BOSTON — About 24 million people out there use Apple Computer's Macintosh machines.
When the time to upgrade comes, a lot of them wonder if they should stick with Apple or switch to a more-common computer running Microsoft Windows software.
But there's a third option: a Mac clone. "The Mac clones are where the excitement and innovation are," says Rick LePage, editor in chief of MacWeek magazine.
That's probably an exaggeration, since even the clonemakers rely on Apple to develop new versions of its basic software, for example.
Still, as Macweek, MacWorld, and MacUser magazines compare clones with Apple Macs on price and performance, the originals are losing.
Power Computing of Round Rock, Texas, is the most prominent of several clonemakers, which license key software and chip technology from Apple. Power's computers offer impressive bang for the buck.
Its newest line, the Powerbase, starts under $1,500 (not including a monitor), with 200 and 240 models available at around $1,800 and $2,200, respectively. A similar Mac made by Apple might sell for $2,400.
Power's 180 megahertz processor is faster than Intel's Pentium chip (the current standard for Windows-based computers) for the same price - a historic shift in the computer world.
The Powerbase models, like many Macs, will accept a $119 video card that allows users to edit video tapes made on camcorders, turning the material into a digital format. This is revolutionary in the realm of Mac home computers priced below $1,500.
Two other clonemakers are Taiwan's Umax Technologies Inc., with US offices in Fremont, Calif., and DayStar Digital Inc. in Flowery Branch, Ga. Neither has garnered the attention that Power Computing has.
But don't write them off, warns Erik Sherman, a computer analyst. "DayStar has a multichip CPU [central processing unit] that splits tasks for very high-speed operations, and it has gained a lot of attention."
Power is privately held and was started in 1993 with money from Italy's Olivetti, the Ascii Corp. of Tokyo, private individuals, and US venture capital companies, says Bill Goins, product marketing director for Power. He won't say how many units Power is shipping now.
"All reports are that they are reliable," says Adam Engst, editor of Tidbits, a weekly newsletter about Macs.
Power was the first official Mac licensee. (Apple held back from licensing its technology for years, reversing course in 1994 as it struggled to compete for market share.)
The term clone was coined for knock-offs of IBM's original personal computer in the early 1980s. Now, in the mainstream PC world, the term is not even used anymore. No one sneezes at machines from Compaq, Dell, or Gateway.
Innovation in the Mac realm partly means doing things that are now common for most PCs. Power, for example, offers its Powerbase models with a 30-day money-back guarantee. Power will customize features.
Most important, the chips and cards (add-in hardware) are interchangeable, so upgrading is quick and cheap. Apple still solders many chips to the motherboard, forcing owners to buy a whole new motherboard, at high prices, for upgrades. But experts say the clones will force Apple to change such methods.