Computer generations and their characteristics

Computer generations and their characteristics

Computers have been evolving as the human need for more complex computations has increased. They are classified into generations depending on when they were in use and their characteristics.

The first machine that tried to automate calculation and storage was in use around the 1940s. Computers have evolved from then up to what we have today in our pockets as smartphones.

In this article, we discuss computer generation and what is changing from one generation to the next, and how they are changing. Characteristics such as processor speed and technology, storage, physical size, power consumption, and input/output devices used among others discussed in the article.

Main features in computer generations that are changing.

Some of the main characteristics of computer generations that are changing include.

  1. The technology: from Vacuum tubes, transistors, Integrated Circuits, Very Large Scale Integrated Circuits, Ultra Large Integrated Circuits, Artificial Intelligence, Parallel Processing, etc.
  2. Processing speed. It increases from slow in 1st generation to very fast.
  3. Physical size. Computer reduced in size from computer size of a room to pocket size device.
  4. Main memory. From the use of magnetic drums to semiconductor memory with Gigabyte capacity.
  5. Secondary storage. From using the magnetic drum to magnetic tape, disk, and optical to the use of solid-state storage devices.
  6. Input and output devices: from 1st generation punched cards to using point devices, keyboards, monitors, scanners, and biometric devices.
  7. Power consumption and heat produced. 1st generation unreliable machine with high power consumption to low power less heat portable devices.
  8. The programming language: moved from machine language, assembly and to high-level programming languages.
  9. Price of the computer. Computers moved from being only owned by the government to becoming household and business devices to becoming personal devices as the price reduced.

Characteristics of 1st generation computers.

These computers are in operation between the 1940s-1950s. 

  1. Technology: They used vacuum tubes devices to
  2. Processing speed: they were very slow devices that took too long to process the smallest data.
  3. Physical size: 1st generation computers were as big as the whole room. They were not portable.
  4. Main memory and secondary capacity. Computers used large magnetic drums for storage.
  5. Punched cards were the main Input and Output devices used.
  6. Power consumption and heat produced: the computers frequently overheated and consumed a lot of heat. They were not reliable.
  7. Machine language was the main programming language used.
  8. The computers were very expensive. They were owned by governments.

Characteristics of 2nd generation computers

These generations of computers were in use between the 1950s and 1960s.

  1. The technology used: they moved from using vacuum tubes to transistors which is a smaller devices. This means the size is reduced.
  2. Processing speed: compared to 1st generation the processing speed increase.
  3. Physical size: due to the components used the physical size was reduced significantly compared to the 1st generation.
  4. Main memory. Magnetic cores were the main memory used.
  5. Secondary storage: magnetic tape and disk were used for secondary storage.
  6. Input and output devices used: Punched cards and printed reports were used. Keyboards were also introduced. 
  7. Power consumption and heat produced. Computers consumed less power and generated less heat compared to 1st generation.  
  8. Assembly programming languages were introduced and used.
  9. Computers were still expensive but relatively cheaper compared to 1st generation. 

Characteristics of 3rd generation computers

3rd generation computers were in use between the 1960s and 1970s.

  1. Processor technology: the processing electronic components were reduced to Integrated Circuits (IC). This is where many electronic components are integrated into a silicon chip to create a microchip.
  2. Processing speed: the speed increased significantly compared to earlier generations.
  3. Physical size: The size reduced to a point they can now fit on top of a desk hence desktop computers.
  4. Main memory capacity: They used a large magnetic core for main storage. The storage capacity increase to accommodate more programs.
  5. Secondary storage size: magnetic tape and disk were still in use. The storage capacity increased significantly.
  6. Input and output devices used. Pointing devices were introduced. Other input/output used were keyboards, monitors, printers, etc.
  7. The computer consumed less power and hence less heat was produced.
  8. The programming language: High-level languages were developed and started being used. They included languages like COBOL, FORTRAN, BASIC, Pascal, etc.
  9. Price of the computer. The cost of manufacturing the computer was reduced and now they were owned by individuals and companies.

Characteristics of 4th generation computers

They started from the 1970s to the current computers that are in use today.

  1. The technology. More electronic components were fitted on the microchip using Very Large Scale Integrated Circuits (VLSIC) to create a microprocessor.
  2. Processing speed. The microprocessor computers are very fast compared to all other earlier generations of computers.
  3. Physical size. The size reduced further to where computers are portable like laptops and smartphones.
  4. Main memory capacity. Semiconductor main memory was introduced to have volatile memories at high capacity.
  5. Secondary storage size. Magnetic disks, optical disks, and solid-state storage are used in these computers for permanent storage of data. The capacity range in Gigabyte and Terabyte of data.
  6. Input and output devices. All other main devices are now in use, monitors, touchscreens, pointing devices, scanners, keyboards, printers, etc.
  7. Power consumption and heat produced. These computers used a small amount of power and produced minimum heat. They have a cooling mechanism to ensure the system doesn’t overheat. Some like laptops and smartphones have batteries that can be charged and be used without a direct connection to power.
  8. The programming language used: more advanced high-level programming languages are in use. They include Java, Javascript, Python, C++, and Kotlin among others.
  9. The price of computers has reduced and the computers are affordable at a very low price compared to other generations.

Characteristics of the 5th Generation and the Future of Computers

These are computers that are in use today and those that are being developed for the future. Technology is changing very fast and computers are at the core of all these changes. These are some of the characteristics of computers that we expect to see in the coming years.

  1. The technology: there are many technologies that future computers will include some of them include: Ultra-Large Scale Integrated Circuits (ULSIC), Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, parallel computing quantum computing, and superconductors among others.
  2. Processing speed: these computers are very fast. They can process billions of operations per second.
  3. Physical size: they are small in size that they can fit in our pockets. Future devices will be integrated into our bodies.
  4. Main memory capacity. Semiconductor technology used for RAM has increased the capacity of the memory and access speed of data.
  5. Secondary storage size: use of Solid-State storage device which ensures high access speed that the magnetic disk and high storage capacity.
  6. Input and output devices: use of biometric devices will be a common input device. Other include, voice input and recognition, facial recognition, and virtual and augmented reality among others. 
  7. They consume less power and produce less heat. They have an advanced cooling system.
  8. The programming language used: they still use the high-level programming language that aims toward achieving the above technologies such as AI.
  9. They are relatively cheap compared to other generations of computers.