Clearly, a Computer

It sits there quietly in my office, looking like no other computer I've ever seen. A silvery cube, 8-in. to each side, rests inside a clear plastic column almost 10-in. tall. On top are two slots and an elliptical grate plus a power-on light that glows pearly white beneath the plastic. The gray apple on one side tells the story: This is Apple Computer Inc.'s G4 Cube. All the connecting ports are located on the Cube's bottom. A small cutout in back lets you snake cables from the Cube to the speakers, your display and any peripherals.

Feeds and Speeds

First, the technical specifications. At the Cube's heart is a G4 PowerPC processor operating at 450 MHz. (A 500-MHz G4-based Cube is available only from Apple's online store.) The Cube's basic memory configuration consists of 1MB L2 cache clocked at half the processor speed (225 MHz), and 64MB of synchronous dynamic RAM on a 100-MHz system bus. The total memory can be expanded to a whopping 1.5GB. For storage, the Cube has a 20GB, 5,400-rpm Ultra ATA hard disk, although you can get a 30GB or 40GB drive installed if you build the system to order through the online store. The system comes with a slot-loading DVD-ROM drive, which occupies one of the slots on the top of the column.

For graphics, the system uses a display card with an ATI RAGE 128 Pro chip set and 16MB of SDRAM graphics memory. The display card sits on a dedicated 2X AGP slot, so screen drawing is respectable. It supports resolutions as large as 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, at 32 bits per pixel. The card sports two video connectors: a proprietary Apple Display Connector for interfacing to the company's own LCD screens, plus a VGA connector for connecting to convectional multiscan monitors. Unfortunately, the card supports only one display at a time.

For network connectivity, the Cube has a built-in 10/100Base-T Ethernet with an RJ-45 connector, and there's a slot for an AirPort 802.11b wireless card. A 56K bit/sec. V.90 modem card comes as standard equipment. Finally, for peripheral connections, the Cube has two 400M bit/sec. FireWire (IEEE 1394) ports, and two 1.2M bit/sec. Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports.

The system comes with Apple's large 108-key USB keyboard with full-size function and cursor keys. In addition, a sleek new elliptical mouse replaces that awful hockey-puck mouse that has been standard issue for the last few years.

The review system came with the base 64MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive and Mac OS 9.0.4. Apple also included its 15-in. LCD display, with a resolution of 1,024-by-768 pixels, that connects to the Cube via a single proprietary cable that carries power, digital video and USB signals. The display has two USB ports on the back intended for the keyboard and speakers.

It's important to emphasize that the panel is a powered hub, because the speakers consume 20 W to perform their acoustic magic. Therefore, the speakers must be plugged into the display or the computer itself, and not daisy-chained from low-power USB peripherals such as the keyboard or a Zip drive.

The LCD panel is absolutely gorgeous, with crisp images as bright as those of a CRT monitor and a wide 160-degree viewing angle. I had the display next to a window, and even with the afternoon sun on it, the screen was bright and easy to read.

To put the system to sleep, you simply tap the screen's glowing power-on indicator. To wake it, tap the indicator again.

The machine comes with two softball-shaped speakers from Washington-based Harman International Industries Inc. connected to a transparent digital-audio module that plugs in to a USB port. The module has a jack for stereo headphones. The high-quality speakers make for a fantastic acoustic experience. Audio CDs and MP3 files sounded great on the high-quality speakers, and computer games had new impact with the stereo sound. Not only did they sound better, but in Tomb Raider III, as I put Lara Croft through her paces, you could detect the change of position of, say, a stream as the character moved through her virtual environment.

I played several DVDs in the system. You simply stick a disc into the front-most slot, and a motor pulls it into the Cube. When you are finished, push the new Eject key on the keyboard and the DVD pops up like a slice of toast. The DVD video looked great and was well-matched with the stereo sound.

However, any other use of the system caused the video to stall momentarily. While this design certainly shows off the G4's computing prowess and eliminates a part, it makes for a lot of processing by the CPU.

I connected the Cube's Ethernet port to a 3Com Corp. hub/Integrated Services Digital Network LAN modem and was on the Internet in minutes. I had a few minor difficulties because of application incompatibilities with Mac OS 9. For example, I had to upgrade to Adobe Acrobat 4, because Version 3 performed file I/O that was incompatible with Mac OS 9's file system, and I had to apply a Mac OS 9 compatibility patch for Microsoft Office 98. Most of my stable of work and Web-authoring tools worked just fine: Netscape Communicator 4.75, Adobe Illustrator 5.5 and Photoshop 4.0, Anarchie 3.7 (a file transfer protocol client), Eudora Pro 4.3.3, and Microsoft's Word, PowerPoint, and Excel (after patching). I installed Metrowerks CodeWarrior and compiled and debugged a ray-tracing program written in C++ without problems.

