Desktop or laptop?

Oct. 1, 2004
In the last installment of The Digital Dentist, we explored the features of a typical operatory computer and reviewed the basic criteria for choosing a desktop or tower system.

Lorne Lavine, DMD

In the last installment of The Digital Dentist, we explored the features of a typical operatory computer and reviewed the basic criteria for choosing a desktop or tower system. In recent years, many companies have begun recommending laptops as an alternative to the typical operatory computer, touting both the increased mobility and smaller space required as the primary benefits. In my experience, there are very few scenarios where a laptop is a more preferable option. In this article, I will outline the reasons why I feel a desktop system is usually the better choice.

Screen size and resolution

In the vast majority of modern dental practices, computers are being used to demonstrate images to patients, whether it's digital radiography, intraoral camera, or digital camera images. To accomplish this, we frequently recommend purchasing the largest monitor that the doctor can afford for patient viewing. The standard size for a laptop monitor is between 12 and 15 inches, which is not ideal for viewing fine detail. LCD screens, which are part of laptops and flat-panel monitors, have a native resolution at which they are designed to run; anything more or less than this resolution often will produce a "fuzzy" image. The 15-inch screens run at 1024 x 768, but 17-inch and 19-inch screens usually run at 1280 x 1024, allowing for higher resolution and higher diagnostic capability. While it's true that you can attach an external monitor to almost any laptop, by doing so you eliminate much of the portability of the laptop.


While many offices hope that the laptop is easy to transport, they find that it is often more cumbersome than expected. A laptop with a 15-inch screen normally weighs 6 to 8 pounds. Many of the digital add-ons such as cameras and digital radiography are designed to be portable with USB cables and adapters, but dentists often find that it takes two trips or two people to move the enhanced system from room to room. I compare this scenario to using intraoral cameras: If the camera isn't right at your fingertips, it's often not used. Because of the screen size, these systems have a low battery life, so the computer must be plugged into a power supply throughout the day. To be portable, a wireless network is practically mandatory, which adds additional cost and complexity. Finally, anyone who has ever knocked a laptop off a countertop knows they are not built to survive any significant trauma.


In the past, there was a large disparity in speed and features between the best available desktop and laptop systems. With the advent of the Pentium M chip and the Centrino chipsets, this gap has narrowed considerably and the best laptop is often close in speed and power to the best desktop ... but never at the same price point. As of this writing (August 2004), a top-of-the-line laptop will be difficult to find for under $2,000. For that same $2,000, you could purchase a top-notch desktop system, a great 17-inch monitor, and a high quality, articulating mounting arm for the wall, ceiling, or pole ... and still have enough left over to pay an electrician to run all the cables!

Expandability and features

One of the reasons the PC has been so successful over the years is the expandability of these systems. With a set of standardized expansion slots — and later, USB — PC owners could pick and choose the components that were right for them at that time, and easily swap or replace those components over time. This is still something that many PC owners do on a regular basis, although the falling costs of computers have made it more attractive to think of replacing entire systems after three to four years. What the desktop PC adds in terms of expandability, the laptop does not. Laptops typically require that any upgrades, such as adding more memory, use their proprietary and expensive parts. There is no easy or practical way to add a larger hard drive, increase the size of the screen, improve the video system, or add additional ports for devices.

While the idea of an easily portable system that requires less financial investment would appeal to any person, I would caution that the end result is often not as ideal as it sounds. Decisions that are made now will affect the office for many years, so I recommend that dentists look at all of their options carefully before making this important choice.

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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