I almost never start a Backstage entry with the word “I,” since so few of these entries are entirely personal. Today’s two posts are very personal—stories that I will tell substantially through photos, explaining each as I move through them. Together, they explain how one beautiful computer convinced me to switch back to the Macintosh platform after years of using Windows PCs. And how I didn’t actually buy that computer until five years after I switched.
That computer is the Power Mac G4 Cube. It was quite possibly the most impressive piece of industrial design ever assembled by Apple, back when “Apple Computer” only made Apple computers. And it was discontinued after only a year on the market. After spending the last two weeks hunting one down and rebuilding it with parts purchased from Newer Technology, I think I understand exactly why it was killed, and also why Apple has never replaced the Cube in its product lineup. The tour, of both the Cube and the understanding it inspired, begins here.
I’d like to start with some photos that illustrate just how detail-obsessed Apple’s industrial designers were back in 2000. Even the Cube’s power supply—a part you’ll virtually never see—is more thoughtfully and attractively designed than most full-fledged consumer products of the past 10 years.
The power cords—actually, all of the system’s cords—are tipped with comparatively expensive clear plastic, letting you see what’s inside. No one spends the cash or the time to do this any more, and sure, that’s probably smart, but just like the old origami-like iPod boxes, basically every one of the Cube’s parts has something that makes you say “wow.” This is Apple design in the pre-commodity era.
Transparent and translucent plastics were found in Apple’s other products at the time, including mice and keyboards sold with multiple Macs, but with the matching Cube, they’re especially cool. I still use a one-button clear Apple mouse with my primary Mac today because I like the look so much—and because the Mighty Mouse is comparatively so annoying.
Apple partnered with Harman Kardon for the Cube’s globe-like speakers. Transparent save for their metal and plastic transducers, they’re at least as cool as the system’s other accessories. The only oddity is that these speakers required a USB port, and came permanently tethered to a clear box. Apple later chucked the USB shackles in favor of a more compatible plug design, but preserved the shape of the speakers.
Apart from the technology inside, the Studio Display of that era was arguably even cooler than the Cinema Displays of today—I say that as an owner of both. A simple clear plastic hinge on the back allowed you to adjust the monitor’s position, while a single silver and clear braided cable on the back connected to the Cube for power, video-out, and data functionality. Two USB ports on the rear of the monitor paralleled the ones on Cinema Displays, sitting alongside vents that let the display breathe through its clear plastic enclosure.
That brings us to the Cube itself. Apple outdid itself with this design—a rounded metal box encased in a thick clear plastic shell. CDs get inserted into the top, like a toaster, and a touch-sensitive, glowing power button is found behind the fanless machine’s top-mounted air vent. Cosmetically, there is no computer on the planet that I’d rather have sitting on my desk. But the Cube did have a relatively serious problem.
Cracking. My Cube arrived with a small crack next to its top air vent, which spread over the course of several hours to the system’s side, deepening in the process. According to the original owner, the crack wasn’t there when the Cube was shipped to me, which I believe based on watching the damage spread after it arrived. But back in 2000, users found mold lines and cracks in their Cubes’ casings, leading to a number of complaints that Apple’s most aesthetically pleasing computer was also the most likely to make owners cry over its faults. I know the feeling. The old Apple logo never made sense to me until I got the Cube.
Even before my Cube arrived with a crack, I was determined to rebuild it from the inside out, and spent some time researching and executing on that plan. But doing so led me to some surprising conclusions about the Cube, Apple, and the state of the personal computer industry in general. They follow in part 3 of The Cube Project, coming later today.