High-class clones

PC Buyer's Guide: Developments in machines based on the easy-to- use Mac are bringing big benefits for consumers, not least falling prices. By Stephen Pritchard

The Macintosh community is a small but vocal minority which sometimes struggles to be heard over the din of Windows users. But although numbers are small, Apple owners are being joined by supporters who use the Mac OS but buy machines from another manufacturer.

People who buy Macs say they are influenced by the machine's ease of use, its excellent user interface and its superior graphics capabilities. Another reason for the superiority of Mac computing is the tight reign Apple holds over the system's design.

There is no precise blueprint for a PC, so manufacturers can mix and match components, such as hard disks, video cards, even the processor, almost at will. PCs have little integration between operating systems.

Apple claims its Mac is different. Apple makes the hardware, and writes the operating software; the company is in a better position than any PC vendor to check that components live happily together before selling a computer. This is why Mac users, as a rule, spend less time fiddling with their computers' settings than PC users.

The down-side of this approach has been higher prices, at least until quite recently, and less choice. But Apple has addressed the price issue, to the extent that it has hurt its own profits. For much of last year, a Mac was the cheapest computer of any sort in the high street chains. Current prices are in line with other leading computer brands. Last week, Apple launched its entry level Power Macintosh 4400. Running at 200Mhz, the recommended retail price is pounds 999 without a monitor. The new, top-of- the range PowerBook 3400 is the fastest laptop computer of any type - it uses a 240Mhz chip, against Intel's current fastest laptop chip at 166Mhz - and costs pounds 4,099.

Apple's more realistic prices are being driven by its decision to allow other companies to build Macs. Three manufacturers have established themselves in the UK market: Power Computing, Umax, best known for scanners, and Motorola, which also makes the PowerPC chip at the heart of the Mac.

Motorola is especially important to the Mac "clone" market. Just as Intel makes motherboards for a wide range of PC manufacturers, Motorola and IBM can sell Mac motherboards to firms which want to assemble their own Macs. Motorola's first UK customer, the London-based Mac dealer Computer Warehouse, announced its range of own-brand Mac-compatibles last week. Pricing is aggressive: the computers come with a host of add-ons that cost extra on Apple's machines. CW's Macs come with the highly rated Miro DC-20 card, which can capture video footage for on-screen editing. Umax's range ships with Macromedia's Freehand Graphics Studio, which could cost half the price of the computer in a shop.

So does buying a clone mean taking a risk? Manufacturers say it does not. Umax machines carry a two-year warranty. Apple still offers only 12 months as standard. Motorola gives a five-year warranty: the computer will, as likely as not, be obsolete before it runs out.

Non-Apple systems tend to come with more memory, larger hard disks, and better software bundles. The clones should expand the overall market for the Mac OS, and again all users will benefit.

This means more applications software, and more pressure on Apple to bring out an operating system that maximises the Mac's advantage over Windows

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