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'Clone' Firm Offers More Speed for Less Money

November 17, 1986|Lawrence J. Magid | Lawrence J. Magid is vice president and senior analyst at Seybold Group, a computer consulting and publication firm

If you're in the market for IBM's AT computer, you can save money and possibly get a superior machine by purchasing a "clone" from a local dealer or a discount mail-order house.

Most mail-order companies distribute machines imported from overseas. But PC's Limited, headquartered in Austin, Tex., designs and manufactures its own machines.

Founder and President Michael Dell, 21, began his career by selling computers from the back of his car to fellow students at the University of Texas. His is a Texas-size success story. He currently presides over 82,000 square feet of manufacturing space and 250 employees, and he says that he ships about 4,000 units per month.

Unlike most U.S. manufacturers, PC's Limited does not have a dealer network. It advertises in computer publications and sells direct by mail order or through a toll-free 800 number.

The company makes several PC-compatible machines, beginning with a $795 Turbo PC. That machine, like all of PC's Limited systems, is less expensive but laden with more features than the IBM model it imitates.

3 AT Compatibles

Three of the machines are compatible with IBM's high-performance AT. The least expensive AT compatible, called the PC's Limited 286/8, operates at the same speed (8 megahertz) as IBM's AT but sells for only $1,495. For $2,195 you can order a complete system with a monochrome display and a 30-megabyte hard disk. IBM's 30-megabyte AT has a suggested retail price of $5,295 with only 512K of RAM and no display. (IBM machines are frequently available at a discount.)

Like the IBM AT, all PC's Limited compatibles are equipped with the Intel 80286 central processor and come with a 1.2-megabyte floppy disk drive. All PC's Limited 286 machines have 1 megabyte (1,024K) of RAM on the system board and a controller board that runs both floppy and hard disk drives.

The company sells a 10-megahertz AT machine for $2,295 and a 12-megahertz system for $2,695. It will soon introduce a $2,995 16-megahertz version as well as a 386 machine that, according to Dell, runs about 30% faster than the recently released Compaq 386. He expects the 386 to sell in the "mid-$4,000 range."

Dell's stock in trade is price and speed. His customers get a lot of speed and performance for their money.

Whether that speed is necessary, or even useful, depends on your needs and tastes. An off-the-shelf IBM PC or XT runs at 4.77 megahertz per second. So, a standard AT, at 8 megahertz, is nearly twice as fast.

For some users, fast computers, like fast cars, are more for fun than necessity. I have to admit that I enjoy the "feel" of getting in and out of programs in an instant or watching my Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet recalculate in a flash.

There are times, during some writing sessions, when I'm grateful for the ability to scroll instantly from the beginning to the end of a long document.

For the most part, however, such speed is a luxury that I don't really need.

People using their machines as the nexus of a network--to be shared by many users--can definitely use that extra speed. Multiple users slow down the processing, so the faster the machine, the fewer delays. People with large spreadsheets or databases, or those who are using their machines for desktop publishing or computer-aided design, are likely to appreciate anything that speeds up these tasks.

In any case, PC's Limited and other mail-order companies have made speed an affordable commodity, even for those who don't absolutely need it. Why not indulge when an 8-megahertz AT costs about the same as a standard IBM PC?

Even the 12 megahertz and 16 megahertz are affordable, compared to what I paid for my 64K PC in 1982 or compared to what some of the larger companies currently charge for their slower equipment.

I tested the 12 megahertz version, called the 286/12. Based on Norton Utilities' Sysinfo program, the machine processes data more than 10 times faster than a standard IBM PC. But that's a theoretical number.

I created what I consider to be a more "real life" test by having the machine perform a series of calculations with a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. In this case, the PC's Limited AT performed about 3 1/2 times faster than a standard PC. That's still quite an improvement but far from the difference when you just measure the machine's "clock speed."

Other speed tests will yield varying, and sometimes contradictory, results. The speed of the central processing unit is only one factor. The type of display device and the hard disk also play a part.

Performed Admirably

Using a machine for real work is often more telling than laboratory-like tests.

Some of my colleagues helped me put the machine through the mill by creating a dBase III database with 5,000 names and addresses. The machine performed admirably and quickly, handling complex tasks including sorting and integrating several related files.

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