Upgrading Computer to Keep Abreast May Not Be as Painful as You Think

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

November/December 1997

For the past two and a half years I have been writing about mental health technology including office management systems, electronic billing, online information, assessment instruments, privacy, and speech recognition. Throughout that time many practitioners have told me: "Hey, I can do anything that I need for my practice with the computer I have in my office." And you were right! Your computer was just fine. It could word process and do your financial dealings and that was all that you needed it to do.

Recently, however, many therapists have begun to think that their trusty computer may not be quite good enough. Perhaps a colleague gave you a demonstration disk with a new assessment program, but your computer did not meet the listed requirements. Or the speech recognition programs that I reviewed in the last issue (September/October 1997) won't run on your computer either. Or, worse yet, you can get on the Internet with the modem that came with your computer, but it seems to take hours for even the simplest web page to load onto your screen. How can that be? You just bought the computer a year or two ago. Is it already obsolete?

Although your computer is not obsolete, it may be in need of a little sprucing up. Notice that I very carefully avoided the dreaded "U" word. That's because nobody likes the idea of having to "upgrade" their computer. That's because upgrading your computer means that either you have to be ready to tell someone exactly what you need to upgrade (and you are not sure what you need) or you have to just hand over your computer to someone and trust them. Both options make people very uncomfortable.

The first question is how do you decide whether to upgrade or replace your computer? If your computer is more than three years old you are, in general, better off buying a new one than upgrading the individual pieces. That's because, according to Moore's Law, the power of your computer has quadrupled and the price has been cut in one-fourth in the 3 years. For example, for under $1,000 a major nationwide computer dealer was offering a Pentium Computer running at 150 MHz, with 16 MB of RAM, a 2.1 gigabyte hard drive and a 28.8 modem. Granted, you had to pay extra for the monitor, but an adequate monitor will cost $400 or less. Upgrading each of the components of your present computer will most likely cost much more than this advertised price.

However, if you have a relatively new computer you might want to upgrade. How do you know what you need? First, go to a computer store and find a new program that you might want to use. Maybe speech recognition or a new word processing program like MS Word might fill the bill. If you are not using Windows 95, that might be a possibility. Now, copy down the information called "System Requirements", which is usually found on the side of the box. Pay particular attention to four general areas regardless of your computer type: Hard Disk size, hard disk availability, RAM and disk-type (3.5" or CD).

Next, check the specifications of your computer. On PCs this can be found in the Control Panel. If you are using Windows 3.1x open the Program Manager's Main window and double click on the Control Panel icon. In Windows 95 click the Start button and go to Settings to click on the Control Panel. In any Macintosh environment pull down the Apple Menu (upper left corner) and then click on About This Macintosh.

If you intend to upgrade your computer you will most likely need to first assess your RAM. RAM is the workspace of the computer and newer, more complex programs require more RAM. Consider upgrading to at least 32 MB (megabytes) although RAM is inexpensive enough that you might consider even going to 48 MB. Hard disk storage is also critical. Newer programs now require much more space on your hard disk and if you are dealing with pictures you will need space to store those bulky files. You can either replace your hard drive with a new one (at least 1 gigabyte but you'd be better served for the future if it held 2 gigabytes or more) for $200-$400 (and have the data transferred to the new one) or buy one of the newer storage devices like a zip drive which uses disks that look like a thicker version of your old 3.5" floppy disk to store 100 MB of data. You can buy zip disks in bulk for under $10 each. The drive itself costs around $150.

If you want to send e-mail or surf the World Wide Web you can do it with any speed modem. However, if you mind waiting for web sites to very slowly scroll onto your screen, you will want to get a modem that runs at 28.8 baud rate at a minimum. If you can afford one that runs even faster, go for it and you will be happier in your cyberspace travels. You may also need a faster CD-ROM drive for software like games and encyclopedias that go back and forth to the CD to access information. And, you may need to upgrade to a 32-bit sound card (SoundBlaster makes the most popular one) to hear clear sound.

Who will do the dreaded "U" for your computer? Check with colleagues who have gone that route and find out who they used and if they were satisfied. Contact your local psychological association's computer expert (every association has at least one) and ask who they recommend. If all else fails, check the yellow pages and call a few local computer repair stores to get quotes. Ask each for references, particularly from people in the health profession. It's not as awful to upgrade (there, I said it!) your computer as it seems.


I got more phone, mail and e-mail responses to my column on Speech Recognition software last month than ever before. Hats off to Howard M. Bonem, Ph.D. of Beachwood, Ohio, who went out and purchased IBM's new Via Voice (for under $100) and recorded the same message that I recorded with Dragon Dictate's Naturally Speaking to lead off the Sept./Oct. column in The National Psychologist. Via Voice's performance was equal to that of Naturally Speaking, although it missed different words.

Copyright, 1997, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.