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Friday, July 21, 2000
 
MW: A Second Look at the Cube
5:06 PM | IMG News | Comment on this story

Many readers have felt that our first reaction to the new Apple G4 Cube, the bizarre microsupercomputer introduced by Steve Jobs during his Wednesday keynote speech, was a bit harsh; after all, there is a lot about this diminutive powerhouse to love. After taking some time to re-examine the Cube and its possibilities, we've decided to explain our reactions and look at this curious object from a gamerís perspective.


Our initial puzzlement with the Cube had to do with where it fits, exactly, in Apple's product line. With the high-end iMac DV SE (available in the bizarre 'Snow' color) listing at $1499, and the G4 Towers starting at $1599, the Cube seems to overlap both product lines. $1799 does get you a 450 MHz G4 processor, but you lose the 2 drive bays, 3 PCI slots, gigabit Ethernet and the easy-open case of the G4 tower. The iMac DV SE, while it is only a G3, comes with 64 more MB of RAM, a built-in monitor, an external VGA port and an Airport card.


By the time you add a decent monitor to the Cube - and it must be an Apple one, if you want to use the silly proprietary monitor connector - you have a $2298 to $2798 machine, before taxes. You could argue "well, I already have a monitor," but what monitor besides an Apple one wouldn't spoil the Cube's slick aesthetics, and how tough is it to sell your old system without a monitor? And iMac-level buyers rarely have a monitor lying around. By the time you are spending $2798 on a single-processor machine, the dual-G4 midrange tower begins to seem mighty attractive, complete with yawning empty drive bays and effortless upgradability.


And then there is the issue of the graphics card. Now, a Rage 128 Pro 16 MB card is nowhere near the top of the line on either platform, but it is indeed a worthy card. You can get 40 to 50 fps in Quake 3 Arena at reasonable levels of detail, and that's plenty for all but the most hardcore gamer. The issue here is not the card, but what might replace it, if the Cube does indeed have a standard 2X AGP slot and not some proprietary Apple creation. Supposedly, the 32 MB Radeon is only 7" long, which is nice; the ATI Rage 128 Pro is barely 5". However, the Radeon is a hot card, and this may be a problem for the fanless Cube. The Voodoo5 5500 or the Voodoo4 4500 are completely out of the question, as their huge size (12") and extreme heat and power requirements precludes an installation.


The Cube is obviously destined to appeal to a niche market - its cool chic will make it a perfect desktop ornament for the erudite modern office and anyone with a chrome-and-black-leather lifestyle. However, Apple's flirtations in the past with niche markets have been disastrous - anyone remember the ill-fated 20th Century Edition Mac? By the end of that fiasco they had trouble giving those things away. Too expensive for college students or the secretary's desk, too feature-poor for video editors or desktop publishers, too freaky for first-time buyers - who exactly would the Cube appeal to?


Gamers?


Ay, there's the rub. You see, we love the Cube - even though it dredges up terrifying images of a return to the NeXT box - and we love Apple's risky design decision. It appeals to the 'kewl stuff' desire in all of us hardcore Apple fans. But our problem with the Cube is not what it is, but what it could have been.


Take the Cube. Give it a 500 MHz G3 instead, with a 1 MB Level 2 cache, as a way of lowering cost. Install an ATI Radeon card, standard. Give it VGA out, and most importantly, TV and S-Video out. Give it 128 MB of RAM. Throw away the lousy mixed-bag software bundle and add 5 to 10 games. Drop the price to $1299, or even $1199.


An X-box killer.


Think about it - a DVD player, an Ethernet-capable network computer, a 56k modem, Airport support, the ability to output to any TV or monitor, plus a robust processor and a killer video card. A gamer's machine. A LAN party dream. Shipped with games. Ready for future games. At home in the den as well as the office.


Ah well, it isn't to be. The Cube's low-end model will probably be $1599 by January, but it will still have the same limitations, yet overlap the iMac series even more. Apple might discontinue the single-processor G4 tower to make some room for the Cube, but that would leave someone who wanted an expandable $1599 machine with no options. There may be new NVIDIA graphics cards to play with, which seem well-suited to the Cube, but who knows what 3dfx and ATI will have cooked up by then.


The Cube is sexy. It has moxie. It has style. Is it a gaming machine? Could it be one? Time will tell. In the meantime, tell us what you think about this box, either through the Comments link on this article or in our Forums.



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