Selecting an operatory computer

Sept. 1, 2004
According to a recent survey, only 30 percent of dentists currently have computers in the operatories.

Lorne Lavine, DMD

According to a recent survey, only 30 percent of dentists currently have computers in the operatories. For the office that wishes to move towards the "paperless" or chartless concept that is all the rage right now, computers in the treatment rooms are mandatory. Images that are captured, whether they are intraoral camera, digital camera, or digital x-rays, must be saved for future reference and should also be visible to the patient to assist in co-diagnosis, and this is simply not feasible without a computer in the operatory. Many practitioners, however, find it difficult to choose the right computer, so the purpose of this article is to review the specifications that should be chosen for an operatory computer. We will focus only on desktop-style computers; the argument of desktop vs. a laptop or Tablet will be left for another article. Also keep in mind that the technology is changing rapidly and may be slightly outdated by the time you read this.

Most of us are familiar with the older desktop or upright mini-tower designs. In the operatory, however, space frequently is a premium, making a small-form-factor computer a more practical solution. These computers come in multiple designs. Some are very thin and long and look like two laptops stacked on top of each other, such as the Dell GX 280 SFF. Others, like the Shuttle and FIC IceCube, look more like a toaster. One of the decisions that must be made is the need for regular PCI or AGP cards. The Shuttle-style computers usually allow the use of one AGP and one PCI card, where the thinner models do not. This is becoming less of an issue because most devices in a dental operatory can be used with USB connections.

Recently, Intel has decided to forgo their nomenclature based on chip speed, and instead, now uses a "series" designation. Celeron processors will become the 3 Series, Pentium 4 processors will be called the 5 Series, and Centrino or Pentium 4M chipsets will become the 7 Series. While anyone who has shopped for a BMW will be familiar with this, it is expected to create some confusion in the marketplace. The rationale is that while processor speed is important, the size of the cache and the functionality also are factors. So, a chip like the Centrino, which is used almost exclusively for laptops and has built-in wireless networking, will have a higher series designation than a Pentium 4, even though the Pentium will have much faster processor speed.

There are two types of memory, and they are occasionally mixed-up: RAM (Random Access Memory) and hard drive capacity. The confusion lies in the fact that hard drive sizes are expressed in gigabytes of RAM. Usually, when we are talking about memory, we refer to the RAM, the internal memory that loses all information when the computer is turned off. For a dental operatory, we recommend a minimum of 512 MB of RAM. Some digital radiography companies are starting to suggest that dentists use 1 GB of RAM, but we have yet to see any major performance boosts with this extra memory. For the hard drive, 40 GB is more than adequate. In almost all offices, the workstations will not be storing any practice management or image data on the hard drives. Instead, this data will be stored on the server, so there's little reason to pay extra for an 80 or 120 GB hard drive for an operatory workstation.

Windows XP Professional is the ideal choice for the office environment. It contains many features not found in XP Home, such as the ability to automatically log into certain types of networks, and Remote Desktop, which allows you to log into the computer from home or anywhere else in the world. However, the core of Professional and Home is identical, so any program that runs on Professional should run identically on Home.

Ideally, you should purchase a computer with a warranty equal to the amount of time that you plan on owning the computer. With the ever-changing nature of technology, most offices will find that three years is the expected life span of these computers. The computers will still run beyond three years, but will have trouble keeping up with the applications available at that time.

Dentists should take the time to choose computers based on their current and future needs, rather than looking at the cost of the systems as the most important feature. While many offices can function without all of the features we have discussed, offices that are truly paperless or chartless should invest in a server designed to keep the practice up and running.

Lorne Lavine, DMD, practiced periodontics and implant dentistry for more than 10 years. He is an A+ certified computer repair technician, as well as Network+ certified. He is the president of Dental Technology Consultants, a company that assists dentists in all phases of technology integration in the dental practice. He can be contacted by email at [email protected] or by phone at (866) 204-3398. Visit his Web site at

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