Form Factors

Manufacturers use the term “Form Factor” to describe a computer’s size and shape. Laptops come in 5 different form factors. Desktops come in 3 different form factors. Here’s a closer look at each:

Computer Form Factors

Netbooks Ultra-portable Laptops Midsized Laptops Large Size Laptops Tablet PC's Tower and Desktop Systems All-in-One Desktops Small Form Factor Systems



Netbooks are very small, thin, light and inexpensive laptop computers. Their distinguishing feature is their ability to wirelessly access the internet. Netbooks and Ultra-portables share many of the same internal components and their specs are often indistinguishable from one another. Unlike all other laptops, netbooks rely heavily on software that runs on the internet instead of the device itself. This feature allows designers to reduce hardware specs and their associated costs without appreciably impacting the performance of the device. Netbooks have reasonable performance but they are not designed to support tasks that require heavy duty computation. Before buying a netbook, consumers should factor in the cost of the broadband contract that’s required to make full use of its capabilities. User profile: if you’re on the move and willing to rely on web based software for most of your computing needs, then netbooks are for you.

Recommendation: buy a Netbook if mobility and price are extremely important and you are willing to trade built-in capabilities for features that can be found on-line. More detail…

Ultra-portable Laptops

If you are a frequent flier, a road warrior or an on-the-go student who values mobility over all else, then ultra-portables are the right kind of laptop for you. Ultra-portables are extremely light weight (4 pounds or less) and very compact (typically less than 14″ wide). Their compact size means that they have smaller keyboards and smaller screens then other laptops with comparable performance. These are very capable computers but their size limits the number of features that are usually built-in to other laptops in the same price range. Most ultra-portables come with a built-in broadband radio that lets you access the internet via a cell phone connection. These machines are ideally suited for word processing, emailing and web surfing. One feature that sets ultra-portables apart from all other laptops is their battery life. Ultra-portable battery life typically exceeds 6 hours (more than enough for a transcontinental flight). User profile: business traveler or well healed, on-the-go student.

Recommendation: buy an Ultra-portable laptop if you are willing to pay a premium for extreme mobility and average performance. More detail…

Midsized Laptops

Midsized laptops have screens that are 14” to 16” wide (measured diagonally). They weigh between 4.5 and 8 pounds. Midsized laptops are general purpose machines that do many things well. They are designed to appeal to many different audiences and markets. They are built to be used in all sorts of environments especially the home or office. They offer a balanced mix of features, mobility and price. That combination makes them the most popular laptop form factor. Midsized laptops are great business machines. They typically have a mix of networking and security features that make them very attractive to business. They also have sufficient power to handle all but the most demanding business applications. Midsize laptops are also ideal for the home use. They are easily networked and have enough power to support most of the applications that family members would be interested in (i.e. email correspondence, web surfing, household budgeting, casual gaming, photo-editing and multi-media production).

Recommendation: buy a midsized laptop if you want a balanced mix of performance, mobility and price. More detail…

Large Size Laptops

Large size laptops have screens that are at least 17” wide. They typically weigh between 6.5 pounds and 15 pounds. This class of laptop computer is the most powerful on the market. Their distinguishing characteristics include superior performance, ease of customization and lack of mobility. Hardware specs for this type of laptop often include the latest and fastest components on the market. Their large size gives them plenty of internal space which can be used to customize the unit in unique ways. It’s common for these laptops to be outfitted with more than one hard disk, optical drive and battery. The chassis also provides adequate space for a wide assortment of plugs, ports and cards. All this flexibility doesn’t come cheap. The cost of some high-end laptops can easily exceed $10,000. Large size laptops are industrial strength machines that can easily handle the most demanding software applications on the market. They make great engineering workstations and are excellent multimedia and graphic arts production machines. They are also kick-ass gaming machines.

Recommendation: buy a large size laptop if performance is more important than mobility and price. More detail…

Tablet PC’s

Tablet PC’s come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and weights. Their distinguishing features are their color touch screens and their mobility. Tablet PC’s come in two different varieties: “slates” and “convertibles”. Slates generally don’t come with built-in keyboards or mice. Convertibles on the other hand do. In fact, with the exception of their pivoting touch screens, Convertible Tablets are often indistinguishable from midsize laptops. Tablet PC’s are typically found in places where the use of keyboards and mice are inconvenient or impossible ( i.e. factories, warehouses, hospitals, stores and restaurants, etc.). They all come with some form of wireless communications built-in. That makes them perfect for on-the-go networked applications.. User profile: medical professional, designer or illustrator, student, sales person or logistics technician. Slate  Tablets are beginning to be sold as e-book readers and entertainment devices. This is a new market for tablets. Their size and weight make them ideal for viewing digital content. If early sales figures are any indication, tablets could become wildly popular devices in the next few years, especially with students who are always on the go and have a constant need for textbooks.

