The Cube: Out of the Mountain Too Early

About one year ago, I sold my iBook G4 in order to buy the then upcoming MacBook. Due to an unexpected change of plans (I moved to a new house), that MacBook never reached my desk; I still really missed having a Mac around. Now, almost a year later, I am again back on Mac. So, what did I buy? A sleek black MacBook? An all-powerful Intel PowerMac quad-core? No. David, OSNews’ owner, sent me his G4 Cube.I have always been a huge fan of the PowerMac G4 Cube, ever since it was released in 2000. Sure, at USD 1799 they were not exactly cheap; especially taking into consideration the fairly low specifications. But, putting that aside, you did get the best-looking computer money could buy– and today, it still is.

The Cube is Apple’s pinnacle of design; a cube-shaped computer suspended in a glass plastic housing measuring 10″x8″x8″. The computer itself is grey, the Apple logo embossed on the housing is the dark greyish-blue variant (smoke). On top there are two air vents, as well as a slotloading optical drive. There is no power button; instead, there is what I refer to as a power ‘sensor’; the sensor ‘feels’ it when you lay your finger on it, and powers up (or down).

It came in either a 450Mhz or 500Mhz G4 version (with lots of cache; remember, it is a PowerMac), with 64Mb or 128Mb pc100 SDRAM respectively. It had a 20GB or 30GB hard drive (according to Eugenia, “the slowest drive ever”). There were no audio ports; instead it came with a USB amplifier with two Harman Kardon ‘sphere’ speakers attached to it. It had one ethernet port, two USB ports, two FireWire ports, VGA and ADC display ports, a modem, and an Airport slot. The Cube had an Ati Rage 128 Pro video card with 16Mb of RAM (meaning no Quartz Extreme). It did have a free AGP slot, so many Cubes, including mine, were fitted with the more powerful, Quartz Extreme-capable GeForce 2MX cards with 32MB of RAM. The optical drive could be a CD-RW or a DVD-ROM drive.

The entire device is passively cooled; not a fan to be found. In other words, this device is completely silent, no noise whatsoever (except from the drives, of course). It is, therefore, not a very wise idea to block the top air vents, as this will block the airflow, causing the Cube to overheat.

My Cube is the 450Mhz model, with 768Mb of pc133 SDRAM. As said, it has the GeForce 2MX videocard, and the hard drive has also been upgraded to a 130GB drive to not only increase the storage, but also to replace the slow factory-fitted hard drive. It has Airport Extreme, and the DVD-ROM drive (which refuses to read DVD-RW disks; DVD-Rs are fine). It is surprising to see how well this aging beast actually runs Tiger, probably largely due to the cache size of the processor (1MB of L2 cache).

Now, the Cube is not without its problems. The most curious one I have encountered first hand is the Cube’s dislike of static electricity. As I was cleaning the outer plastic shell of the Cube, I apparently had built up a static charge, since the device would continuously power itself on and off, in endless loops; the static had messed up the power sensor. It even got as far that by merely gently tapping my (glass) desk 50cm away from the Cube, I could power it on and off. I had to discharge the casing to make it work again.

The PowerMac G4 cube would not turn out to be the success Apple had hoped it would be, and in July 2001, the product line was “put on ice” (get it…). However, it was never officially discontinued. The price (USD 200 higher than a similarly powered PowerMac G4) is seen as the main problem of the Cube. Personally, I just think the Cube got out of the mountain too early.

The Cube never really died out though; there is an active community of Cube owners who are willing to spend big bucks on CPU upgrades for it, and companies such as PowerLogix and Sonnet sell upgrade kits specifically made for the Cube, going as far up as dual-1.7Ghz G4 cards. Modifying the case is also a popular activity, and PowerLogix even sells new cases for Cubes.

All in all, I am very satisfied with the Cube. Sure, it is not bleeding edge, but the performance is remarkably good for such an old computer. Of course, the 768MB helps, but still. Design-wise, it does not get much better than this, and my personal opinion is that Apple has never been able to reach this level of design afterwards; the Mini is too small, the PowerMac G5/Intel is too large; the iMac G4 is too weird (but cool, I had one), and the iMac G5/Intel has a weird ‘bar’ underneath the screen (it is still the best home computer money can buy, though). Apple’s notebooks are clean, but also, slightly boring.

I hope Apple will thaw the Cube, and announce a new variant of it shortly; it could be perfectly positioned between the Mini and the PowerMac, for roughly USD 999. It would have the same upgrade abilities as the G4 Cube; more than the Mini, but less than the PowerMac. At a 999,- price, it could be a winner, but the fiasco of the G4 Cube is still fresh in Apple’s mind, so it is difficult to determine the odds.

Interesting tid bit about this particular Cube is that it has switched hands among the OSNews crew. A former editor (no longer at OSNews) bought it, after which Eugenia took the machine under her care. Then, David owned it for a few years, and now it belongs under my supervision. I do not name my computers, I just label them accrding to what they are (iBook, Inspiron, etc) so this machine is called “Cube”. The OSNews Cube, if you will.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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