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Power Mac G4 Cube

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Power Mac G4 Cube

Apple's Pearl of Great Price

By Andrew Gore

If you agree with the following three statements, then 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 its performance. I think it's worth paying a premium for a low-end, stylish computer.

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, distinctive style, and limitations -- all 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 achieved razor sharpness, the designers turned those 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 at all to its true nature. For lack of a more emotive description, the Cube looks like it should be floating in an enormous glass of water -- it's an ice sculpture with a block of platinum trapped inside.

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 practical compromises computers make for functionality: all the Cube's ports are hidden underneath, giving the Cube a completely smooth surface. Not only does this make cable management a challenge (imagine trying to get the cables from nine ports through a cable pass-through slot only 5.25 inches by 2.25 inches), it also makes accessing ports a challenge. Cube users with USB devices they plug and unplug frequently may want to invest in a USB hub; those with FireWire devices may need to leave a loose cable dangling from the back. The alternative is to turn the Cube on its side every time you want to connect your peripherals. Not only is that a pain, but it can scratch the Cube's lucite case.

Whatever you do, don't turn the Cube upside down to get at the ports while it's plugged in. If the computer is running, you run the risk of overheating it and damaging the components (the Cube has no fan; instead, it uses that single vent in the top to dissipate heat). If it isn't running, you run the risk of inadvertently turning it on. A new touch-sensitive power switch resides on the top of the unit; this puts the computer to sleep or wakes it up. Just about everyone who came in contact with my Cube touched it inadvertently at least once, which made for a frustrating experience.

With a computer that pretty, you're going to want it on your desktop for all to see, not to mention to get 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 news for all users is that the Cube's speakers have short cables, just 26 inches from the headphone jack to each of the clear, spherical speaker cases. That's just enough to get to either side of a monitor, assuming your monitor has a powered USB port -- but it's hardly enough to get as much stereo separation as I'd prefer. And the speakers are hardwired to the center box, so you can't extend them.

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 brilliant 22-inch, 16:9 aspect ratio flat-panel monitor, the Cinema Display, and you've got a front-row seat for the world's best personal, purely digital home theater.

That's because the Cube is the computer industry's first totally digital computer. The only analog circuitry on 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 (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 the addition of the biggest power brick Apple has ever shipped (it has to be that big to support the large displays that might draw power from the Cube) -- 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 notoriously hard-to-open computers, Apple has embarked on a crusade to make Macs the industry's most easily opened machines. The company reached a new milestone with the Cube. Turn it upside down (make sure you unplug it first), push down on a button, lift up on 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 outside, don't be disappointed when all you find are a few RAM slots, an AirPort slot, and an AGP 2x slot with an ATI Rage 128 video card already installed. This is the iMac of G4s; there's no space in this tiny case for PCI slots.

However, you do get a 450MHz G4 processor and a 20GB hard drive. Apple has standardized on a 5,400-rpm drive for all its computers that ship with 20GB drives -- replacing the 7,200-rpm drive it previously used in previous G4models--and the slowdown is noticeable. If you want a 7,200-rpm drive, you can order a built-to-order Cube through the Apple Store with either a 30GB or 40GB drive. 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. While Apple's continued adherence to the 64MB minimum in consumer products makes sense, it's ridiculous that any G4 Mac ships with less than 128MB. When Macworld Lab retested the Cube with 128MB of RAM, it was noticeably faster.

Even with only 64MB of RAM, the Cube is the most stable 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. Whatever the reason, the Cube I tested was rock-solid.

Best results in bold. Reference systems in italics. Speedmark 2.1 scores are relative to an iMac 350MHz which is assigned a score of 100. Photoshop results are in seconds. Cinema 4D XL and SoundJam results are in minutes:seconds.

  Speedmark 2.1 Photoshop 5.5 Cinema 4D XL 6.1 SoundJam 2.1.1
    Gaussian Blur 10 Unsharp Mask 2.3 RGB to CMYK Lighting Effects Model Render 640x480 MP3 Encode
Power Macintosh G4 Cube 139 7.6 8.4 21.7 7.9 15:50 2:21
Power Macintosh G4 450 146 7.1 7.7 21.0 7.8 15:43 2:10
Power Macintosh G4 450 (Dual Processor) 158 4.7 5.1 20.5 5.0 7:54 1:14
Power Macintosh G4 500 159 6.5 7.4 18.9 6.8 13:46 1:38
Power Macintosh G4 500 (Dual Processor) 165 4.1 4.9 18.5 4.7 7:04 1:06
  bigger numbers are better smaller numbers are better

We tested each system with Mac OS 9.04, 128MB of RAM (256MB for Photoshop), a default system disk cache, and Virtual Memory disabled for all applications tests. Displays were set to 1024 x 768 @ 24 bit color. Speedmark 2.1 is a suite of common tasks -- for more information, see Macworld's Speedmark page . We performed Speedmark testing with original memory configurations: 64MB for the Cube, 128MB RAM for the 450MHz systems, 256MB for the 500MHz systems. Photoshop testing used 256MB in all systems. Photoshop tasks used a 50MB file. Photoshop's memory partition was set to 150MB and History was set to minumum. Cinema 4D XL and SoundJam testing used 128MB of RAM. 80MB of memory was allocated to Cinema 4D XL. We rendered a model at 680 x 480 with oversampling set to 4 x 4. A 9:25 minute track from an audio CD was used for our MP3 encoding test. It was converted using default settings of 128kbps in SoundJam 2.1.1 --Macworld Lab testing supervised by Gil Loyola

At a Glance
  • Pros

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


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