Defending the Power Mac G4 Cube

Cube powerplant library

Periodically, some article pops up talking about the fact that not every product created by Apple has been a success. Guess which Mac invariably receives a mention? The Cube, of course.

Apple History’s G4 Cube page sums up the Cube’s history pretty well:

Announced in July 2000, the PowerMac G4 Cube introduced a dramatic new case design. Housed in an 8x8x8 cube, the G4 Cube combined the elegance of the iMac with the power of the PowerMac G4. The G4 Cube was a foray into the business market, as well as an answer to those who wanted an iMac-like machine, with more choice in monitors.

The Cube traded expandability for its diminutive size: There were no PCI slots, and while the Graphics was fit into an 2x AGP slot, there wasn’t room for full-length AGP cards. With the exception of PCI expansion, the Cube was as versatile as its larger G4 cousin: Three RAM slots, an AirPort slot, and two USB and FireWire ports.

One gripe many people had with the Cube was its lack of conventional Audio input and output. Instead, it came with an external USB amplifier and a set of Harman Kardon speakers. The amplifier had a standard mini-plug headphone output, but there was no mic included, and having USB as the only sound-input option was considered limiting by many.

Shortcomings aside, the Cube was a remarkable feat of engineering, crammed inside an elegant case. The Cube shipped to retail markets with a 450 MHz G4 processor, a 20 GB hard drive, a 56 kbps modem, 64 MB of RAM, and Apple’s Pro Mouse, for $1799. Another configuration was available through the Apple Store, with a 500 MHz G4, a 30 GB hard drive and 128 MB of RAM, for $2299. Gigabit Ethernet was available as a BTO option.

The Cube was not nearly the success that Apple had hoped it would be. The consensus was that Apple had misjudged the market, making the Cube an expensive “luxury” computer instead of a cheaper monitor-less iMac. In december the low-end configuration received a price cut to $1499. In February 2001, The cube received a feature and price change. The low-end configuration was repriced at $1299. A “better” configuration was made available, with a CD-RW drive and 128 MB of RAM, for $1599. Finally, the high-end version got a 60 GB hard drive, 256 MB of RAM, a CD-RW drive and an 32 MB NVIDIA GeForce2 MX video card, and sold for $2199.

The PowerMac G4 Cube was never officially discontinued, but in July 2001 Apple suspended production of the Cube indefinitely. While leaving the door open for a possible reintroduction of the enclosure, Apple quickly and quietly let the world forget the disappointing failure of the G4 Cube.

Now, if you consider the number of units sold during the Cube’s (short) lifetime, it’s hard to paint this machine as a success. This article, published by SFGate in July 3, 2001 (after Apple announced it would suspend production of the Cube), talks about 148,000 units sold during the entire Cube lifetime (July 2000 – July 2001):

The Cupertino-based computer maker refused to give sales figures or other details Tuesday.

Previously, however, the company told analysts it had sold 12,000 units in the fiscal quarter ended in March, down from 29,000 units the previous quarter, and bringing its lifetime total to 148,000 units.

To have a more detailed idea of how Macs were selling during that time period, and to put the Cube’s sales more in perspective, I unearthed this old Macworld article (the link is through’s WayBack Machine — it may be a bit slow to load). If you look at Q4 2000 sales in the first table, you’ll see for example that the G4 Cube sold more than the iBook and PowerBook lines. Ok, sales were decent just for a quarter, and in the next quarter they were undoubtedly disappointing, but looking at the table, it wasn’t such a great period for Mac sales overall. Even more successful lines, such as the iMac, saw a drop from Q1 2000 to Q1 2001.

I said it multiple times already, and I’ll say it again: in my opinion, the main reason for the Cube’s failure was not design-related, but marketing-related. Interestingly, the same SFGate’s article quoted above, closes with this bit:

“It’s unfortunate because it is a truly beautiful product — it won countless design awards,” said Andrew Scott, a research associate with Needham & Company Inc. “But it was targeting a niche market, and the niche turned out to be a lot smaller than the company had anticipated.”

Chris Le Tocq, analyst with Guernsey Research, said the Cube simply wasn’t marketed correctly.

“It was positioned as a computer with style for the consumer but the price point was too high,” he said.

And I agree with both assessments. As I wrote in This posthumous criticism, a lesser-known article back in February 2008:

Look at the Apple Store page on May 2000 (approximately) [sic — wrong month, and the link is dead anyway]. Apart from the PowerBook G3, the Cube had the highest entry price, $200 more than the regular PowerMac G4. It was more compact, way more silent and way more stylish than a regular PowerMac, but the PowerMac was more expandable (more slots and an easier processor upgrade path — the Cube CPU is indeed upgradable but not without internal hardware modifications). I watch that page and those price tags now and still think they should have been reversed, “from $1,599” on the Cube and “from $1,799” on the PowerMac G4. Apple itself repriced the Cube in February 2001, lowering it to $1,299 for the low-end configuration.

Speaking of the Cube today, too many people get carried away with the failure angle, and this beautiful machine gets bashed in a very similar way as the Newton. The general idea is that the Cube was inherently flawed and underpowered, much like the general idea of the Newton is that its handwriting recognition technology was laughable and made the device exceedingly frustrating to use. These concepts have sadly crystallised into labels, tainting the reputation of both the Cube and the Newton. I’ve owned various Newton MessagePads since 2001 and a Power Mac G4 Cube since 2006, and have used both on a regular basis ever since. And you know what? The Newton’s handwriting recognition (especially from Newton OS 2.x on) and the way it integrates with the OS is still unparalleled: modern tablets with pen input just pale in comparison.

And as for the G4 Cube, mine has been working reliably for more than six years of continued use. It’s attached to a beautiful acrylic 22-inch Apple Cinema Display, it runs Mac OS X 10.4.11 and a lot of legacy software through the Classic Environment (I can boot it into Mac OS 9.2.2 for full backward compatibility), and it’s still a great choice for watching DVDs, since its optical drive has proven to be more reliable than my mid-2009 MacBook Pro’s. As I wrote in this article:

[T]he Cube is perfect for displaying information I want to glance at while I work. I also use it to check a couple of low-traffic email accounts; to open additional browser windows in Safari when the browsers I have open on my main MacBook Pro get too crowded; to listen to music (I have a separate iTunes library on the Cube entirely dedicated to classical music); and of course to check my Twitter stream and the RSS feeds.

But not only that: I have used it for more complex projects involving Adobe Acrobat Professional, and through the old, free version of FontExplorerX, the Cube still manages my huge font library. It also serves as a scanning station and occasionally it shares the Internet connection via Bluetooth so that I can connect wirelessly with my Newton MessagePad 2100. I also use it to keep an eye on old backups stored on FireWire 400 external drives (it’s great that the Cube has two FireWire ports for this). And, last but not least, I really enjoy its quiet operation and fairly small footprint. I’ll say: not bad for a 12-year-old ‘failed’ product.


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