Desktop Decisions

Introduction

There were plenty of rumours prior to Steve Jobs’ keynote speech at July’s Macworld Expo in New York. Some of them we’d heard before, and will no doubt hear again. But no one expected Apple to revamp its entire desktop Mac range… or release a revolutionary new model. The Power Mac G4 range of professional desktops now features two multiprocessing models that Apple claims are as fast as a Windows workstation running a 2GHz Pentium III – if such a thing even existed. The iMac range has been refined, with a new DV + model, new colours and faster speeds. And Apple has completed a quite amazing feat of engineering, by compressing a Power Mac G4 into a stunning eight-inch-square cube. All come with a fantastic new optical mouse and full-size keyboard. Read on… In the trade, computers are often referred to as “boxes”. In reality most of them are utilitarian beige-plastic towers riddled with drive slots, fans and connection ports. Apple has designed the most elegant ‘box’ for its Power Macs – but the slots, fan and ports are still there for all to see in its ultra-user-friendly Graphite mini-tower case. Now, Apple’s techies and industrial designers have created a totally new look for a personal computers. The Power Mac G4 Cube really is a box – an eight-inch cube, of classic design and engineering flair, suspended in a crystal-clear enclosure. It’s the first of a new breed of small-footprint/high-power fully digital PCs designed for people who want more than an iMac but don’t need all the Power Mac’s expandability. The cube shape has been seen before. Steve Jobs’ NeXT computer was cube-shaped. And Cobalt Networks’ Linux-based Mac-compatible Qube Internet server measures 7.25 inches and even includes a PCI slot – see Reviews, October 1998. But Apple’s G4 Cube is not just a Net server. It’s a fully fledged personal computer with sophisticated video-out options, 450MHz or 500MHz PowerPC chip, AirPort wireless technology, speakers and a DVD drive. Art & design
Apple calls the G4 Cube “the perfect marriage of art and engineering”. Not only has Apple fitted the innards of a Power Mac into one-quarter of the space, but it has raised the bar on applied design. The G4 Cube is a real beauty – maybe Apple designer Jonathan Ive’s finest yet. The enclosure uses the same crystal-clear plastics as the Cinema Display and the Power Mac G4’s transparent handles. It eschews ugly front drive-slots for a single unobtrusive slot-loading DVD drive on top. The full set of connector ports – USB, FireWire, modem, ethernet, VGA, etc – is hidden underneath the Cube. In fact, the Cube is almost totally smooth. However, expect the ideal look to be spoilt when you lump extra Zip and CD-R drives next to it. Apple extends the Cube look with its speakers, which look like see-through cricket balls but sound fantastic. The new Pro Keyboard and Pro Mouse also reflect the Cube’s cool design, and are a real bonus. Engineering feat
Apart from the sheer brilliance of compacting a Power Mac into such a small space, the Cube is a marvel of innovation. Analogue technology is restricted to the power supply, modem and VGA port. And the computer is virtually silent, because there’s no fan needed to cool the interior components. Apple has instead used a thermodynamic central cooling chimney to chill out the chip. According to Apple, the Cube produces about 19 decibels; by comparison, a person whispering in a quiet room from 15 feet away generates 30 decibels. Apart from the fiddly original iMac, we’ve become used to Apple building its computers with easy-to-get-at insides. A whole side of the Power Mac, for instance, opens up to reveal the computer’s logic-board and expansion slots. You get inside the Cube by turning it upside down, popping out a handle and lifting out the electronics. This is great, except that you’ll hardly ever need to open up the Cube. The only expandable areas inside the Cube are the dedicated AGP 2x slot that holds the ATI RAGE 128 Pro graphics card, two PC100 DIMM slots and an AirPort slot. Still, the process is so cool that you’ll be showing it off to friends and colleagues every few days anyway. Apple made the Cube so small by exiling the power supply to the floor – which is a much better place for such equipment than sitting inside a computer warming everything up and making a racket. Power packed in
Unlike the G3-powered iMac, the Cube uses a top-of-the-range PowerPC G4 processor – running at either 450MHz or 500MHz – so there’s no skimping on performance. The Cube can also pack up to 1.5GB of memory, using four 512MB RAM DIMMs. As it ships with just 64MB of RAM, you’ll need to add a whole bunch more. £110 will take you to 128MB, which is a far better starting point. It’ll cost you about £3,000 to reach the maximum 1.5GB of RAM. The 450MHz Cube we tested is actually faster than the old 450MHz minitower Power Mac G4, due to speedier graphics. Graphics power is provided by an ATI Rage 128 Pro graphics card with 16MB of video RAM – the same accelerator that’s found in the latest Power Mac G4. Audio oomph is provided by the harman/kardon all-digital 20W speakers. You also get a small digital amplifier with a stereo headphone jack. Real audiophiles will probably want to add an iSub subwoofer (another Apple-harman/kardon product) and maybe upgrade to SoundSticks, but these round speakers will be fine for the rest of us. Unfortunately, the Cube is not a very upgradable machine. Third-party CPU upgrade makers do not produce upgrade cards that will fit the UMA motherboard’s CPU daughtercard slot. Right now, this doesn’t matter, as Apple already ships the fastest G4s available. However, when faster G4s become available, processor envy is bound to kick in for Cubists. As the Cube shares its daughtercard design with the Power Mac G4, CPU upgrades should be possible in the future. Upgrading the bundled graphics card is another matter. The Rage 128 Pro is a standard, replaceable 2x AGP card, but lack of space inside the Cube rules out many third-party graphics cards – such as 3dfx’s latest offerings – that won’t fit in the enclosure. The 128 Pro is a fine card, but some may find themselves wanting more video power in the future. Pro features built in
Hardware You’d assume that there isn’t much room for features in the Cube. You’d be wrong. There’s two USB ports, two FireWire, 10/100BaseT ethernet (upgradable to Gigabit Ethernet for £140), a 56Kbps modem, and a slot for Apple’s AirPort wireless-networking technology. The Cube can also boast UltraATA/66 hard-disk storage of up to 40GB – although the standard 20GB disk is relatively slow at 5,200rpm compared to the 40GB’s 7,200rpm. The hard drive can be upgraded to any drive that will fit in the 2.5-inch bay. The slot-loading DVD-ROM drive features DVD-Video playback. Its roof-top positioning is a real treat, and is protected from dust by some neat sealing. One sticking point is its lack of free PCI or AGP expansion slots. There aren’t any. So if you’re the type of person who needs to add third-party cards (high-end digital-video professionals or serious gamers, for example), the Cube is most definitely not for you. Most of what you’d want to add a card for is already included in the Cube, so this shouldn’t have an immediate effect on many. Most Power Mac users do not add any cards – leaving the three slots empty. There’s also no room for a second internal hard drive or Zip drive. External drives can be added via the USB or FireWire ports, however. Of course, you’ll need to add a monitor. You can connect a standard VGA screen or go for one of the desirable new Apple displays (see page 75). Watch your wallet, though... Apple designed the Cube so it rarely needs to be switched off. The electronic power button doesn’t actually turn off the computer, but merely puts it to sleep. To power down, you touch the button for five seconds. Even the new Pro Keyboard lacks a Power key. Software Of course, the G4 Cube ships with the latest version of the Mac operating system, Mac OS 9.0.4. This opens up the world of Apple’s free iTools services to you – email, easy Web-site creation, iDisk, etc. You’ll also get iMovie 2 video-editing software (see Reviews, page 50), Palm Desktop, and the usual Web browsers and email clients. Apple should be congratulated on adding so much more to its products than any of the Windows PC makers.
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