Apple’s G4 Cube really is a mini marvel. Its tiny form, less than a quarter of most workstations, hides a powerful G4 processor that sprints along at 450MHz, plus enough graphic grunt to give some real welly to your work. It’s as if someone loaded a V8 into a Mini Moke, clad it in go-faster stripes and gave it a nitro option to boot. In a nutshell: small, fast and seriously desirable.
At first glance, the G4 Cube is almost too small. Just eight-inches deep and wide, and a smidge under ten-inches tall, the white-coated Cube is tiny – and appears featureless. The top sports a ventilation grille, DVD slot and on/off button – although this is a contact-sensitive button as opposed to a push switch: press your finger to the marked plastic and the Cube springs to life or shuts down. The sides are plain, with a simple Apple logo adorning the transparent plastic that encases the Cube proper.
The guts of the cube are suspended in an outer shell: flip the Cube over, depress a recessed handle and you can pull out the innards in a similar vein to extracting a nuclear core from a reactor. It caused a few gasps at Digit HQ when I first exposed the internals, and it shows the precise engineering job Apple has carried out squeezing a workstation into such a small space.
Once out, the core of the Cube allows access to the admittedly limited upgrade options. You can slot in an AirPort card for wireless LAN connections, expand the RAM from its stingy 64MB standard and, well… that’s it. The graphics card – an ATI Rage 128 with 16MB of RAM – is a snug fit and is created specially for the Cube. However postings on the Web indicate that it is possible to fit a third-party graphics card with some tweaking, although this will void any warranty. Apple does, luckily, offer a build-to-order option on the Web-based Apple Store for the much faster 32MB ATI Radeon card, which will set you back around £70 extra.
Specification-wise, there’s little to grumble about with the Cube, but there’s equally little to get overly excited about, either. The 450MHz PowerPC G4 chip is speedy, and optimized applications that take advantage of the Velocity Engine on the chip are easily as fast as a 1GHz Pentium III processor. The 64MB of RAM is poor, and Apple really should consider the fact that even consumer PCs are selling with 128MB of RAM as standard. A 20GB hard drive is plenty, although any additional storage will need to be external. Finally, there’s a top-loading DVD-ROM drive that makes the whole kit and caboodle look a little uncomfortably like a toaster.
This is a wired machine: aside from the wireless option via Apple’s innovative AirPort card that gives 11Mbps at 150 feet from a base station, it sports 10/100BaseT ethernet onboard, a 56Kbps V.90 modem, two FireWire (IEEE 1394) and two USB ports. You should be able to add a wide range of peripherals with little hassle, although we found that Apple’s aesthetically-focused design meant it has forced the connector ports under the base of the machine – a real pain to get to quickly, and too fiddly for my liking.
One thing that Apple has left out that is a bonus is a fan. The Cube is extremely quiet, – the only sound it makes is the occasional whirr of the hard drive or the audio overdrive from its bundled Harman Kardon speakers. The Cube works by convection to dissipate the heat, sucking cool air up from the base and pumping it out the top like a teeny cooling tower. The downside: absent-mindedly plop something on top of the Cube and you’ll choke its heat output, causing it to drop into sleep mode.
The other connection is a little weird. Apple has created a single connection to any of its new range of monitors, essentially wrapping the power, USB and video cable into one – which it calls the Apple Display Connector. It does save on the cable spaghetti, but you’ll need to use one of Apple’s three monitors to take advantage of it: the 17-inch Apple Studio Display, 15-inch LCD display and 22-inch LCD Apple Cinema Display (which will set you back nearly £3,000). Apple does include a VGA connector for other monitors, however.
Also included in the bundle is Apple’s concession to designers on the peripherial front. Its new pro keyboard and mouse are – like the Cube – exceedingly well designed. The mouse is buttonless: instead you push down on its entire surface. It uses an optical sensor for excellent cursor control, although creatives will bemoan the lack of three buttons or a scroll wheel. The keyboard is oversize, with a full set of function keys. The death of the puck and tiny keyboard are almost worth the entry price alone.
Tests showed that while the size might be small, the power isn’t. Compared to our base G3/300 it showed a 50 per cent speed gain, with 57 per cent more Floating Processor Unit (FPU) performance and 54 per cent more disk performance. Our test Photoshop file (35MB, CMYK) scored 30 seconds on a Gaussian blur; a 37-degree rotate took one minute and 15 seconds; and an unsharp mask took a speedy 25 seconds.
If there is a gripe, it’s the lack of expandability. The G4 Cube is an excellent mid-range machine, but savvy creatives will opt for the admittedly less-gorgeous but more powerful dual-processor Mac (reviewed Digit #28). If style is your bag though, and upgrade concerns not an issue, the Cube is one sleek solution.