BACKGROUND: Selecting the right mix of stationary and mobile computing devices is a significant challenge for system planners and implementers. There is very limited research evidence upon which to base such decisions. OBJECTIVE: We aimed to investigate the relationships between clinician role, clinical task, and selection of a computer hardware device in hospital wards. METHODS: Twenty-seven nurses and eight doctors were observed for a total of 80 hours as they used a range of computing devices to access a computerized provider order entry system on two wards at a major Sydney teaching hospital. Observers used a checklist to record the clinical tasks completed, devices used, and location of the activities. Field notes were also documented during observations. Semi-structured interviews were conducted after observation sessions. Assessment of the physical attributes of three devices-stationary PCs, computers on wheels (COWs) and tablet PCs-was made. Two types of COWs were available on the wards: generic COWs (laptops mounted on trolleys) and ergonomic COWs (an integrated computer and cart device). Heuristic evaluation of the user interfaces was also carried out. RESULTS: The majority (93.1%) of observed nursing tasks were conducted using generic COWs. Most nursing tasks were performed in patients' rooms (57%) or in the corridors (36%), with a small percentage at a patient's bedside (5%). Most nursing tasks related to the preparation and administration of drugs. Doctors on ward rounds conducted 57.3% of observed clinical tasks on generic COWs and 35.9% on tablet PCs. On rounds, 56% of doctors' tasks were performed in the corridors, 29% in patients' rooms, and 3% at the bedside. Doctors not on a ward round conducted 93.6% of tasks using stationary PCs, most often within the doctors' office. Nurses and doctors were observed performing workarounds, such as transcribing medication orders from the computer to paper. CONCLUSIONS: The choice of device was related to clinical role, nature of the clinical task, degree of mobility required, including where task completion occurs, and device design. Nurses' work, and clinical tasks performed by doctors during ward rounds, require highly mobile computer devices. Nurses and doctors on ward rounds showed a strong preference for generic COWs over all other devices. Tablet PCs were selected by doctors for only a small proportion of clinical tasks. Even when using mobile devices clinicians completed a very low proportion of observed tasks at the bedside. The design of the devices and ward space configurations place limitations on how and where devices are used and on the mobility of clinical work. In such circumstances, clinicians will initiate workarounds to compensate. In selecting hardware devices, consideration should be given to who will be using the devices, the nature of their work, and the physical layout of the ward.