My one gripe here is the 64MB of RAM. Because Mac OS 9 consumes about half of that, you're going to have problems running more than one or two moderate-size applications. If you get a Cube, get more RAM.

Because of the missing Power key, debugging an errant program can be painful. When the computer seizes up, normally you hit the Command-Power key combination, which drops you into the low-level Macsbug debugger. Without the Power key, you have to tip the Cube to the side to reach the reset button, which is located on its bottom, next to the I/O ports. This is a pain, particularly if the Cube is under a desk. While trying out a USB MacSense keyboard on the system, I discovered that its Power key still works, including summoning the debugger. Apparently, the Eject key sends a new key code to the computer. My advice: use a third-party keyboard for writing software until someone comes up with an extension that makes the Eject key drop you into the debugger. Some users have complained about the lack of a Power key, but this hasn't bothered me, since from Mac OS 8.1 onwards the computer is sufficiently stable that I've gotten in the habit of putting the Mac to sleep rather than powering it down.

As I mentioned, most Internet programs worked fine, being routed via Ethernet to a 3Com hub. To access Motorola's intranet, I use Intraport's VPN client, which creates a DES encrypted link that allows me to sign onto the company's servers. This worked without a hitch as well. The built-in modem might seem redundant if you've got DSL or cable modem access to the Internet, but it serves a purpose. The modem is compatible with Boca Raton, Fla.-based Global Village Communication Inc.'s GlobalFax 2.6.9 fax software. This allows the Cube to serve as a fax machine as well as a computer. And if you're in the boondocks where DSL or ISDN isn't an option, then the modem is your only lifeline to the Internet.

Expandability

Surprisingly, this sophisticated design doesn't sacrifice access to key internal components. You can add more memory or Apple's AirPort wireless network card and exchange the hard drive yourself. Just turn the Cube off, turn it over and press on a recessed slat that pops out and becomes a handle to lift the computer core out of the column, exposing the Dual Inline Memory Module sockets, AirPort slot and hard drive. Slide the core back into the tower and press the handle in until it clicks, and you're done.

The Cube lacks expansion slots, but most people will only add memory or replace a hard drive. Also, heat's a factor. The Cube is convection cooled, and more peripherals would mean more heat. If you need expansion boards, buy a G4 tower instead. A 400-MHz G4 tower, ironically, costs $200 less than a baseline Cube.

The Cube served admirably as an industrial-strength computer, capably handling my workload. And it's quiet too: The only noise is a faint chuckle when accessing the hard drive; Apple has measured this level at 19 decibels, which is comparable to a very quiet living room. This makes it ideal for the home or small office where space and noise are important.

Let's face it: The Cube looks cool. This says a lot about what Apple is trying to do. Certainly, if you subscribe to the concept of a post-PC era (I don't), then a desktop computer should have form as well as function. There is precedent for this. This dates me, but remember the Princess telephone? It was as telephone, yet it looked great, particularly after decades of that squashed snail design. Except for the LCD panel, the hardware isn't a great technical achievement, but its svelte size and sleek design make it look like a computer for the millennium. And this was achieved without compromising performance or the user's ability to upgrade the machine. The fact the both Compaq Computer Corp. and Dell Computer Corp. abandoned the consumer market after less than a year indicates that more than smooth curves and colored panels makes a computer attractive to the consumer. Perhaps it's the little-but-important touches to the software. An episode that occurred while I was setting up the machine should illustrate. While I was plugging in the LCD panel, I touched the power-on switch on the computer's top by accident and the computer started up. Oops. At this point, I still hadn't plugged in the keyboard and mouse. An automatic registration program started, and politely asked me to plug in the mouse, as it couldn't detect one. I plugged the USB keyboard and mouse, the advisory window disappeared, and the program started me through the registration sequence. I don't know any Windows machine that would do that.

Clearly (no pun intended), Apple is also attacking the TV/computer media convergence from the computer side, because the Cube makes a superb entertainment system as well as a capable graphics computer, especially with its terrific screen.

Thompson is a training specialist at Metrowerks Inc. in Hollis, N.H.
Apple Computer Inc.
G4 Cube, $1,799
www.apple.com
Pros:

  • Looks cool.
  • Superb stereo sound system.
  • Excellent LCD display.
    Cons:
  • Base 64MB isn't adequate.
  • DVD decoding done in software rather than hardware.
  • It's pricey compared with the standard tower model.
  • Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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