capsule review

Power Mac G4 Cube

At a Glance
  • Apple Power Mac G4 Cube

    Macworld Rating

If you agree with the following three statements, the Power Mac G4 Cube is right for you: I don't need to add PCI cards to my Mac. I'm more concerned with a computer's ease of setup and its size than getting the maximum available G4 performance. I'm willing to pay a premium for a computer with a lot of style.

Entry-level users had to agree with these three statements before buying an iMac--and more than 3.7 million did. Now Apple is posing the same questions to its mainstream customers regarding the Power Mac G4 Cube, which offers a G4's processing power and an iMac's ease of setup and distinctive style--though it does so at a premium price.

Let's just get this out of the way right up front: the Cube is a work of art. It's as if previous Mac designs were merely tests, prototypes that honed the skills of Apple's industrial design engineers. And when those skills reached razor sharpness, designers turned their skills on the product they wanted to craft all along: the Cube.

The Cube bears only a passing resemblance to a piece of technology, much less a computer. If not for the thermal vent cut into the top, it would give no clue as to its true nature. It is a thing of beauty.

But you pay a price for this pearlescent machine, and I'm not just talking about the price tag. Gone are most of the compromises that computers make for functionality: all the ports are hidden underneath, giving the Cube a completely smooth surface but making ports difficult to access and cable management a challenge. Cube users with USB devices they plug in and unplug frequently may want to invest in a USB hub; those with FireWire devices may need to leave a loose cable dangling in back.

If you do turn the Cube upside down to get at the ports, be sure to shut it down and then unplug it. The Cube has no fan; it uses that single vent in the top to dissipate heat. And even though the Cube will turn itself off before overheating, the new touch-sensitive power switch on the top of the unit might turn the computer back on while it's upside down if it's still plugged in. Better safe than sorry.

Which brings us to the most questionable part of the Cube's design: the thermal vent. I had to make an effort not to put stuff on top of my Cube, and I didn't always succeed. And while blocking the vent will only cause the unit to go to sleep, that can be annoying.

With a computer this pretty, you're going to want it on your desktop for all to see, not to mention for easy access to the DVD-ROM drive. That's good, because Apple hasn't made it easy for you to plop the Cube under your desk--the keyboard attaches with a short USB cable. Worse, the Cube's speakers have short cables. It's just 26 inches from the headphone jack to each of the clear, spherical speaker cases--hardly enough to get decent stereo separation.

Assuming you can get enough separation between the speakers, the clarity and depth of the sound these two tiny globes produce will amaze you. Even without a subwoofer, they sound wonderful. Match them with Apple's 22-inch flat-panel monitor, the Cinema Display, and you've got a front-row seat at the world's best personal, purely digital home theater.

That's because the Cube is the first totally digital computer. The only analog circuitry in the whole machine is the headphone port and a single VGA port for connecting any monitor not blessed with the new all-in-one Apple Display Connector (ADC), which carries digital video, USB, and power in one fat cable. Once you see the Cinema Display teamed with the Cube's ADC and digital speakers, you'll never go back to analog. Never mind that forgoing on-board analog circuitry necessitated adding the biggest power brick Apple has ever shipped--you knew something had to go to fit so much computer inside a 7-inch-square plastic box.

Speaking of which, after years of building hard-to-open computers, Apple has embarked on a crusade to make Macs the industry's most easily opened machines. The company has reached a new milestone with the Cube. Turn it over (unplug it first) and lift up the recessed handle, and out pops the whole computer, with all the slots and replaceable components clustered around the outside.

Once you have the Cube's innards out, don't be disappointed when all you find are a couple of RAM slots, an AirPort slot, and an AGP 2[infinity] slot with an ATI Rage 128 card already installed. This is the iMac of G4s; the tiny case has no space for PCI slots.

However, you do get a 450MHz G4 processor and a 20GB hard drive. A 5,400-rpm drive is standard for all Apple computers that ship with 20GB drives--replacing the 7,200-rpm drive the company used in previous G4 models--and the slowdown is noticeable. You can also upgrade to a 500MHz processor or augment the 64MB of RAM that ships with the Cube--a necessity if you plan to run more than one application at a time.

Even with only 64MB of RAM, the Cube is the stablest Mac I've seen in years. I squeezed as much as I could into that 64MB and proceeded to do things that would have choked an older G4 tower. The Cube I tested was rock solid.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Innovative design
    • Easy to set up and upgrade
    • Very stable
    • Tiny footprint
    • Great speakers and digital display technology

    Cons

    • Skimpy RAM
    • Difficult cable management
    • Poorly designed power switch
    • Expensive
    • No PCI slots
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