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Desktop Computers

Definition:   A desktop computer is “a standalone computer designed to be used as a non-portable computing device at a single location.” [author’s definition] While a desktop computer is relocatable, it is not considered to be portable, i.e., it cannot be quickly or easily moved from one location to another.

While notebook and laptop computers are becoming increasingly popular as prices continue to drop, desktop computers will rule for the forseeable future in terms of both features and raw power. The reasons are simple and twofold — miniaturization costs money and desktop computers are larger, enabling more components to be crammed into the computer case.

The term desktop computer originated in the early days of computers when the computer case, being wide and flat, was designed specifically to fit on your desktop — often with the monitor perched atop it. (Monitors for many years had screens with a maximum viewable dimension of 15 diagonal inches.) One of the earliest desktop computers was the Altair 8800; early forms such as this were huge boxes that took up a great deal of space. IBM is widely acknowledged as having brought the desktop computer, which was called the IBM Personal Computer, or IBM PC, and which truly did fit conveniently on a desktop, to the masses in 1981.

The desktop form gave way to the computer tower as monitors grew in both size and weight and computer users realized that they didn’t like having a clunky old computer taking up valuable real estate on their desktop. In fact, the very idea for the computer tower probably originated through observation that many computer users would sit their desktop computer on the floor on its side next to their desk (resembling a tower) so that it took up only a modicum of space.

Originally, the computer tower (also referred to as tower computer to distinguish it from a desktop computer) was, in point of view, a skyscraper, rising from its floor-mounted position almost as high as the top of your desk. The tower computer was considered a status symbol by high-end computer users when it made its debut. Computer manufacturers quickly realized that the average computer user did not want a giant monstrosity looming beside their desk; hence, the mini tower was born.

The mini tower case is about two-thirds the size of a full tower case. This form is sufficient to accommodate all of the components that must fit into today’s desktop computer. As the Age of Miniaturization dawned, some manufacturers introduced the micro tower, which is about half the size of a full tower case. The problem with a micro tower case is that it cannot accommodate required devices without encountering airflow restriction (resulting in potential overheat problems). It can also be more difficult to add internal devices (such as extra hard drives) or perform maintenance (due to the confined space) on a micro tower.

Because the micro tower must be price competitive with other desktop computer forms, miniaturization of components has not been a viable option, although slimmer motherboards (micro-ATX) have been designed. As price points continue to drop for laptop and notebook components, such devices are finding their way into micro tower desktop computers.

The full tower case is still the preferred form for those desktop computer users who perform repair or upgrade on their own systems (such as myself) or who require extra cooling (hardcore gamers, for example, who overclock their systems, which results in excess generation of heat). A full tower case easily accommodates extra fans, and its roomy interior enhances airflow. The top of a full tower case also becomes a convenient end table on which to place decorations or small “geek toys”, though its most common function is as a repository for a disheveled pile of papers or CD-ROMs.

While the computer tower, most often the mini tower, has become the predominant form associated with today’s home and business computers, the term desktop computer has stuck. Although seemingly archaic, it has been reborn through innovations such as the iMac by Apple, which incorporates the computer and monitor within a single sleek, space-saving unit. Although the desktop computer will eventually be supplanted by portable devices, innovation and the “need for speed” will keep the concept of the desktop computer alive at least for another decade or so.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 13 January 2007.

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