EasyClone PC DuplicatorReview date: 13 September 2000.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
Most components of most computers spend most of their time doing nothing. You may be beavering away at your spreadsheet or surfing the Web like a champion, but your CPU is likely to be standing idle for considerably more time than it spends processing data. The processor usually does what it needs to do to respond to your keystrokes, mouse clicks and so on in a fraction of a second. Then it leans on its shovel and contemplates infinity until the next job comes along.
Likewise, the storage and display subsystems of the average PC generally spend quite a lot more time doing nothing in particular than they spend moving data into or out of RAM or a hard disk, and changing the display on the screen. As opposed to just displaying the same thing for zillions of consecutive screen refreshes.
Think of the above facts as one piece of a puzzle.
Here are a couple more.
Windows 98 lets you install more than one graphics card in your PC, and thereby connect more than one monitor.
And, with the popularity of Universal Serial Bus (USB), you can easily connect multiple keyboards and mouses to one Windows 98 PC, too.
Putting these pieces together, you've got a computer full of under-utilised components, that can have two monitors and two keyboards and two mouses connected to it.
Why, with a bit of clever software, you'd think it'd be possible to make that computer behave as two whole separate machines, wouldn't you?
And you'd be right.
ATEN International's EasyClone PC Duplicator package includes an extra video card and some special software which lets you, in effect, split a Windows 98 computer in two. Two separate Windows sessions, two different users logged on, different monitors, different keyboards, different mouses.
You need to supply your own extra keyboard, mouse, and monitor, and they have to be USB, but you still end up saving a goodly slab of money compared with the price of a whole new computer.
As long as neither user hogs some system resource when the other one wants to use it, they need hardly be aware of each other's existence.
Well, that's the theory, anyway.
EasyClone costs $AU269.50 including GST. That's a little steep, given that the US list price according to this page is $US89, but it's still cheap compared with a new computer.
Is EasyClone as good as a whole new computer, though?
Well, maybe. It depends on what you're doing.
What you get
The EasyClone box contains a CD-ROM, a floppy disk, a slim but perfectly all right manual, and a video card. And quite a lot of air, courtesy no doubt of marketing people who decided that the dinky little box into which you could easily fit the EasyClone kit wouldn't seem to justify the price.
On the side of the EasyClone box, it says it comes with a "high performance" PCI video card. Some people might call that false advertising, because the card the EasyClone comes with is based on the Silicon Integrated Systems (SiS - Web site here) 6326 graphics chip. And it's the lowest-spec version of the 6326, with only four megabytes of video memory.
The SiS 6326 is not a high performance device, by current standards. Or indeed even by the standards of a couple of years ago. The original 6326 was released in May 1997, so this isn't a big surprise.
The 6326 isn't rubbish; for everyday 2D tasks it'll do. There are lots of 6326 chips built into low cost integrated-video motherboards aimed at markets where playing Quake 3 is not a priority. The price is certainly right; 4Mb 6326 cards like this one, retail boxed, commonly sell for well under $US30 from mail order dealers. Here in Australia, you can get one delivered for a tad more than $AU55, or less than $AU80 for the deluxe 8Mb version.
Unfortunately, the EasyClone package sticks you with the 6326 card. Its special software only works with the included board, plus whatever video card you had before. Pretty much any video board will work as a "primary" card for Windows 98 multi-monitor operation, so it's not likely that you'll see any compatibility problems, but your new pseudo-computer isn't going to win any video speed awards.
The EasyClone card supports up to 1024 by 768 at a 75Hz refresh rate in 24 bit colour. It'll do 1280 x 1024 as well, but only in 16 bit "high colour" mode, and only at a 60Hz refresh rate.
Installing the EasyClone package is easy enough. Shut down, insert new video card, power back up again. The instructions tell you to plug in the USB keyboard and mouse for the second workstation (or "Workplace", as ATEN call it) while the machine's off, but this doesn't make any difference; part of the big deal about USB is that you can "hot plug" devices - connecting and unconnecting things with the computer on. The USB hardware just has to be plugged in when you install the EasyClone software, later on.
