The Cube Project, Part 3
Published: Monday, March 17, 2008
If you’ve already read The Cube Project, Part 2, you probably understand the reason there are two Power Mac G4 Cubes in the picture below, and, of course, the reason that I am writing about the Cube to begin with. But just in case you haven’t read Part 2, here’s the quick recap: back in 2000, I and many other people fell in love with the Cube on first sight, even at a point when virtually everyone was buying and using Windows PCs. But the Cube’s $1,799 price tag—and, some other things—basically killed what otherwise might have been a hugely successful desktop computer, leading Apple to put the Cube “on ice” only a year after it was introduced.
Those “other things” started with a case that was surprisingly susceptible to obvious cosmetic damage, such as scratching and cracking, but continued with other factors inherent in the design of an 8-year-old computer. Undaunted by whatever these issues might be, I proceeded to purchase a used Cube and begin the process of restoring it, with two goals: first, to finally possess the computer that had inspired me to switch back to Macs after several years of using Windows PCs, and second, to understand why Apple had never produced a sequel to such a stunningly designed computer. My story continues below.
If I had merely been impressed by the Cube’s exterior, I would have written this article anyway, but there’s a lot to be said about its interior, as well. The single biggest concern I had about buying a used Cube, assuming that it was guaranteed to power on when it arrived, was that I would be unable to actually use it for anything besides decoration in my office or home. So I set about researching what was already inside the 7.7” by 7.7” by 10” shell, plus what could be put there if I was willing to spend some extra cash on the project.
Single-sourcing is an important lesson I’ve learned over the course of a number of computer rebuilding projects, so when I decided to buy the Cube and new parts, I decided to deal with as few vendors as possible. I wanted a Cube that came with a monitor, speakers, mouse, and keyboard, so after checking Craigslist and eBay, I went with someone on eBay, buying the complete set for around $300; a Cube and power supply alone can be had for $100 to $150. Cubes were made in 450MHz and 500MHz variants, typically with 20GB hard drives, DVD drives, and only 64MB of memory.
Since Leopard wouldn’t run under such limits and even the older Tiger would struggle—the Cube shipped with Mac OS 9—I knew that all or most of these parts would have to be replaced. After checking with Other World Computing/Newer Technology and FastMac, it was obvious that Newer Technology had more of the parts I wanted actually in stock, and at reasonable prices. So I placed an order for four key things: 1.5GB of RAM, a new CPU, a new hard drive, and a wireless adapter.
Unpacking these parts led to an important early discovery about the Cube’s technology—something that I had actually known, but since forgotten, after purchasing a PowerBook G4, my first post-Switch Mac: G4 chips ran hot. So hot, in fact, that the replacement CPU came bundled with a fan. The Cube had been built without a fan, but had a hole in the frame designed to hold one at some point when Apple was considering using a hotter processor. Minus the fan, the Cube ran virtually silent, but was incapable of using more powerful chips without developing serious overheating potential. More on that in a moment.
The only “easy” parts of the entire retrofitting process were the opening of the case and replacement of the RAM. A pop-out handle on the Cube’s bottom simultaneously dislodged the box-shaped metal hardware chassis from the lucite and metal case, and enabled you to lift it out safely—one of those awesome Apple industrial designs that only buyers get to discover. RAM installation was as easy as pulling the single old stick out and popping the three new 512MB SIMMs in. These sticks were $50 each, for a total of $150; Crucial’s price, by comparison, was $55 per stick.
Updating everything else would ultimately require a lot of unscrewing and labor. This started with a Torx T-10 screwdriver, and required a lot of work that I won’t catalog exhaustively here, save to say that this isn’t the sort of thing that most people will want to put themselves through. If it wasn’t for a lengthy manual included with the replacement CPU—and even then, the manual wasn’t enough to make the process “easy” for someone who has done this stuff before—the Cube retrofitting process would have been basically impossible for an average user to even consider.
It took removal of something like 20 screws to get to the point where the main logic board was capable of being taken out of the Cube’s metal inner casing, a process that also involved pulling the power board, video card, and a video bridge card from the machine. Each of these parts was specifically made to help Apple fit all of the Cube’s parts into the small casing, and the logic board consumed basically the machine’s entire width.
Actually putting the new CPU onto the logic board was a snap. After installing the fan with two screws in the Cube’s frame, a large cooling plate attached to the CPU helped to disperse the heat generated by the PowerLogix PowerForce 1.7GHz G4 processor, which at $370 was the machine’s single most expensive replacement part. It turns out that there are a number of replacement CPUs for the Cube, including some dual-processor versions, but this one had the advantage of possessing a 1MB L2 cache, running relatively cool, and selling for a reasonable price. A dual G4 1.5GHz chip with half the cache goes for $480, with a dual 1.6 at $680. I wanted the Cube to be fast enough for Leopard; dual processors and the corresponding bill weren’t necessary.
Another key part was the replacement hard drive. The Cube’s stock 20GB drive wasn’t going to cut it in a full-fledged desktop machine, and Newer Technology recommended a $57 Hitachi Deskstar 160GB drive as a replacement. I happened to have a 120GB Western Digital drive sitting around, and gave it a shot inside the Cube before installing the Deskstar. The WD drive led the machine to shut down randomly every minute or two, quite possibly because of some electrical issue or jumper setting. Hitachi’s drive was much quieter and worked perfectly with only a quick jumper switch. A Torx T-8 was needed to remove three screws, with the T-10 pulling two others, and two cables needed to be detached from one drive and attached to the other. Simple.