Recommendation: buy a Tablet if you need extreme mobility, a touch screen to input data and uninterrupted access to a wireless network or the internet. More detail…


Tower and Desktop Systems.

Tower computers range in size from knee high to textbook size units. The big units are known as full size towers. The small units are known a mini-or micro towers. Towers are vertically oriented and traditionally located on tabletops or floors. Most towers can also be mounted in furniture with special hardware brackets. Towers are available in all price ranges and have become the most popular form factor on the market.

Desktops are dimensionally similar to tower computers. Traditionally, Desktops are placed horizontally on tabletops or desks. Monitors are usually placed on top of the case. It’s become increasingly common for manufacturers to offer the same computer in either a tower or desktop configuration. In recognition of this of this, we have grouped towers and desktop units together into a single category.

Towers and desktop systems are manufactured in a very broad range of shapes and sizes and have prices to match. It’s as easy to find an inexpensive tower or desktop as it is to find an expensive one. Since performance and price go hand in hand, at the low end of the range, you’ll find the least capable machines. At the high end of the scale you’ll find the most powerful computers on the market. The one feature that distinguish tower and desktop systems from all other form factors is their internal flexibility. Their spacious, box like chassis make it easy for manufacturers to mass produce equipment that is tailored to a specific market. It also allows end-users to swap out or add components and perform routine maintenance. Towers and desktop systems are the most customizable and robust computers on the market. Towers and desktops are truly general purpose machines. They great for business machines and they’re also ideal for home use too.

Recommendation: buy a tower or desktop if you want a computer that’s easy to maintain and upgrade; and the size of the system’s footprint is unimportant. More detail…

All-In-One Desktops.

All-In-One computers are desktop units where every component except a keyboard and mouse is stuffed into the housing of a flat screen monitor. All-In-One computers have been available in one form or another, since the introduction of the personal computer. Over the years, the popularity of these devices has ebbed and flowed. Today, their popularity is once again on the rise. They come in a large number of makes and models and are available in every price range. Prices vary according to performance and screen size. All-In-One computers make great general purpose machines for the home or office. They also make great gaming machines. At the high end, they make excellent engineering workstations. They are well suited for multi-media and graphic arts production or 3D modeling and rendering.

Recommendation: buy an All-In-One if you’re visually oriented and want to minimize desktop clutter. More detail…

Small Form Factor (SFF) Systems.

Small Form Factor computers are very small desktop PC’s. They range in size from a shoebox to a paperback book. They are typically placed either horizontally or vertically on a table top in close proximity to a video monitor. SFF computers are capable little machines, but most are not designed to handle computationally intense uses like engineering analysis, video editing or 3D modeling. They generally have limited graphics processing capability and very little RAM. Some SFF’s even lack built-in optical drives. The small size of SFF computers limits their flexibility. Electronic components are tightly packed within their cases so there’s little or no room for future expansion.

One variant of the SFF desktop is called a “Nettop”. As its name implies, Nettops are primarily designed for Internet use. Nettops can be thought of as the desktop equivalent of mobile netbook computers. Like their mobile brethren, Nettops are designed to use web based software instead of software installed on the device itself. Another SFF variant is called a “Cube” computer. These shoebox sized units are typically purchased by do-it-yourself computer enthusiasts so they can design or assemble their own system economically. It’s common for highly customized Cubes to outperform all other types of SFF computers. A third variant is called a “Mini”. Their distinguishing feature is their extremely small size. They are usually about the size of a paperback book.

SFF units appeal to two very different audiences. The first group of potential customers are do-it-yourself computer enthusiasts who want to design and assemble their own systems. The second group of potential customers just want to buy a very simple computer. What unites both audiences is their shared desire to keep costs as low as possible. If you fit into either group, SFF computers are a perfect match for you.

Recommendation: buy an SFF system if price and a small footprint are more important than serviceability or expansion. More detail…