The primary workstation you're making has to use a PS/2 mouse and keyboard. A serial mouse won't do; it's got to be PS/2. PS/2 mouses are nicer to use on Intel-compatible boxes anyway, because they have a higher sample rate - the number of times per second the pointer position is updated. But if you're still using a serial mouse, and many people are, then you'll need to buy a PS/2 one as well as your USB mouse and keyboard.
You can use a PS/2 mouse for the second workstation, but only if you've got one of the (unusual) USB keyboards with a PS/2 socket included, which make the PS/2 mouse look like a USB one to the computer.
Start up the machine and it ought to automatically detect the new video card (there are drivers for it on the EasyClone CD-ROM) and input hardware. After a reboot, you're in standard multi-monitor mode.
Now, without any extra software at all, Display Properties will let you easily extend your Windows desktop onto extra monitors. Windows gives you a simple interface in which you set the screen mode for the other monitors and tell the operating system how they're arranged. No matter where you put your screens - even if they're different sizes and oddly lined up - something dragged off the edge of one screen can be set to come onto the matching edge of an adjacent one, with acceptably accurate alignment.
Since Win98 does this all by itself, it means that if you disable the EasyClone software later, you can spin the other monitor around and enjoy dual-screen single-user computing.
Move on to installing the EasyClone software, and you get to set up an administrator password, and configure the users you want to be able to log in.
You need at least two Windows users defined to use EasyClone properly. Win98's user profile handling has no security features - one user can mess around with another user's setup and files, without knowing their password. But Windows otherwise does a decent job of letting multiple people have their own configurations set up on one Win98 machine.
Different Start Menu contents, different desktops, different cosmetic settings and so on. EasyClone hooks into the profile system, and simply lets a couple of the users use the machine simultaneously.
The installer also makes a "rescue disk" that lets you disable EasyClone if the system gets confused and can't boot. The rescue disk even lets you return the system registry to the pre-install state if you like. ATEN obligingly give you an appropriately labelled formatted floppy in the EasyClone box.
If you want sound for your new workstation, you have to install USB speakers or a USB-to-speaker-jack adaptor (I review one such here). Otherwise, the primary workstation will be able to use whatever sound hardware the PC has, and the other workstation will be mute.
There are a couple of minor oddities. The instructions tell you, for instance, that the software ought to automatically start installing when you insert the CD. It definitely won't, because the CD lacks the AUTORUN.INF file that tells Windows how to "autoplay" an install CD. No matter; the instructions tell you where the install program is, as well, and it's easy to run it manually.
For some reason, the instructions also tell you to set the key repeat and mouse speed to the maximum possible, "to improve the behaviour and functionality of the EasyClone environment". How, exactly, a mouse cursor that's faster than a speeding bullet helps you in this department I don't know.
More sensibly, the instructions also warn you against setting power-saving settings that may unexpectedly tell the computer to hibernate, or blank its monitors, when one workstation doesn't want it to happen.
EasyClone can run in single-user mode, where the machine behaves like a normal Windows box, or in multi-user mode, where you can activate the second workstation - and more, if you install more than one EasyClone kit. You can, in theory at least, install as many as four EasyClones if you've got enough spare PCI slots.
When you're in multi-user mode but haven't yet activated the second workstation, the second monitor just displays a text message saying as much. There's no way for someone sitting in front of that monitor to activate the workstation; if they don't know the EasyClone administrator password and lack You can tell EasyClone to automatically activate the second workstation on Windows startup, or let you do it manually.
Once it's activated, the second workstation behaves superficially like an ordinary Windows machine. There's a normal log-in box, you can run applications in the usual way. All of the drives are shared, and so's the printer, if there is one. Even DOS stuff works.
Most apps are happy enough to have two users simultaneously running separate instances of the program. If an app lets you run two separate copies of itself on a normal single-user machine, it'll let you run it twice via EasyClone, too, without installing a whole new copy of the app. It might not be legal - many application licenses don't let two people use the software at once - but it's certainly possible.
You can't have two people working on the same document, though, unless you're running some groupware application that specifically allows it.
