Computer technology primer

April 1, 2005

New Orleans — Understanding basic computer technology principles helps physicians make sound computer purchases for their practices and homes.

New Orleans - Understanding basic computer technology principles helps physicians make sound computer purchases for their practices and homes.

"Often when physicians hear all of these technology terms out there when they are looking to add computers or other technology to their practices or homes, they do not know what they mean and they may feel overwhelmed," says Paul Kwon, M.D., of South San Francisco.

Being able to understand the terminology helps physicians make good purchasing decisions. Technology is changing so fast that it can be difficult to keep up with trends, Dr. Kwon says.

Hardware Every computer has a central processing unit, or CPU, which is the part of the computer that interprets and executes instructions. It is the "brains" of the computer, he explains.

When selecting a CPU, physicians need not purchase the most expensive. Major names like Intel are fine for mainstream PC users and two to three levels below top models is the sweet spot for price, he says. Random access memory (RAM), is the most important type of memory. It is considered short-term memory that is fast but erased when power is off. Other types of memory include CPU memory (L2 cache) and graphics card memory.

"Computers need enough RAM to run software, including multi-tasking (with two or more open applications) and memory-intensive applications (such as video, Photoshop or games)," Dr. Kwon says.

The minimum RAM requirement for Windows 98 is 64 megabytes (MB); for Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000 and Windows XP, the requirement is 128 MB.

"Upgrading RAM is a very cost-efficient way of improving computer performance. However, keep in mind that there are many different types of RAM," he says. "The hard drive is the computer's long-term memory. It is slower than RAM but not power-dependent.

"An 80 gigabyte to 200 gigabyte hard drive is enough for most users. However, if you plan on using many digital images or videos, buy as big a hard drive as you can afford," he adds.

Optical drives, such as CD and DVD drives, use lasers to read/write on plastic discs. The main difference is capacity. For example, a CD has 650 MB of capacity, while a DVD has 4.7 GB.

Input/output ports Dr. Kwon explains that there are different types of input and output ports, connecting peripherals to the computer.

"Legacy ports include serial ports (for keyboard, mouse), a parallel port (for printer) and SCSI ports (for various other peripherals). Newer ports include IEEE 1394 (Firewire, i.Link), digital camcorders and USB (for various peripherals)," he says.

Software The software that runs the computer is known as the operating system. It manages hardware and software resources and provides a stable interface for outside applications.

Examples include Windows (XP, 2000, NT, ME, 98, 95, 3.0; Mac (X, 9, 8, 7); and Linux.

Dr. Kwon notes that there are many different kinds of software. For example, there is business software for word processing and spreadsheet; communications software like mail and instant messaging; imaging and multimedia software like Image editor and Video Player; and security software like antivirus programs and firewalls.

Networking Networking - in which two or more computers are connected with one another for the purpose of sharing information - is a very big thing, especially with wireless technology, he notes.

A local area network (LAN) is a computer network that spans a relatively small area (typically < 1 km radius). Dr. Kwon says these are used for home and small office networks. However, newer LAN technologies use wireless technologies, which do not use wires to connect the computers. Physicians can weigh the pros and cons of wireless computers, he says.