Margaret Rouse is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects simply to a non-technical, business audience. Over…
A form factor is the overall design and functionality of a computer or piece of electronic hardware. It is usually highlighted by a prominent feature, such as a QWERTY keyboard, a touch screen or the way the device opens and closes. In essence, it is the schematic template that defines the specifications about the layout of a certain device, such as its size, number of ports, power supply type and position of components.
A form factor can also serve as a standard or category that can be used to ensure that there is a level of hardware compatibility between devices of similar types, even though they may come from different manufacturers. In this regard, form factor is important, as it affects both the aesthetics and recognizability of a given device as well as its performance and usability.
The term sometimes refers to programming or software as well. In this case, it describes the size of the program, such as the amount of memory needed to run it.
Form factors are commonly associated with electronic devices and components, like cell phones and motherboards. In the terms of a motherboard, the form factor refers to the kind of hardware peripherals it can support and also somewhat defines the structure of the motherboard. It may also highlight some ad hoc standards.
For cell phones, form factor refers to the physical dimensions, overall design and shape of the phone, such as the traditional candy bar form, which differs from the flip and slide form factors. Modern phones typically have a face dominated by a touchscreen, a form factor known as the slate form factor. Another notable example are notebook computers, which are considered a form factor of their own because of their rectangular “clamshell” shape. Another form factor for portable computers is the convertible tablet, which can be used either with a physical keyboard or as a touch screen.
Because motherboards follow a certain standard or form factor, it is easy to look for a replacement; the user just has to find one that follows the same form factor. Examples of motherboard form factors include the ATX (Advanced Technology Extended) and micro-ATX form factors. Since 2007, Intel’s ATX represents the industry standard governing the design and size of nearly all modern PC motherboards.
It is important to understand that the standards are optional and may or may not be adhered to by manufacturers. That said, in some cases form factors become crucial, such as when upgrading a motherboard. The shape of the motherboard, in fact, generally dictates the size of the case, which in turn, constitutes another form factor (e.g., full tower, mid-tower, desktop, micro PC, etc.) with different specifics in terms of available size, number of ports and more.
For disk storage, form factor is nearly always used to describe the diameter of the disk platter. The various standards depend on the type of hard drives: including 5.25 inches for optical drives, 3.5 inches for PC hard drives, and 2.5 inches (or less) for notebooks.
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Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.
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