And Web browsing works as you'd expect, too. If either workstation's connected to the Internet, then both of them are. You don't need any Internet sharing software. This is because they're still one computer, as far as networking's concerned, and Internet access is essentially just a TCP/IP network connection.
Of course, if you're using a modem, both workstations will share its bandwidth, and two people browsing at once will notice a considerable slowdown.
It's even possible for one workstation to control another. Activate the remote control option and EasyClone just lets one workstation see and control another, without putting you to all the trouble of walking around the desk.
In ordinary use, for boring purposes (business apps, exceedingly lightweight games like the ones that come with Windows), the EasyCloned workstations work perfectly normally. It's easy to find out that you're not using a stand-alone computer, though.
For a start, you can't install new software when EasyClone's in Multi-User mode. EasyClone detects any attempt to do so, and gives you a button to click to turn off multi-user mode. The computer restarts, and you can log on to the main terminal as any user, then install the software.
There are also some programs that you shouldn't run in multi-user mode. You can configure a list of these "danger apps"; if you try to run them, EasyClone stops you. The only things in the danger list by default are Scandisk and Defrag, both of which do low-level hard disk manipulation that's a very bad idea when another copy of Windows is blithely chugging along on the same computer.
Shutting down's different, too. When you tell the master Workplace to shut down, the secondary Workplace gets a warning requestor and a 30 second countdown to close all of its applications. If everything isn't shut down and saved by then, tough. The user of either workplace can hit a button to do the shutdown now, without waiting.
If you tell the secondary Workplace to shut down, it does it as normal from the user's point of view, but then goes back to the plain text screen you got before that Workplace was started - the computer itself doesn't shut down, and the master Workplace isn't affected. You can change this behaviour and let both Workplaces shut the machine down completely, if you like.
The first machine I tried EasyClone out on is a workhorse with has had a zillion bits of hardware and software installed and uninstalled; its Win98 install still seems to be working fine, but EasyClone didn't want to know about it. I got an error message complaining about a VXD that didn't exist as a discrete file on the system. This is how Windows tells you to nuke a machine from orbit, or pick a new machine.
The second machine I tried EasyClone on, with a less mucked-about-with system, worked fine. Driven by a P-III at 668MHz, it's a decently speedy computer.
The question is - will it stay speedy, with two people using it?
EasyClone itself doesn't seem to have much of an impact on system performance.
The second Windows session eats a chunk of memory, so you really need at least 128Mb of RAM in order to be able to do worthwhile things on two workstations without flogging your hard drive to death. The minimum specifications for the EasyClone system are a 100MHz Pentium with 32Mb of RAM, but you should take them with the same bucket full of salt that all minimum specification figures deserve.
In any case, if one workstation's logged in but not doing anything, the other one seems to get pretty much full system speed.
What happens, though, if both workstations are doing something - and especially if they're fighting over the same resources?
Naively, you might expect a computer split down the middle into two equal-priority sessions to end up giving each session half of the computer's total performance, assuming the two sessions are each asking for the same things at the same time.
In reality, it doesn't work that way, because a CPU can't perfectly divide its attention between two tasks, and neither can a hard drive or a RAM subsystem. Swapping from one task to another takes a non-zero amount of time, and doing two things at once can take a lot longer than doing one thing, then the other.
To get a worst case scenario benchmark result, I fired up Wintune on the EasyClone machine, first on one workstation, then on the other, then on both at once.
When one workstation was idle and the other one was running the benchmark, I got the results I'd expect - practically identical CPU and RAM and disk speed figures, and 2D and 3D video speed figures representative of the relative performance of the two video cards.
The test machine was using another budget video card as its main graphics board - an 8Mb Trident Blade3D card (reviewed here), which delivers pretty unexciting 3D performance but has fast 2D. It's noticeably faster than the SiS board even in 2D mode. Blade3D-based cards just like it currently sell for a princely $US35 or so.
The disparate video speeds of the two sessions meant that the benchmarks got out of sync pretty quickly - the primary session, with the faster video card, had finished more than five full test sequences before the slower session had finished three.
