In my last blog post, we explored the features of a server and how to choose one for a dental office. When it comes to the operatory, in recent years, many companies are 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, and in this article, I will outline the reasons that 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 often recommend getting the largest monitor that the doctor can afford for patient viewing. The standard size for a laptop monitor is between 14-15”, 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 were designed to run; anything more or less than this resolution will often produce a “fuzzy” image. 17” and 19” 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. For a laptop with a 15” screen, they normally weigh 6-8 lbs. As many of the digital add-ons like cameras and digital radiography are also designed to be portable with USB cables and adapters, dentists find that it often takes two trips or two people to move the 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 low battery life, so the computer must be plugged in to a power supply throughout the day. To be portable, a wireless network is practically mandatory, which adds additional cost and complexity. And, anyone who has ever knocked a laptop off a countertop knows that these systems 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. 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 (June 2012), a top of the line laptop will be difficult to find for under $1200. For that same $1200, you could purchase a top-notch desktop system and a great 17” monitor and still have enough left over to pay an electrician to run all the cables!
Expandability and Features
One of the reasons that the PC has been so successful over the years (more than the Apple systems, which were technically superior), was 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 attractive to think of replacing entire systems after 3-4 years. What the desktop PC adds in terms of expandability, the laptop does not. Laptops will 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 on paper. Decisions that are made now will affect the office for many years, so I recommend that dentists should look at all of their options before making this very important choice.