What could be simpler than a clear plastic cube the size of a tissue box with a single cable to the display, a single cable to the wall socket, and a single cable to the Internet connection of your choice? But hidden beneath this deceptively simple design is a machine that will change the way you think of what a computer -- or a TV, video game, or home stereo -- can be.
At his Macworld Expo keynote today, Apple CEO Steve Jobs launched the world's first fully digital device that can simultaneously create, distribute, and play back all forms of content. The Power Mac G4 Cube doesn't have a single analog circuit in it, except for the power supply. Instead, it relies on USB, FireWire, and the breakthough Apple Display Connector to connect with a host of peripherals, including the Harman Kardon-designed audiophile speakers included with the machine.
This makes the Cube both the simplest of computers and the most powerful: by leaving behind its analog legacy, the Cube is a product that should first and foremost appeal to Mac users who've longed for the power of a G4 but have hesitated to embrace the complexity (not to mention the expense) of the G4 tower. As Apple likes to say, it offers the simplicity of the iMac -- which with today's product-line update is not so simple anymore -- combined with the performance of the Power Mac G4.
Inside the Cube
The new Power Mac, due in early August, looks nothing like anything you've seen before in a computer, except perhaps from a little-known developer called Next. But unlike its large black-cased progenitor, the Cube is small, measuring 9.8 inches by 7.7 inches by 7.7 inches (and weighing 14 pounds), hardly bigger than the DVD drive it comes with (the cube has a top-loading slot that makes it look more like a high-tech toaster than a computer). There is a large radiating vent on the top of the box that dissipates the considerable heat generated by the 450MHz G4 processor it comes with (on the Apple Web site you'll be able to buy a 500MHz version); there is no fan in the Cube.
On the back of the machine you'll find its surprisingly limited array of ports: two 12Mbps USB ports, two 400Mbps FireWire ports, the ADC port, a VGA port, 10/100BaseT Ethernet connector, and a modem port. There are no slots inside the Cube except for the dedicated AGP 2x slot that holds the ATI Rage 128 Pro graphics card, two PC100 DIMM slots, and an AirPort slot. The ATI card includes 16MB of SDRAM for screen resolution of up to 1,920 by 1,200 pixels at 32 bits per pixel. There are no PCI slots, no audio in or out ports: none of the regalia normally associated with a computer. Sound, for example, is completely digital -- the Cube comes with two USB-based Harman Kardon speakers and digital amplifier that offer the only access for analog technology, a headphone jack.
Like the original iMac, the Cube is offered in only one retail configuration: 450-MHz processor, an anemic 64Mb of RAM, and a 20GB Ultra ATA/66 drive with a relatively slow spindle speed of 5,400 rpm. There will be build-to-order options including RAM expansion up to the maximum of 1.5GB, 7,200 rpm drives of up to 40GB and 1000BaseT Ethernet. Like all Macs, the Cube comes with the new Apple Pro keyboard and optical mouse ( see sidebar ).
The Desktop, Redefined
Seeing the Cube for the first time is an experience that no recitation of the specs can possibly describe. Almost totally smooth except for the ports and vent, the Cube could almost pass as a paperweight on most users' desks. But because of its excellent digital audio capabilities and its ability to play DVD-quality movies either off of DVD discs or by using QuickTime streaming via a high-speed connection to the Internet, the Cube is just as likely to end up in the home entertainment center. Combine it with an array of third-party USB-based peripherals, and you could easily see the Cube becoming the tiny translucent center of an audio/video/Web surfing/game-playing system to make the most hard-core digital convergence naysayer fall to his knees and beg forgiveness.
Take, for example, the brilliant simplicity of the new Apple Display Connector. Based on the DVI standard, this Apple proprietary port carries both analog and digital video signals, USB, and power so that a monitor need not have anything but this single cable connected to it -- provided, of course, that the monitor sports an ADC. Apple will be the first to offer a full line of digital displays with the ADC, all of which also include powered USB hubs for connecting keyboards, speakers, or the new Philips USB microphone. (The Cube doesn't even offer a cheesy built-in analog mike as the iMac does.) It does, however, come bundled with iMovie 2.0 and a FireWire camcorder cable.
However, its price tag -- starting at $1,799 -- is actually higher than the lowest-end (400MHz) Power Mac G4. Given that the Cube seems to fit perfectly between the Power Mac G4 and the iMac, it's unfortunate that its price is as high as it is.
Whether you think the Power Mac G4 Cube looks like a toaster or a tissue box, the combination of price, power, digital technology, and set-top-box simplicity sure makes it look like a revolution.