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What is an Embedded Computer?

By ·Categories: Industrial IoT, Tech Explained·Published On: July 16th, 2022·4.3 min read·

A question we get asked a lot is: “what is an embedded computer?”. An embedded computer functions as part of a larger device or system, rather than being used as a standalone computer. Typically, an embedded computer performs a highly specific function. Applications for embedded PCs range from industrial automation and in-vehicle computing, to digital signage, robotics, and more.

When you think of a computer, you probably picture a big, rectangular 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.

However, 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?

What is an embedded system?

Embedded PCs

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. Embedded computers come in an endless array of shapes and sizes from the tiny ARM-based devices that quietly collect and relay data, to all-in-one solutions that run huge earth movers and military equipment. Embedded computers also play 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 use 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, 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?

ML300 stacked up next to an old 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. These advantages include:

  • Small Form Factor: Often built around small form factor motherboards like Mini-ITX or Intel’s NUC, embedded computers can be installed in places where traditional 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 live deep inside complex systems, making reliability incredibly important. Industrial and embedded computers are engineered to provide 24/7, 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 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. 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 +1 802 230 0391 or use our contact form today.

Note: Originally published on October 26, 2014, we updated this blog for content on July 16, 2022. 

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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.