Size, Speed, and Price

The desktop personal computer has become the dominant computer type for business and home use. Hardware has grown in size in order to accommodate more devices, provide more storage capacity, and generally enhance performance. In the mid-1980s, the typical PC consisted of a 12-inch (30 cm) monitor, a keyboard, and a central processing unit (CPU) that accommodated a 20-Mb (megabyte) hard-disk drive and a 5.25-inch (13 cm) floppy-disk drive, and had a number of ports (connection sockets) for optional peripheral devices. The printer was the most common peripheral device. By the late 1990s, 14- and 17-inch (36 cm and 43 cm) monitors were standard, in order to provide improved display of pictorial content. The CPU, usually in a tower format, typically accommodated a several gigabyte hard-disk drive, a 3.5-inch (9 cm) floppy-disc drive, a CD-ROM (compact disc read-only memory) or DVD (digital versatile disk) drive, and a modem. It had sufficient ports to take a range of peripheral devices, including scanners, digital cameras, CD writers, loudspeakers, and extra storage drives, such as the Zip or Jaz drives. The CD-ROM, introduced in 1984, has become the standard format for applications software, games programs, and educational software such as multimedia encyclopedias. Recordable CDs (CD-Rs), requiring a CD writer, became available in 1990. Introduced in 1995, the DVD can hold a full-length motion picture.

However, the key determinants of performance, the microprocessor and the RAM chip, have grown in processing power, speed, and capacity without growing in size. Since its introduction in 1993, the 32-bit Intel Pentium chip, the dominant PC microprocessor chip, has evolved from running at a speed of 60 MHz (megahertz) to 600 MHz. A 64-Mb RAM chip is now regarded as no more than average. Therefore, while desktop models dominate, portable computers are now available in sizes ranging from the palmtop to the notebook. In the 1970s, portability was more of a relative concept. The first portable computer, the Baby suitcase computer of 1976, was a CPU without a monitor, like the Altair desktop. Even by 1981, when the Osborne I portable computer was introduced, portable computers were still suitcase-size and referred to as luggables rather than portables. Compaq, which introduced a portable PC in 1982, was the first company to really focus on the portable computer market. By 1986, the portable computer had shrunk from the luggable to the briefcase-size laptop, and by 1989, from the laptop to the thinner notebook. The notebook is the smallest type of PC that retains full functionality; it can accommodate hard disk, floppy disk, and CD-ROM drive as well as an internal modem. Subnotebooks and hand-held palmtops or personal organizers economize on size by having limited data storage facilities and small keyboards, but can transfer data to desktop or notebook computers by wired or infrared linkages. Some palmtop computers, such as the Apple Newton, introduced in 1993, omit the keyboard entirely and instead allow input to be written onto an LCD “notepad” using a stylus. They have built-in optical character recognition (OCR) software.

Prices have continued to fall, thanks to economies of scale, increases in production efficiency, and competitive market forces. While big American manufacturers, including IBM, Dell, and Compaq, still have sizeable market shares, the nature of computer retailing has allowed small companies to prosper. Purchasing direct from the manufacturer or from computer warehouses via mail order or electronic commerce has become a significant feature of the personal computer trade. Although personal computers may be ostensibly made by European, Canadian, or U.S. companies, in this context “making” means assembling, and the majority of the manufacturing process takes place in the Far East. Japanese companies, such as Toshiba, Sony, and Fujitsu, have been particularly successful in the portable computer market. Portable computers continue to be significantly more expensive than desktop models offering equivalent performance. This largely reflects the relatively high cost of flat liquid crystal display (LCD) screens in comparison with conventional cathode ray tube-based monitors.