Cloning Your Own Compatible
Arlan R. Levitan
There's a shadowy side to the PC-compatible market, much akin to the "phantom zone" of Superman comics. Perhaps you've seen the ads: PC compatibles are being hawked under a multitude of innocuous-sounding names at unbelievable prices, typically in the $500 range.
Welcome to the world of hyperclones—PC compatibles assembled from very low cost subassemblies. While the advertised price rarely buys a completely equipped system, the overall quality of the hyperclones is higher than their rock-bottom prices imply. If you're willing to put up with some inconveniences, such a machine might be right for you.
Gutsy hobbyists on shoestring budgets have been bolting their own PCs together for about two years. A recent check of some popular hobbyist magazines yielded the following prices for FCC-certified components:
Turbo PC motherboard with BIOS $99.95
640K RAM 49.95
135-watt power supply 65.00
Floppy disk drive controller 39.95
Half-height disk drives (2) 139.90
Monochrome graphics card 69.95
Amber monochrome monitor 69.95
Clock/serial/parallel card 49.95
MS-DOS operating system 49.95
Although assembling your own PC is not particularly difficult, it's not for the faint-hearted either. More than a few enthusiasts have plugged together a PC only to find that the end product doesn't work. If you're not sure where the problem is, you could be left out in the cold.
Unless you're a troubleshooting novice looking for new experiences, it's best to let someone assemble a machine to your specifications. Typically, the final price will be within a hundred dollars or so of the do-it-yourself system.
Origin Of The Species
Many hyperclone suppliers prominently advertise "Made in the USA." More often than not, this means "Bolted Together in the USA" since many of the components are actually manufactured in the Far East. But the buy-American argument against clones has lost steam as people have become more aware of the facts. Many genuine IBM PCs sold by authorized IBM dealers have enough foreign content to rival some of the clones.
Four years ago, achieving full IBM compatibility was miraculous. But today, fully compatible PC BIOSs (Basic Input/Output Systems) are readily available at nominal prices to PC motherboard manufacturers and hobbyists alike. Incompatible compatibles are now the exception.
As for quality, most out-of-the-box problems with hyperclones tend to be the result of hurried assembly and minimal testing. The prevalent Taiwanese and Korean components are quite good. Actually, most hyperclone boards are only assembled rather than manufactured in Taiwan and Korea. Many of the boards and over 90 percent of the electronic parts are actually produced in Japan. A look at the brand names emblazoned on the chips reads like a Who's Who of the semiconductor business—including several American firms.
Almost all floppy disk drives (including so-called American brands) are now manufactured overseas, with Japan producing the lion's share. However, American manufacturers still hold the upper hand in the hard disk market, It's fairly easy to find the same drives that IBM puts in its machines at rock-bottom prices.
On the down side, much of the translated documentation supplied with hyperclones is sparse, overly technical, and sometimes unintelligible.
If a hyperclone fails within its warranty period, usually you return it to the supplier for repair. If you bought it from a mail-order house, even warranty repairs will cost $20-$30 for shipping.
What if the computer fails after the warranty has expired? Given the low cost of the subassemblies that constitute the average hyperclone, you might even consider the components semidisposable. If a board or disk drive malfunctions, buy a new one.
Hyperclones can offer significant savings over other IBM compatibles. This advantage must be weighed against their disadvantages. For many people, the additional cost of a name-brand compatible may represent a fair value, especially if personalized support and service are offered in return.