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Choose a Computer That’s Right for You

by Office of Technology Policy & Projects Staff

Practicing in today's health care marketplace requires having an up-to-date computer. Purchasing one can be a perplexing process.

This article provides help in selecting a computer that meets your needs and your budget. Following are some important questions to ask yourself, and some guidance in thinking through making the right choices for you.

What am I going to use it for? How much computer you need depends on what you intend to do with it.

  • If you plan to use a computer only for basic word processing, browsing the Internet, and sending e-mail, then the most basic and reasonably priced systems will probably meet your needs.

  • If you routinely use your computer to run practice management or financial software, to process electronic insurance claims or credit card transactions over the Internet, or to keep your professional calendar and electronic files, then you might want to consider a computer with some extra features beyond a basic computer.

  • If you also plan to use your computer to view video files, download and share digital photographs or music, watch DVD movies and television, or play computer games, consider a better system that includes upgraded memory and video/graphic card features.

Sample configurations of a "basic" and "better" system appear later in this article.

How long do I want my computer to last? One fact of computing life is that both hardware (the computer and all its parts) and software (the programs that run on the computer) are frequently improved or upgraded. Most basic computer systems grow obsolete in about three years. By purchasing the right mix of additional hardware and software, better systems continue working for up to five years.

What if I plan to travel with it? Do you plan on taking the computer between your home and office, or on the road for business trips? If so, a notebook (small portable) or laptop (large portable) computer may best meet your needs. Because of their size, portable computers often come with fewer features than desktop computers. Consider the features you want, and look for vendors that offer them.

A few related questions to consider: Is the screen large enough and bright enough for me to use comfortably? Is the keyboard large enough and easy to use? Because they are on the move, portable computers are subject to greater wear-and-tear, so consider an extended warranty if you expect to be a "road warrior."

What features should I consider? Computer systems can come with a bewildering array of features. Critical features to consider include:

  • CPU. The Central Processing Unit, or CPU, is the "brain" of a computer. Consider the CPU's speed rating, which is often described in Hertz (Hz) or Gigahertz (GHz). In the computer world, faster is always better--and more expensive. Generally, a computer CPU with a speed of more than 2 GHz will do almost anything that most users want to do, with the exception of playing advanced computer games, which work best at speeds over 3 GHz.

  • Memory. The amount of memory can make a big difference in your system's performance. Basic computers come with 256 megs of SDRAM memory, which is enough for most users. However, adding memory is the least expensive way to improve how fast your computer works and how long it will last. So consider adding more if you can.

  • Operating system. This is the software that runs your computer. It connects all the parts and keeps them working together. The most common operating system for PC computers is Microsoft Windows; for Macintosh computers it is the Macintosh Operating System. It is a good idea to get the most recent version of the appropriate operating system because older versions sometimes do not work well with newer software.

  • Monitor. A good monitor is important because you will spend most of your time interacting with your computer through the monitor. A good rule of thumb is to get as large a monitor as you can afford. Do not settle for a monitor that has less than .28 millimeters of dot pitch, 1280 x 1024 pixels of resolution, and a 72 Hz refresh rate.

  • Hard drive. The hard drive is where your files and data are stored. If you do not plan on adding a lot of additional software to your computer, or will not be storing large documents, music, or digital photographs, then consider an average sized (80-100 meg) hard drive.

Additional features you may want to consider:

  • Drives. Most computers come with a CD-ROM drive, which allows you to access recorded data, photos and music stored on a compact disk (CD). CD Recordable (CDR) and ReWriteable (CDRW) drives allow you to record your own data, photos and music to an unrecorded CD. DVD drives allow you to watch movies. Tape (often ZIP) drives allow you to backup large amounts of data and easily remove it from the machine for safekeeping. If you plan on storing patient information or financial information about your practice on your computer, consider getting a CDRW or tape drive that you can use to backup critical files.

  • Modem. If you will be using your computer to fax test reports or insurance claims, or to connect to the Internet using a regular telephone line, consider adding a V.92 (56K) modem to your system.

  • Ethernet card. If you plan to connect your computer to the Internet via a broadband connection (e.g., a cable modem, DSL phone line, or wireless connection), or plan to connect your new computer to another computer in your practice (a network), your system will need an Ethernet card. Look for a 10/100 Ethernet card, which will enable you to connect to almost any broadband or network you encounter.

  • Upgraded video/graphics card. All computers require a video/graphics card to run the monitor. The video/graphics card that comes installed on most systems will work fine for many users. If you plan to watch video files, regularly edit digital photographs or play computer games, consider upgrading the video/graphics card to the next higher level.

  • USB ports. USB ports are small, rectangular slots that accept USB plugs, which are found on many of the most popular computer accessories such as newer printers, digital cameras and joysticks. A good rule is to purchase a computer with as many USB ports as you can. However, if you purchase a basic system and later find that you need more USB ports, any office supply store should carry a USB "hub." You can plug a number of accessories into the hub, and then plug the hub into only one USB port on your computer.

What is a basic system? A good basic desktop computer system has:

  • 2 GHz+ Pentium IV CPU

  • 512K cache

  • 256 megs SDRAM memory

  • Video/graphics card

  • 80 meg hard drive

  • Sound card

  • 17" monitor

  • Windows XP operating system

  • V.92 56K DATAFAX Modem

  • CD-ROM drive

  • 3.5" floppy disk drive

  • 2 USB ports

  • 2 serial ports

  • 1 parallel port

  • Mouse and keyboard

  • Speakers

What is a better system? A better desktop computer system has upgraded versions of everything included on the basic system, plus additional features:

  • 3 GHz+ Pentium IV CPU

  • 512K cache

  • 512 megs SDRAM memory

  • Upgraded (256 meg) video/graphics card

  • 100+ meg hard drive

  • Upgraded sound card

  • 19" monitor

  • Windows XP operating system

  • V.92 (56K) telephony-capable modem

  • CD-ROM drive

  • 3.5" floppy disk drive

  • 4 USB ports

  • 2 high-speed serial ports

  • 1 parallel port

  • Wireless mouse and keyboard

  • Upgraded speakers

Additional features to consider:

  • Ethernet card

  • CD-R drive

  • DVD drive

  • Tape (zip) drive

What can I expect to pay? Plan to pay $700 to $1,300 for a basic system. Cost-conscious purchasers can add any additional features to a basic system without having to purchase all the upgrades included in a better system. Better systems can cost $1,300 to $3,500, depending on the mix of hardware and software you decide to include. Most psychologists purchasing a better system can probably spend less than $2,000.

Remember that buying and maintaining a computer should be considered a regular business expense. You may be able to depreciate the expense; check with your accountant for more information.

How do I choose a vendor? Consider how a particular vendor compares to others on price, reliability, and customer support. Computer magazines and websites often review systems built by the major vendors and can help you quickly zero in on a system that will meet your needs. These same magazines and websites also regularly rate how well the major vendors provide customer service and repairs.

Keep in mind that if you purchase a system over the Internet or telephone, you may need to set it up yourself. On the other hand, if you purchase a system from a local computer store, you may have the option of paying someone to come to your office and set up your system.

Final words of advice: When buying a computer, there is no substitute for common sense and solid research. Using this article as a guide, talk to your friends and colleagues and check out the most recent computer magazines and websites to help you decide which computer system is right for you and your practice. 


Date created: 2004