But the effect of one session on the other was obvious. Some tests didn't hurt performance on the other side too much - hard disk and 2D video tests didn't make much difference. But when one side was doing a CPU speed test, the other side practically ground to a halt, as you'd expect.
These high-priority CPU-test tasks actually gave CPU speed results only slightly slower than I'd got in the single-session tests, but that was at the cost of making the other workstation pretty much incapable of anything.
Overall, the SiS card's already crummy video speed results were practically halved again, because it was spending about half of its time unable to draw anything at all. Oddly, though, the Blade3D's video results only took a small hit; perhaps the primary workstation gets a priority boost, or perhaps it's just because Blade3D was the primary video card.
Simultaneous 3D games on the two workstations were a complete non-starter. I could play Quake 2 on the primary workstation without the secondary one being completely paralysed, but it was still badly affected.
The current SiS 6326 drivers at least pretty much work with OpenGL and Direct3D, so you can in theory run 3D games. In practice, with a slow chipset and only 4Mb of video RAM, it's not really worth bothering. 2D games, maybe. Older 3D games in 640 by 480, perhaps. Anything more - forget it. Since you won't have sound on the secondary workstation unless you shell out for a USB audio option, you're probably not going to be running any terribly demanding entertainment software on it anyway.
The EasyClone FAQ recommends against multi-user gaming on one system using EasyClone, because "most computers do not have enough power to handle it". Which is partly true - a lot of games do load up the CPU in a big way. But another part of the reason why two-player gaming on the one computer's inadvisable is that the EasyClone SiS video card is slow as a wet week, and even if it's installed as an ordinary single graphics card without all of the EasyClone gubbins, it'll still give you a singularly crummy multiplayer experience.
Less demanding games wouldn't be such a problem. But since even many 2D games use a lot of CPU time, I really don't think an EasyClone system is going to be any good in multi-user mode with pretty much any current commercial game title.
Multiplayer gaming's likely to be impossible anyway, because the EasyCloned machine isn't really two separate units from a networking point of view. The two users may log in with different names, but it's still one computer, with one network address, and it's not possible for one workstation to host a game that the other workstation can join.
Mind you, both workstations can join a game that's hosted by some other machine on the network, or on the Internet, as long as that game server doesn't have conniptions over two users apparently sharing the same network location. Most games don't have this problem.
On the one hand, you can think of EasyClone as giving you a whole new computer for $AU200 or so plus the price of a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. Subtract the value of the video card from the EasyClone purchase price and it costs significantly more than many other software packages, but it's still not outrageously expensive for what it does.
If you want another computer to play games on, though, or you just want that computer to be at a different desk from the first one, then you've got a problem.
You can get long-range video and keyboard and mouse relay units, also known as "console extenders", and one of those would let you put an EasyClone workstation more than 50 metres away from the actual computer. Most console extenders don't do USB extension, but there's no reason why the primary workstation, with its PS/2 peripherals, can't be the one you move far, far away.
But you're talking another $US200 for a basic console extender, so buying a whole separate computer starts to become quite attractive.
When it's $AU600 or so to get your "virtual PC" happening in a different room to the first one, plus the price of the peripherals and monitor that you have to buy anyway, you might as well buy a second hand Celeron box and a couple of network cards and do it properly.
What EasyClone's obviously meant to do is let one person use a computer for productivity tasks - business software, graphics apps, Web browsing or other things that don't really stretch the system - while someone else uses it either for more relatively simple work, or perhaps for games.
And, if that's all you want to do, it's actually pretty good.
The limitations of the EasyClone setup are significant, and rule it out completely for some users, regardless of how ingenious is the idea. Gamers don't want it, people who want to run some operating system other than Windows 98 don't want it, and people who need proper secure separation of the different users don't want it, either.
But if you just want to more completely use your Win98 machine, and you don't want to do any of the things for which EasyClone's no good, then this is a surprisingly elegant package. It performs pretty much as advertised, you don't have to be a computer guru to set it up, and it's not ridiculously expensive. Worth a look.