Mainframe Computer vs Microcomputer: 21 Differences

By Dominic Chooper on September 07, 2022

The mainframe computer is a large computer that supports multiple users at a time. The microcomputers, on the other hand, more commonly known as the personal computers, are the most extensively used computer systems today.

It can be a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a tablet, or a smartphone. If you want to know more about the differences of microcomputers and the mainframe computers, this is the right article that you are reading.


Mainframe Computer vs Microcomputer – The 21 Differences

Mainframe Computer vs Microcomputer 

1. Size

Typically, a mainframe computer is very large in size, often as big as a refrigerator.

Depending on the types, a few may even fill an entire room.

On the other hand, a micro computer is much smaller in size, usually like a laptop or even smaller than that.

2. Power

The mainframe computer is much powerful due to the large, powerful components installed inside.

On the other hand, a microcomputer is not as powerful as a mainframe computer due to limited and low power components installed inside its small case.

3. Number of Users

A mainframe computer has the ability to handle a large number of users at the same time.

In fact, a mainframe computer can process operation requests from millions of users simultaneously.

On the other hand, the small microcomputers are suitable for only one person to use.

4. Used By

A mainframe is used by large organizations such as government agencies, banks, e-business, and e-commerce, health care centers, retail business, military services, academics and research, and data centers.

On the other hand, the microcomputer is designed to be used by people at home or small businesses to perform personal or work related operations.

5. Capability

A mainframe computer is designed and installed with components that can handle complex calculations, operations, and instructions and produce output in quick time.

On the other hand, the lower power components of the microcomputer are not able to handle a lot of complex calculations.

It can handle smaller tasks at its best.

6. History

Historically, the first mainframe computer is supposed to be the Harvard Mark I. Developing it starting in the 1930s and the machine was ready for use only in 1943.

On the other hand, the first microcomputer is supposed to be the Micral. This machine is considered to be the first non-kit computer that used a microprocessor and was based on Intel 8008 and was released by Réalisation d’Études Électroniques (R2E) in 1973.

7. Applications

The different applications of a typical mainframe computer include and are not limited to customer order processing, payroll, financial transactions, credit card transactions, production management, inventory control, updating airline information, and several other tasks.

On the other hand, the microcomputers are used for small scale operations such as in graphic designing, architecture firms, retail sector, billing, maintaining the product list, purchase and sales, maintaining patient history in clinics, Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems, MRI, sonography, and even to deliver seminars in schools and colleges on the projectors.

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8. Types

There are different types of mainframe computers such as ENIAC or Electric Numerical Integrator and Calculator, UNIVAC or Universal Automatic Computer and ASCC or Automatic Sequence Control Computer.

On the other hand, the different types of microcomputers may even include different types of desktop and laptop computers.

In addition to that, the list may also include tablets, smartphones, Personal Digital Assistant of PDA, and even palmtop computers, server microcomputers, workstation microcomputers, full tower and mini tower microcomputers.

9. Portability

The mainframe computers are huge in size and very heavy and therefore are not portable.

On the other hand, most of the microcomputers are smaller in size and light in weight which makes them extremely portable.

10. Integrity

The mainframe computers can be integrated into larger networks but cannot be used as personal computers.

On the other hand, microcomputers can be used as personal computers but cannot be integrated into larger networks.

11. Energy Consumption

The mainframe computers consume high power and energy to operate. On the other hand, microcomputers consume much less energy in comparison to function.

12. Cooling Requirements

The mainframe computers produce a lot of heat due to high energy consumption and therefore need a very efficient and powerful cooling system, which adds to its cost.

On the other hand, the microcomputers do not produce much heat and therefore can work reasonably well with the standard cooling system installed in it.

13. Operating Speed

The operating speed of the mainframe computer is naturally very high due to the powerful components installed in it.

The operating speed of these computers can easily reach up to 100 MIPS or Million Instructions Per Second.

On the other hand, since the components installed in a microcomputer are less powerful, it takes a bit longer time to complete one instruction as compared to the mainframe computers.

The maximum operating speed of these computers can be up to 30 MIPS.

14. Memory

The mainframe computers come with a large memory and therefore offer a very high storage capacity to the users.

The microcomputers, on the other hand, have a much smaller disk to store data and information due to its smaller casing and therefore cannot offer high storage space.

15. Vulnerability

Since the mainframe computers generate a lot of heat, it is quite vulnerable to failures.

Without proper cooling and regular maintenance of its sophisticated components it is likely to fail frequently.

On the other hand, the microcomputers do not produce as much heat as the mainframe computers and are therefore less vulnerable to failures.

However, it still needs a reasonably good cooling system since it can get hot very quickly being very small in size.

Also, without proper antivirus, it is also vulnerable to internet or online threats and virus attacks.