The biggest issues with the hard drive, and the Cube in general, involved operating system installation and firmware updates. It turned out that the Cube needed to have its boot ROM updated, and that could only be done—apparently—by running OS 9.1 or later with a firmware patcher Apple released years ago. Luckily, the old 20GB drive had OS 9 installed, so after downloading the OS 9.1 updater from Apple, installing it and the firmware patch, and then installing another patch included on a CD with the CPU, the computer was ready to run Tiger or Leopard. Then, Leopard needed to be installed, which I did using an external enclosure. Again, going through this process wasn’t quick or easy, a major reason I wouldn’t recommend that the average person take on the task of rebuilding a Cube.
My one major concession in the rebuilding process was the wireless adapter. Apple had never released an AirPort card for the Cube with 802.11g or n support, so my choice was either to install an 802.11b card or use an external accessory instead. Additionally, there was the issue of the Cube’s USB ports, which aren’t USB 2.0 and therefore don’t have the bandwidth to really take advantage of an 802.11n wireless connection. Because my home network is rapidly evolving to 802.11n, I figured that having an n-ready adapter was a better pick than an g-only one, and went with the MAXPower 802.11n/g/b Wireless Stick Adapter. It now gets hidden behind the Cube, and thanks to N’s range, still works like a charm. I still wish the thing was tucked away inside the case, though.
There were a couple of other loose ends to tie up, as well. Internal clock batteries for computers typically last for no longer than six years. The Cube’s, a “1/2 AA” Lithium 3.6V cell, had expired some time ago, and needed to be replaced—cost is under $6 online, or $16 if you go to Radio Shack.
Then there was the cracked case. Another visit to eBay helped me secure a shell in better, but still not perfect shape for $20. Ones touted as used but pristine are going for $75-100, with one store selling guaranteed new ones for the almost laughable price of $300. I think I’ll be fine with the $20 one here, thanks.
So, roughly $696 dollars plus shipping later, I had my finished Cube, with the monitor, speakers, keyboard and mouse adding around $200 to that total. Throughout the course of the rebuilding project, I became increasingly conscious of certain realities about the Cube that were in some ways previously obvious, and in other ways not—sort of like the understanding you develop about someone you’ve dated only after you’ve stopped dating. One of these realities was apparent from the start: it’s possible to spend, say, $696 on a Cube with replacement parts—monitor, keyboard, and mouse not included—and get less advanced technology than you would in a $599 Mac mini. Well, mostly. As of today, at least, the base Mac mini might have 2/3 the RAM and 1/2 the hard drive space, but its processor, optical drive, wireless features, and graphics card will all smoke the Cube’s. And it comes with Leopard. And iLife ‘08. So dollar for dollar, the mini is a smarter buy than the Cube.
But there was something else that the rebuilding process helped me realize. While ingenious at the time, the Cube’s internal design was ultimately not sustainable given the trajectory of the 2000-2001 desktop computer market as a whole. It depended on G4 CPUs and video cards that couldn’t get more powerful unless they got hotter and/or bigger. You’d need to add one or more fans, and possibly expand beyond the metal shell inside the lucite, just to boost the system’s specs—after 2001, that’s what some Cube owners actually did. Yet today, when you look inside of the Cube’s body after seeing the inside of a Mac mini, you realize that there isn’t any actual value in all the extra space the Cube possesses: from logic board to wireless, RAM, hard disk and video, you just don’t need all that volume to hold better parts than the Cube.
What about using that volume to store other components, such as an extra hard drive or a beefier video card? Perhaps, but the Cube wasn’t designed that way to begin with. You’d have to gut it and replace basically everything, carefully choosing custom parts in the process. And that led me to the next level of understanding: as Apple’s designers probably see it, you actually don’t even need a case as big as the Mac mini’s to hold such parts. The iMac is almost as thin as most monitors, contains even better components, and doesn’t force you to have a separate chassis and cords sitting around, taking up space and creating clutter.
As little as I had wanted to accept this, I understood as much when I showed the Cube to my wife—an Apple fan herself—and asked her whether it wasn’t the most amazing Mac she’d ever seen. “No,” she told me, sweetly, “I prefer the iMac. Look at all those cords. What does the Cube have that the iMac doesn’t? With the iMac, you can have a wireless keyboard and mouse. No dangling speakers. Wireless Internet. One cord, for power. It’s so clean.”
I rarely disagree with my wife, and no matter how much I dig the Cube, I have to admit that she’s right. This is a beautiful computer, and it’s still my favorite desktop machine, ever. But it’s past its prime, and in retrospect, it seems easy to understand why Apple did away with the design and the entire product category for four years before releasing the Mac mini, which was so much smaller, cheaper, and understated, but more than its equal in functionality. The idea of a mid-range tower makes sense only if you have both customers and parts that use a chassis smaller than a Power Mac. During most of the G4 and G5 eras, it seemed like the parts didn’t really exist, at least in a way that would be practical to engineer around. Today? Parts that once seemed exotic, like 3-D video cards and huge hard drives, have basically become cheap commodities. Wireless features such as 802.11g/n and Bluetooth aren’t just options—for many people, they’re requirements. They fit inside the iMac. And, increasingly, inside smaller devices, too.
Putting aside my hope that Apple would design something amazing to take up space on my desk—a fool’s dream given how size-obsessed the company is these days—a Mac mini or a laptop on a vertical stand will do just fine for my needs most days. And when I need a reminder of what Apple used to do with standalone desktop machines, I’ll just go play with the Cube. Despite the effort and cost, the rebuilding project was worth it. At least for me.
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