Mac Cube has power, style'at a price

Mac Cube has power, style'at a price

It has some quirks, like an oversensitive power switch, but the new G4 has many strengths, too

By Joel Sparks

Special to GCN

The compact Power Mac G4 Cube workstation raises at least as many questions as it answers. But there's no question that the machine is powerful, stylish and unique.

Apple Computer Inc. turned itself around in recent years by simplifying its product line to four types of systems: the popular consumer iMac, its portable iBook version, the powerful G4 desktop system and its portable equivalent, the PowerBook.

Dropping the Cube into the middle of this square confuses the picture. At a starting price of $1,799'less a $300 rebate with a monitor purchase'the Cube is too pricey to outfit an entire office of users.

Hard-core Mac data wranglers might well prefer the blander G4 tower, which accepts dual processors and can be heavily customized and upgraded. In contrast, the Cube's unique architecture makes adding internal drives and expansion cards difficult or impossible. Before buying, consider whether you have a history of making such hardware upgrades.

The Cube accepts up to 1.5G of RAM, a 40G hard drive and an optional 32M, 3-D graphics card. That's plenty for most users.

The lack of an obvious market for what was supposed to be the next iMac has contributed to Apple's recent financial stumble. Is the Cube merely an oddity, like the 20th-anniversary Mac of some years ago? Not necessarily.

It's still a PowerPC G4 with a 450-MHz or faster clock rate, and it can calculate billions of floating-point operations per second. That's real power for less money than it takes to buy a dual-processor G4.

The compact form factor is not only attractive but also convenient. Paired with a thin LCD, it frees up considerable desk space. And let's face it, the thing is cool.

With its powerful CPU, built-in Ethernet interface and large hard drive, plus Apple's easy file sharing, the Cube could act as a file server. But for large networks, the money would be better spent on a more robust G4 server.

Where the Cube stands out is for managers in Mac-dominant or dual-platform environments. Paired with an Apple display, it looks impressive in the front office. Mac graphics users and Web authors can shoehorn G4 power into a small space with a Cube, and can do it in style.

The Cube arrives in a small and surprisingly heavy box. Besides the 14-pound computer, there are two spherical speakers that resemble crystal oranges, an optical mouse, an improved keyboard and a heavy ovoid power supply.

All components, even the cables, are in Apple's graphite color scheme: transparency plus silver metal with black highlights.

These cube components, shown with the thin Apple Studio Display, take up far less desktop real estate than a conventional workstation.

Looks cool

The glassy, minimalist tower has no visible buttons. The featureless interior is sheathed in a clear, icy shell that looks as thick as a bank teller's window. The acrylic shell raises the working hardware almost 2.5 inches off the desk, emphasizing compactness and making it seem to float as well as providing crucial airflow and room for connecting cables.

There have been rumors of cracks in the Cube's shell, but the marks in question are in fact shallow seams from molding. Two short lines on the top allow metal bolts to attach. A longer wrinkle lies part way down the front. The lines are invisible except on close inspection in bright light.

They don't show up in publicity photos of the Cube, but then again, neither do any cords.

Because the acrylic shell looks so stunning, users may experience a bit of new-car syndrome, dreading the first scratch. The appearance flaws aren't serious or even visible from across a desk, but they detract from a machine that is marketed heavily on looks.

In setting up the Cube, you should insert the power cord last. Otherwise, the machine is almost certain to start up prematurely from an accidental touch.

The power switch is no ordinary button but rather a simple painted glyph on the Cube's top. To turn the machine on or off, you merely rest a finger on the sensitive spot.

A science-fiction glow appears'and the spot is so sensitive that the lightest touch can activate it accidentally. Likewise, you can easily put the machine to sleep by mistake while you are leaning over it to change one of the cables.

The power cord has a small but pleasing innovation: A single plug powers the Cube and speakers, and it can also feed one of the new Apple monitors and various add-on devices.

Electric current passes from the main Cube through Universal Serial Bus and FireWire connectors and the new Apple Display Connection. The Cube also has a standard VGA connector for non-ADC monitors. Apple's old DVI displays require a separate, $40 adapter.

Good peripherals

The peripherals all perform well. The speakers boom out startlingly good sound, and a simple test program distinguishes left from right for proper stereo effect. Users who want stereo-system bass can buy a separate subwoofer.

The amplifier for the speakers is a box the size of a wireless phone'no room for it in the Cube proper'with a convenient headphone jack.

The Pro keyboard's full-sized layout isn't quite as comfortable as the much bigger models of the mid-1990s, and the familiar power button is gone, replaced by volume controls and a disk-eject button. Overall, it's a big improvement over the cramped Mac keyboards of recent years.

The optical mouse has drawn a lot of attention. Its elongated shape is a welcome contrast to Apple's disorienting 'hockey puck' mouse.

The optical sensor tracks on almost any surface without a mousepad. There's no ball to clean. Moving the mouse feels exactly the same as with older mice, although on rare occasions the cursor sticks briefly. The entire mouse surface is a single huge button with finger grips on the sides. It takes a little getting used to, and afterward a standard mouse feels clumsy by comparison.

Box Score

Power Mac G4 Cube

Compact workstation

Apple Computer Inc.; Cupertino, Calif.; tel. 408-996-1010

Base price: $1,799 without monitor; $300 rebate with any Apple display

+Innovative design and compact size

+Speedy PowerPC G4 CPU with '''Velocity Engine

+Simplified connections to reduce '''cable'clutter

+Less noisy than other Macs, though '''still not silent


'Less expandable than tower models

'Some minor flaws in transparent shell

The mouse, as beautifully designed as everything else in this package, has a transparent shell over a black circuit board, and red light glows. With the laserlike mouse light and the Cube's ghostly power light, the system even looks good in the dark.

Apple built the Cube in what's known as a chimney design. The vertical shaft lets warm air rise, creating a natural exhaust. There's no fan in the Cube. That means it's critical to keep things from blocking the cord opening at the back and the roadster-like grille on top.

Silent running

Given natural air circulation, the Cube does not need the noisy cooling fans of conventional workstation designs. Apple markets the Cube as 'virtually silent.' In fact it does make a slight whining sound like a fluorescent light. In comparison, a G3 desktop system roars like a leaf blower. Less noise is an improvement, and for those who work long hours at their machines, it's a stress reducer.

So how does the Cube stack up against other desktop systems? It's important to note that processor speed, 500 MHz in the test system, isn't everything. The newest Pentium III systems have far higher megahertz numbers. But Apple officials tout the G4's 'supercomputer' ability to perform complex or common operations much faster than an equivalent Pentium machine. They suggest that a 500-MHz G4 is comparable to a 1-GHz or faster Pentium.

I tested the 500-MHz Cube side by side with a 266-MHz Mac G3. The G3 had the edge in memory'192M of physical RAM vs. 128M for the Cube. But the Cube completed most of the tests more than twice as fast as the G3. Again, better than the raw megahertz numbers would suggest. It got a boost in some of the tests due to its faster, 7,200-revolutions-per-minute hard drive.

The Cube is no starter machine, nor is it a toylike iMac that's going to charm users away from Microsoft Windows. It's not a strictly efficient tool that delivers maximum computing bang for the buck. It's something in between'a powerful toy? An elegant tool?

Users who don't want to pay extra for style will not buy this computer. But the Cube deserves an 8-inch-square space on the desks of people who want a fast, modern Mac that's a pleasure to use.

Joel Sparks, a free-lance reviewer in Silver Spring, Md., has been a government lawyer and database programmer.


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