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Stylish Cube marred by price tag

photo
Apple Computer’s Power Mac G4 Cube comes with keyboard, optical mouse and baseball-size speakers. The 15-inch LCD flat-panel monitor is sold separately.

By JULES ALLEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000


It's a work of engineering and aesthetic art, but Apple's G4 Cube suffers from lack of expandability and high cost.

Apart from your first car, when was the last time you were really excited about a new machine?

The first square-shaped Mac did it for me in 1984. Ah yes, no hard disk, a single floppy and a 9-inch monochrome screen. Compared with its green screen PC cousins of the day, it was a work of engineering and aesthetic art.

If little square boxes are a recipe for my personal computer nirvana, the recently introduced Apple Cube has done it again.

The only thing that might stop you from falling in love, too, is sticker shock. At well into the $3,000 range for the 64MB base unit, Airport card, extra RAM, a $999 flat-screen monitor and enhanced speakers, the word "inexpensive" does not spring to mind.

True, the monitor and the SoundSticks are luxury items, but even with a regular monitor and no RAM upgrade, you're looking at more than $2,000. That buys a lot more Windows-powered machine or iMac than it does Cube. And don't forget the lack of an included CD-RW or any other kind of writeable storage. (Apple recently announced a $300 rebate, good through the end of the year, but only if you buy a monitor with the Cube.)

The first nod obviously goes to style. The Cube looks like no other mass-manufactured computer that I can remember. It's an 8-inch-square box housed in a polished plexiglass case. It's perfect for small spaces or large, post-modern expansive spaces to show it off. Some reports have said that the plexiglass case is subject to stress fractures, but mine showed no such signs.

The Cube also is as close to silent as a computer can be, since it has no noisy fan. Mostly, all I can hear is my typing.

The connectors are hidden away underneath. Next to the power connector it has a couple of FireWire ports for connecting digital video and fast storage devices, two USB ports for peripherals, a modem connector, an Ethernet connector for a network or high-speed Internet connection, a standard video connector and an Apple Display Connector. That last one is important for the optional, ultra sexy flat-panel Studio Display. Aliens took over my fingers when I ordered the Cube and I found myself paying the $999 for the 15-inch LCD display.

Getting inside the thing involves flipping it over and activating a large, science fiction-inspired handle. Then, the whole computer lifts out of the shell, exposing the innards. There's plenty of space for taking the standard 64 megabytes of random access memory up to 1.5 gigabytes, as well as easy access to the hard drive, video card and optional Airport wireless networking card.

Interestingly, there's no speaker port, and the bundled baseball-size speakers are digital all the way. They're powered by the USB port but, nice as they are, they just didn't do it for me.

I'm clearly not an audiophile. Unlike those cursed (or blessed) with perfect pitch, I can't describe the subtle differences between audio frequencies. I liken it to tasting a good glass of wine: I know what I like but if pressed to describe the chocolate-fruity-melon textures, I'd probably use words such as "bacon" and "lizard" and get it all wrong.

So I wasn't sure quite sure what I'd make of the Harman/Kardon SoundSticks. I sat them on the floor with every intention of not opening them for a while and doing something boring such as working.

Ah, but that legendary Apple packaging and design sucks you in. Within 20 minutes of swearing they would gather more than a little dust, I had the box open and the room covered in wires. And am I glad that I did.

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Stylish Cube marred by price tag
It's a work of engineering and aesthetic art, but Apple's G4 Cube suffers from lack of expandability and high cost.

The difference between the speakers that come with the Cube and the sound of the SoundStick noisemakers is night and day. The stunningly rich base of the iSub subwoofer and the crisp highs of the cigar-shaped speakers rival my '80s-style, black component system. Think of the SoundSticks as a good set of tires on a performance car. You'll notice the difference in a big way.

They connect to any modern Mac via the USB port but require a separate power source. USB is a purely digital technology so this might well explain the lack of hiss and distortion at a high volume (just ask my neighbors). Not only does the Cube recognize these aural wonders but it draws a pretty picture of them in the Sound Control Panel. A nice touch. And of course they look fabulous next to the machine: They're as transparent as the Cube.

At 450 megahertz, the G4 processor is Apple's second fastest in its product line. Combined with the zippy graphics card and speedy hard disk, the Cube is a flyer. The screen display is blisteringly fast and application response is impressive. It dusts my 800Mhz Pentium PC running either Windows 95 or NT. The next fastest Apple machine I have is a 400Mhz G3 PowerBook and the performance differences also are significant.

In anticipation of running OS X, Apple's next operating system being tested by developers and geeks, I upped the RAM to 192MB. If you go for a Cube or any other computer, order more RAM. It's worth every penny.

That said, I'm sure Apple isn't targeting the lower-end market. You'll buy a Cube for the same reason you'd buy a Lexus rather than a Camry. Both will get you to work but one's a much nicer ride. I sit in front of a computer for long periods of time, and I might as well have some fun while I'm there. Heck, I'm worth it.

Items Reviewed

  • Apple Power Mac G4 Cube, $1,799
  • Apple 15-inch Studio Display, $999
  • Apple Airport Card, $99
  • Harman/Kardon SoundSticks and iSub*, $199
  • Crucial Technologies (www.crucial.com) 128Mb SDRAM, $130

*Only available from http://store.apple.com/

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