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Cool Elegance of Apple's Cube May Leave You Cold


What's wrong with Apple's new Cube?

Debuting in August, the Power Mac G4 Cube computer got rave reviews for looks--a minimalist 8-by-8-inch metal cube encased in clear acrylic--that made it the first piece of digital hardware that could genuinely be described as elegant. And with a high-end G4 processor on board, the Cube is no slouch in the power department.

But despite the oohs and ahs, the $1,799 computer has gotten a less-than-sizzling reception where it counts--at the cash register. Last week, Apple's stock took a painful nose dive after the company announced its earnings fell well below expectations for the last quarter, partly because of the Cube's slow sales.

The problem, though, lies not in its function or capability, but in two factors:

One is quite tangible--value. With the addition of a screen, the Cube becomes a relatively expensive computer in today's marketplace. The second is more amorphous--the Cube simply doesn't have the gee-whiz fun factor of the iMac, the machine that revived Apple.

But first, the positives.

Beginning with setup, the Cube is extremely easy to handle because of its small size and relatively light weight--about 14 pounds. Tucked underneath within easy reach are two USB ports, a pair of FireWire ports especially of interest to digital camera and video enthusiasts, an Ethernet plug for a network or DSL line and a regular phone jack for the built-in 56K modem.

The power supply is separate, which is one reason the Cube is so light and petite, but it's no bother. The 3.25-pound power unit has plenty of shielded cable, allowing it to sit out of sight away from the processor.

Atop the Cube is the almost hidden DVD/CD slot, which ran all the Apple-compatible CDs I fed it without a problem. Doing away with the traditional tray, it works like a toaster, easing the disks downward into the computer when placed in position and popping them back up again when ejected.

As advertised, the G4 is incredibly fast. I'm a longtime user of an iMac with a G3, and it was easy to tell the difference. The increased processing speed made surfing the Web a joy. In general, even complex pages popped onto the screen without frustratingly long pauses, especially when the Cube was hooked up to a DSL line. Ditto animated Shockwave enhancements. They started working only a few seconds after a page arrived.

Streaming video and audio also processed noticeably quicker and played with fewer pauses.

In Microsoft Word, the G4 executed changes, saves and spell checks swiftly. And a DVD-ROM about the Louvre Museum that was kind of pokey in its Windows version on a Pentium II was a pleasure to behold on the Cube.

Because the Cube doesn't have a fan, it's amazingly quiet. It only makes noise when undergoing a mechanical function, such as accessing the hard-drive or CD-ROM.

The Cube comes with a pair of USB-compatible, Harman Kardon speakers that are certainly adequate if not spectacular. A subwoofer would help. The round speakers, encased in clear acrylic, are also not quite as aesthetically pleasing as the Cube.

The Cube also marks the welcome debut of a new, full-sized keyboard for Apple computers that features crisp key action for touch typists. The computer also comes with a new optical mouse that tracks the hand's movement with a highly focused beam of light instead of a mechanical ball.

It does away with a need for a mouse pad, but does not work equally well on all surfaces. When I tired it on a the cover of a coffee-table book that had colorful pictures of motorcycles, the light beam kept getting confused, throwing the pointer in reverse. I found that a smooth, plain-colored surface worked best.

The only functional trouble I had with the Cube was the widely reported problem of it turning itself off at times and then at others, not restarting without the removal and re-insertion of the power supply plug. After moving my DSL modem further away from the Cube and making some minor adjustments in software--putting my DSL application, MacPoet in the start-up folder, for example, helped cut down on restart problems.

The main drawback of the Cube is that it comes with no internal provision for removable, recordable media on which to store data. If you buy a CD-RW, Zip or floppy drive, it will have to reside on your desk alongside the computer, thus detracting from the minimalist aura of the Cube.

Still, the Cube is a handsome, relatively high-performance machine that's a delight to use and view.

So why is it not a best seller? Playing Monday-morning quarterback, I'd have to say it's a question of value.

Apple scored big with its terrific iMac because the machine is functional, all-inclusive, fairly priced and stylish in a fun, retro kind of way. For example, the current highest-end iMac sells for $1,499, which includes a 500-MHz processor, 14-inch screen, 128mb of RAM, a 30gb hard drive, 56K modem and the new keyboard/mouse package. It also operates quietly without a fan.

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