16. Cost

The size, the powerful components, the cooling and maintenance requirements, all adds to the cost of the mainframe computer.

Therefore, it is mainly affordable by the large organizations and not a normal user.

On the other hand, the microcomputers are relatively less expensive being smaller in size and having less powerful components.

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Therefore these computers have found a place in most homes and small offices.

17. Repetitive Task Handing

The mainframe computers can handle repetitive tasks in the best way possible because they will usually do it in batch mode.

These computers are known to allow running several batch programs at the same time by different users with little supervision by humans.

On the other hand, the microcomputers cannot support multiple users, as said earlier, and cannot handle repetitive tasks as efficiently as the mainframes computers.

18. CPU Chips

The mainframe computers may come with several hundreds of CPU cores of not less than 5 GHz capacity and 16 to 32 TB of memory making them most powerful and fast.

Some of these processors may also be customized to handle encryption and run several copies of operating systems and Linux versions.

On the other hand, as said earlier, the small microcomputers come with a single CPU chip.

However, if you look into it deeply, you will see that this is equivalent to more than one chip because the modern CPU chips can actually be powered with more than one CPU core in them.

19. Printers Used

As for printing, the mainframe computers typically use line printers to produce a printed output.

On the other hand, microcomputers usually use a Teletype for the same purpose.

20. Advantages

Some of the advantages offered by the mainframe computers include high computing power, scalability and compatibility, virtualization system, reliability, self-serviceability, higher protection, flexibility, and customization.

On the other hand, the advantages offered by the microcomputers are simple design suitable for common use, relatively inexpensive, easy to maintain, better and easier internet connectivity, portability, and more.

21. Disadvantages

The downsides of using a mainframe computer are its high cost which does not make it affordable for any normal user and needs a specific environment with adequate cooling to operate.

Higher and complex maintenance is required which needs processional staff and added cost. It consumes high resources and therefore is more vulnerable.

A major setback of a mainframe computer is its multiple operating systems that increase complexity in reading instructions and if one component of it fails, the entire system will go down.

On the other hand, the disadvantages of microcomputers are its slower speed and the chances of security threats through the internet.

Which is Better – Mainframe Computer or Microcomputer?

As it is clear from the list of differences mentioned above, the mainframe computer and a microcomputer both are useful but which will be better to use will depend on the types and volume of computing and the users.

There is no doubt that the mainframe computers will offer much more options in several different aspects such as:

However, a mainframe computer will have a high initial investment cost as well as recurring maintenance and upkeep cost.

These computers also need a lot of space for installation and professional handling.

So, the mainframe computers are good only for the large organizations and are primarily used as servers rather than individuals who have fewer computing needs.

On the other hand, the microcomputers are small or mid-size which can be used as a personal computer as well as a high-end device the same and more interactively.

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However, these computers cannot run massive applications of programs.

These particular computers excel only when these are used by a single person to enter data and handle it, and store fewer amounts of data for the smaller and simpler operations.

The mainframe computers are specially designed for non-stop operations and handling larger I/O throughput.

Most importantly, the design allows replacing parts without requiring shutting down the entire system.

Microcomputers do not offer that benefit and are designed to handle general computing tasks.

Although these machines can handle a number of different computing tasks and applications, all these are with unstable degrees of performance.

Therefore, whether it is in terms of size, use, power or storage, the mainframe computers are certainly not for the general users or for general use.

Even if the hardware of the two are the same, the power is different which results in the difference in their respective roles and robustness.

The mainframe computers are servers for sure, though it works just in the same way as a microcomputer but does different things.

The mainframe computers will not fail while processing trillions of information if maintained and used properly and may even identify bugs and viruses and remove them itself.

The large computers are less risky because it is not easy to access the system without authorization.

The mainframe computers use punched cards and the microcomputers usually use paper tape for input/output.

However, for mass storage, both these types of computers use magnetic tape, though there is a difference in the format and size.

Nonetheless, in the end, here is the irony: the huge mainframe computers of the earlier days had main storage capacities of just over a few MBs but the modern microcomputers come with video cards that even have far more storage capacity than that.

Also, look at the use of technology in the mainframe computers and a microcomputer.

Right from the earlier days of both, they used the same technology.

First, it was the discrete transistors used for logic and the core memory for local storage.

However, later on it was the Integrated Circuits or ICs used for both logic and memory.

These particular aspects may make you wonder, just like the other users, what the shape, form, and capability of the computers, ten or twenty years down the lane will be.

Well, time will only tell.


After reading this article it must be very clear to you that apart from the size of the two systems, there are lots of other major aspects that make the mainframe computer entirely different from the microcomputers.

If you ever have to make a choice between the two, this knowledge will help you a lot.