Since many ophthalmic practices use the Windows operating system, they're probably already contemplating an upgrade to the latest Microsoft OS, Windows Vista. The new system offers some new features, but may also offer compatibility headaches with current software and may call for some pricey upgrades to your equipment. Here's a look at the new operating system.


The Operating System

Some of Vista's prominent features include:

Enhanced security. "For a medical office's computer system, I think security is the most important thing," says Lancaster ophthalmologist Barton Halpern. Dr. Halpern takes an active interest in his practice's computers, and has even written  his own programs. He has evaluated Vista's features but hasn't started using it yet. "I think Vista will be more secure [than its predecessor, Win XP]. For starters, it has a better firewall. Windows XP blocks malware and things coming in, but doesn't block them going out. With XP, if you don't have a third-party firewall, if something's already in your computer it can send viruses out anywhere it wants to. So, for some people, this may eliminate the need for a second firewall program."

Another security feature Vista offers is more ways to control access. "In other words, you can access the system, but can't access certain specific parts unless you've been allowed to, such as the server and certain folders," says Dr. Halpern. "Those things can be very important. In the past year, someone got into our server from the outside and threatened to delete our entire hard drive." His practice eventually rescued the system.

Since wireless networks are growing in popularity, Windows Vista offers updated wireless security protocols to allow users to connect to WiFi networks more securely. For example, a feature called Network Access Protection evaluates a computer that wants to access the network, to make sure it's secure.

Data management. Julie Robertson, a spokesperson for Microsoft, says the new operating system helps users keep better track of their information. "With Vista, in addition to saving documents to a specific folder and naming them, users can tag a file with metadata to indicate that it belongs to a certain keyword group," she says. "The system can bring those similarly tagged files together, in one view." 

New user interface. Microsoft has jazzed up the user interface to the operating system, and has as an option the Aero interface, for PCs with enough graphics horsepower to handle its slick appearance.

Aero features a "Flip 3-D" feature, that creates thumbnails of all your open applications and documents so they look like Rolodex cards. Using an on-screen animation, you can then flip through each one to find the one you want. The updated Taskbar also makes use of the live thumbnails to give users another way to navigate through open documents and programs.


Proceed with Caution

Though Vista may offer some new features, some think it may be best to let the operating system mature before unleashing it upon your practice, especially if you've got everything humming along nicely with Windows XP.

Robert Meihoffer is the IT manager for Tri-County Eye Physicians and Surgeons in Southampton, Pa., and says he's given Vista a look, but isn't ready to jump on it yet.

"I'd never recommend for a business to upgrade to the next greatest operating system from Microsoft for at least six months," he says. "It always takes the company at least six months to get the bugs worked out.

"For example, a lot of the software that was designed for Windows XP may have problems working the way it was supposed to when used in Vista. Even when Internet Explorer 7.0 came out, when our practice made that upgrade we had problems with some of the websites we usually connect to not working with Explorer 7.0."

Mr. Meihoffer says this could also be a problem for ophthalmic-specific software like electronic medical records.

"Those programs' vendors may not have their software up to spec for working with Vista," he warns. "It usually takes a company six months to a year to get its software to the point where it can work with a new operating system."

Then there are hardware issues. By all accounts, Vista will use every ounce of your PC's system resources and then some, meaning your existing computers, which may be several years old, will probably need hardware upgrades to their RAM, graphics card and maybe even their central processing units just to run the new OS. For instance, Dr. Halpern estimates that upgrading his practice's several PCs to be Vista-ready would cost around $10,000. Here are some minimum system requirements: 1 GHz processor; 512 MB RAM (1 GB for Vista Home Premium/Business); 20 GB hard drive (40 GB for Home Premium/Business) with 15 GB free; a DirectX 9-compatible graphics card with 32 MB of graphics memory (128 MB for Home Premium/Business); Internet access; and a DVD drive for Home Premium/Business.

Dr. Halpern is going to wait a while on Vista. "I think that, in a business environment, it's important to wait," he says, "because stability is so important. You don't want bugs, you want a tried-and-true system."