In How Computers Work – An Introduction to Network Devices, we explained the concept of network nodes – devices that join or leave a network, often classified as clients or servers – plus the specialized devices like routers that form the network itself. Networks traditionally consisted of stationary devices like PCs and printers that were installed in fixed locations and not easily transported from one place to another.
In recent years, the world has experienced a tremendous surge in mobile devices used on computer networks. Both the number and the types of these devices continue to multiply as new uses for these products emerge.
Traditional telephones that plug into wall outlets via cables have existed for more than 100 years, but the world is gradually changing over to mobile phones that make wireless connections to cellular networks.
The industry classifies more basic and less expensive kinds of cell phones as feature phones and more advanced models as smartphones. A smartphone typically offers three kinds of wireless network support Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and current generation (“4G”) cell modem. In comparison, feature phones tend to offer lesser wireless capabilities such as no Wi-Fi or only previous generation (“3G”) cell support.
While smartphones typically require subscribing to Internet data plans to obtain cell connectivity, one can sometimes purchase pre-paid minutes for their phone. Phone users often seek out and use public Internet Wi-Fi hotspots as a way to avoid these data charges but also often enjoy higher connection speeds.
While earlier products of the kind existed, tablet computers first became widely popular with the introduction of Apple iPad in 2010. The iPad supports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cell connections like the Apple iPhone and other smartphones. Unlike iPhones, iPads without cellular radios were also manufactured (and sold in large numbers).
Some people use the term phablets when referring to devices that appear as hybrids of phones and tablets. Phablets typically offer all of the networking capabilities of a smartphone, but with a larger screen reminiscent of a tablet.
Mobile versions of desktop PCs began being built in substantial numbers during the 1980s predominately for use by business people. It wasn’t until after 1999 when Wi-Fi became a worldwide standard that laptops entered the mainstream. Later, laptop models also began adding Bluetooth support to better interface with cell phones.
Laptops have been segmented into different categories over the years according to their screen size or weight and called by multiple names including notebooks, ultraportables, and some trademarked words, but their underlying networking capabilities are similar in all cases.Unlike phones and tablets, many laptops feature Ethernet ports to enable wired networking, a feature often used by travelers at hotels or by business people roaming between conference rooms.
In the 2010s, wearable devices have emerged as a popular new form of mobile network device. Smart wristbands and watches like Apple Watch use Bluetooth to pair and sync with companion device (laptops, or iPhones as in the case of Apple Watch). Glasses built for mobile computing likewise sync with parent devices using wireless communication and may be used for gaming or military purposes. Devices in the form of bracelets, rings, and even clothing have been developed for use in healthcare or as entertainment.
While some wearables charge via USB cables, some (like the Watch) support wireless charging standards. More – Introduction to Wireless Power (Electricity).
Many special-purpose handheld devices with wireless network capability have been built over the years. While their popularity may be waning in favor of general-purpose phones and tablet apps, handhelds remain in widespread use. Some like Nintendo 3DS support video gaming. Several companies offer Global Positioning System (GPS) devices that use cellular connections for navigation. Digital cameras increasingly offer Wi-Fi support for transferring photos and so also function as handhelds.