Most dive computers use real-time ambient pressure input to a decompression algorithm to indicate the remaining time to the no-stop limit, and after that has passed, the decompression required to surface with an acceptable risk of decompression sickness. Several algorithms have been used, and various personal conservatism factors may be available. Some dive computers allow for gas switching during the dive. Audible alarms may be available to warn the diver when exceeding the no-stop limit, the maximum operating depth for the gas mixture, or the recommended ascent rate.
The display provides data to allow the diver to avoid decompression, to decompress relatively safely, and includes depth and duration of the dive. Several additional functions and displays may be available for interest and convenience, such as water temperature and compass direction, and it may be possible to download the data from the dives to a personal computer via cable or wireless connection.
Dive computers may be wrist-mounted or fitted to a console with the submersible pressure gauge.
Dive computers address the same problem as decompression tables, but are able to perform a continuous calculation of the partial pressure of inert gases in the body based on the actual depth and time profile of the diver. As the dive computer automatically measures depth and time, it is able to warn of excessive ascent rates and missed decompression stops and the diver has less reason to carry a separate dive watch and depth gauge. Many dive computers also provide additional information to the diver including air and water temperature, data used to help prevent oxygen toxicity, a computer-readable dive log, and the pressure of the remaining breathing gas in the diving cylinder. This recorded information can be used for the diver's personal log of their activities or as important information in medical review or legal cases following diving accidents.
Because of the computer's ability to continually re-calculate based on changing data, the diver benefits by being able to remain underwater for longer periods of time at acceptable risk. For example, a recreational diver who plans to stay within "no-decompression" limits can in many cases simply ascend a few feet each minute, while continuing the dive, and still remain within reasonably safe limits, rather than adhering to a pre-planned bottom time and ascending directly. So-called multi-level dives can be planned with traditional dive tables, but the additional calculations become complex and the plan may be cumbersome to follow. Computers allow for a certain amount of spontaneity during the dive.
Dive computers are used to safely calculate decompression schedules in recreational, scientific, and military diving operations. There is no reason to assume that they cannot be valuable tools for commercial diving operations, especially on multi-level dives.
Dive computers are battery-powered computers within a watertight and pressure resistant case. These computers track the dive profile by measuring time and pressure. All dive computers measure the ambient pressure to model the concentration of gases in the tissues of the diver. More advanced dive computers provide additional measured data and user input into the calculations, for example, the water temperature, gas composition, altitude of the water surface, or the remaining pressure in the diving cylinder.