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What is an Embedded Computer?

By ·Categories: Industrial IoT, Tech Explained·Published On: July 16th, 2020·4.6 min read·

A quick answer to what is an embedded computer is that an embedded computer functions as part of a complete device rather than being a standalone computer. Typically, it performs a highly specific function. Applications for embedded PCs range from industrial automation, in-vehicle computing, digital signage and more.

When you think of a computer you might imagine something different. You probably picture rectangular a big black box with cords that protrude from the back. These consumer PCs also have vents cut into the sides to allow airflow to cool the internal components.

As technology has advanced, the size and design of computer systems has changed dramatically. Today’s commercial embedded computers barely resemble their desktop tower counterparts. But perhaps even more importantly, the way industry utilizes computers has evolved. Computers in the Internet of Things (IoT) are used for things that seemed impossible not long ago. But what exactly is an “embedded PC”? And, how does it differ in form and performance from the consumer-grade tower computers?

Embedded Computer vs Industrial PC vs IoT Gateway

Embedded computer systems go by many names (Box PC, Gateway, Controller, Industrial PC etc), but an Embedded PC is essentially any specialized computer system that is implemented as part of a larger device, intelligent system or installation. Coming in an endless array of shapes and sizes from the tiny ARM-based devices that power today’s smartphones, to all-in-one solutions that run huge earth movers and military equipment. Embedded computers are also playing a key role in the evolving Internet of Things, enabling the connections between machines, people, places, things and the cloud.

What is an Appliance PC?

One other term that we often use to define our product line is Appliance PC. Many of our clients are using our systems to complete one very specific task or operation. Creating a dedicated device to do one thing well requires highly customizable, ultra-reliable hardware that can be configured to the exact requirements of the given application. The appliance computer itself has many of the same features as an embedded PC (specialized I/O, fanless & ventless chassis, small form factor) but rather than being designed to be incorporated into another device, the appliance PC is engineered for standalone operation.

How are Embedded Computers Used?

Here at OnLogic, when we talk about an “embedded computer” we refer to a self-contained PC that is used as part of any larger system. Our embedded computers serve as everything from data collection devices in solar arrays and navigation equipment on NASA’s planetary rovers, to the brains behind complex digital signage displays and modern interactive kiosks. Chances are good that in your travels today you passed right by a number of embedded computers. You probably didn’t even know they were there. They silently power so many devices and systems that we’ve all come to rely on.

What’s the Difference Between an Embedded PC and a Tower Computer?

Comparison of commercial PC size and 20 Industrial computers

20 ML300 Systems Next to a traditional computer tower.

An embedded PC is most easily defined by how it’s used. However, there are some key features that have made embedded computers a vital part of modern system design. Embedded computers offer a number of important advantages over standard consumer-grade hardware.

  • Small Form Factor: One of the standout features of nearly all embedded computers is their size. Often built around small form factor motherboards like Mini-ITX or Intel’s NUC, embedded computers can be installed in places where antiquated towers would never fit. Solid state storage and flexible mounting options also allow embedded PCs to be utilized in virtually any position or orientation.
  • Low Maintenance: In many instances embedded computers, as their name suggests, live deep inside complex systems, making reliability incredibly important. Industrial computers are engineered to provide 24 hour, uninterrupted operation. They often employ carefully engineered, fanless and ventless enclosures designed to efficiently dissipate heat. At the same time, internal components are protected from environmental damage ranging from dust and airborne debris to extreme temperatures, moisture and vibration.
  • Efficient Cooling: Consumer-grade computer systems use fans to help circulate air over components and keep them cool. In an embedded system, fans create a point of potential failure. In addition, fans require the chassis to be vented to enable air to enter and escape. While some embedded PCs still utilize fans, advancements in passive cooling allow many industrial PCs to remain protected against the elements. They are thoughtfully designed to effectively dissipate heat without the need for fans. Removing the fan decreases failure rates, eliminates noise and provides more space for integral components. Want to learn more? Check out our Tech Edge video: Fanless Cooling Explained.

So, What’s the Best Embedded Computer?

Embedded computers are employed by a huge range of industries all over the world. From pipeline monitoring in the oil & gas industry to network security devices designed to monitor and counter intrusion vulnerabilities, embedded computers are constantly in use all around us. Finding the best embedded computer requires a complete understanding of the unique application in which it will be used. With so many variables in play, there’s no one-size-fits-all embedded solution. To determine which embedded computer is right for your project, contact one of our solutions specialists at +1 802 861 2300 or use our contact form.

Note: Originally published on October 26, 2014, we updated this blog for content on July 16, 2020. 


About the Author: Darek Fanton

Darek is the Communications Manager at OnLogic. His passion for both journalism and technology has led him from the newsrooms of local papers to the manufacturing floor of IBM. His background in news gathering has him always on the lookout for the latest in emerging tech and the best ways to share that information with readers. In addition to his affinity for words, Darek is a music lover, juggler and huge fan of terrible jokes.
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