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Computer technology primer

New Orleans — Understanding basic computer technology principles helps physicians make sound computer purchases for their practice 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 the average physician make good purchasing decisions. Technology is changing so quickly that it can be difficult to stay abreast of trends, Dr. Kwon says. He provided a general overview of computer technology, emphasizing personal computers, when he discussed hardware, software, security issues and trends at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology here.

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, such as 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 short-term memory that is fast, but is 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.

Minimum RAM requirements are 64MB for Windows 98 and 128 MB for Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000 and Windows XP.

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

"An 80 GB to 200 GB 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."

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 a capacity of 650 MB, whereas a DVD has a capacity of 4.7 GB.

Input/output ports Dr. Kwon also explains that there are different types of input and output ports, which connect 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, iLink), 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 (OS X, 9, 8, 7) and Linux.

"There are many different types of software, including business software, like a word processor, spreadsheet; communications software, like mail, instant messaging; imaging and multimedia software, like image editor, video player; and security software, such as antivirus software, (and) firewall," he explains.

Networking Networking — in which two or more computers are connected for information sharing — 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). According to Dr. Kwon, these are used for home and small office networks. However, newer LAN technologies use wireless technologies. Physicians can weigh the pros and cons of wireless computers.

Security Dr. Kwon notes that physicians should be aware of the numerous ways their systems can be attacked by hackers, including infection by "worms" and "viruses."


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