as the desktop computer or workstation was designed with individual users in mind. Personal computers first appeared in the late 1970s, with the Apple II and IBM PC being the more popular ones. Nowadays, personal computers range from a few hundred to thousands of US dollars in price. They are also typically used in offices and community hubs and probably what you have in mind when you hear the term ‘computer’.

Laptops are small portable computers, also known as notebooks. They are nearly equivalent to personal computers in terms of their processing power and storage capacity. However, they are a bit more expensive than personal computers. 

Handheld computing devices are small enough to fit in your hand. Common examples of handheld computing devices include tablets, smartphones and personal digital assistants. Handheld computing devices often have touch screens or soft keypads, memory card storage and the ability to send files or connect with other devices via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. You can use these to connect to accessoires like headsets and keyboards. Many handheld computing devices also have inbuilt GPS technology that allows them to use the Global Positioning System to determine your location.

Wearable Computers are, as the name says, computers that can be worn on your body such as smartwatches. They are usually used for health monitoring systems, communication or recreation. One main advantage of the wearable computer is its ability to allow users to multi-task.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), can be flown via remote control by a person on the ground or via an onboard computing system, which makes use of flight plans, sensors, and GPS technology. Drones can be equipped with different equipment, such as cameras or sensors. . Drones are used for a wide range of applications, like surveillance, search and rescue, weather and traffic monitoring, photography, videography or environmental monitoring.

Mainframe computers are one of the fastest and largest computers today. They are normally used at banks and other enterprises that require high speed and efficiency to handle many transactions. They are very expensive and rely on several high-speed central processing units (CPUs) and lots of memory.

The infographic below shows the main different types of modern computers.

Table and pictures showing different types of modern computers