By Jason Snell
November 2, 2020 9:00 AM PT
20 Macs for 2020: #8 – Power Mac G4 Cube
Warning: This story has not been updated in several years and may contain out-of-date information.
It’s July 18, 2000, and the Macworld staff has assembled in New York City for the next day’s kickoff of Macworld Expo. We’ve got plans for online coverage as Apple makes its product announcements, followed by the team fanning out onto the trade show floor to cover every new product on display, from Apple and all the other companies that attend the show.
That evening, our boss, Macworld Editor-in-Chief Andy Gore, calls an emergency meeting in his hotel suite. In his possession is a manila folder full of documents. In fact, it’s the entire Apple press kit for the next day’s keynote. Some source at Apple has handed Macworld the crown jewels—on the condition that we not post anything until the products are announced. It was a sort of unofficial embargo.
That’s how I met the Power Mac G4 Cube: a spec sheet and a press release. My colleagues and I spent the next 12 hours writing, so that the very second that Apple announced the Cube (and a new palette of G3 iMacs), we could drop detailed stories on the web, as if we had known what was coming all along. Because we did.
Later on keynote day I got a chance to see the Cube in person for the first time. It was just as unusual as I had imagined.
For years now I’ve talked about something I call Jobs’s Law, which is that laptops need to get thinner and lighter over time. That’s one design principle that it’s possible to intuit by observing the classic Steve Jobs/Jony Ive design collaboration from a distance. There are others.
One of them is what you might call the ideal of the Black Box. Apple’s designs frequently attempt to create small, dense objects that are packed with as much technology as possible—including technology that exists specifically to make that density work. Wrap that small object in a pleasant exterior (or if you’re NeXT, a literal black box) and you’ve created a bit of magic technology. Don’t look inside, or you’ll spoil the surprise.
There are plenty of examples of this in Apple history, such as the Apple TV, the Mac mini, the 2013 Mac Pro, and the base of the iMac G4. And you could argue that Apple’s black-box ideals positioned it perfectly for the mobile revolution and devices like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.
But perhaps the best example of the Black Box Apple product is the Power Mac G4 Cube. It was a dense eight-inch (20cm) cube of technology, suspended in a lucite sheath. Its ambition is right in the name. The power of a Power Mac—a G4 processor, a vertical slot-loading optical drive, hard drive, RAM, video card, and an array of ports—was all packed into that tiny space.
It had no speaker, though. Instead, in a quirk perhaps picked up from the integrated Bose sound system in the Twentieth Anniversary Mac, the Power Mac G4 Cube included a pair of clear, round Harman Kardon speakers.
It also lacked two items that would surely be high on a list of items Jobs and Ive hated putting in their products: fans and buttons. In the case of the G4 Cube, both decisions cut off this Mac’s nose to spite its face. The computer was never able to properly cool itself using its bottom-to-top convection chimney design1, which caused plenty of component failures. And the touch-sensitive power button was far too easily triggered by a stray finger or even a passing disturbance in the force.
These sorts of quirks made the Power Mac G4 Cube a lot less appealing, but let’s be clear: the thing had sheer gadget magnetism. It looked like a prop out of a sci-fi movie, and looked even better when connected to its speakers and an Apple Studio Display. (Even the Cube’s large external power brick has some style, sheathed in aluminum and covered with tiny vent holes.)
My favorite feature of the Cube might be the pop-out handle on the bottom. To Apple’s enormous credit, the G4 Cube was an accessible black box. You could get to the interior of the Cube by flipping it on its back and pushing on a handle to pop it out with a satisfying click. Then you could lift the cube’s interior out of its aluminum skin, which was attached to the lucite holder. The act of opening up a G4 Cube even beats the Blue-and-White Power Mac G3 in terms of drama.
Less than a year after the G4 Cube was announced, having sold far fewer units than Apple expected, it was put on ice. The press release announcing the death of the Cube is a pulled punch with an audience of one. Steve Jobs obviously loved this product and though he had apparently been convinced it was a flop, the press release hadn’t reached the final stage of grief:
Apple® today announced that it will suspend production of the Power Mac™ G4 Cube indefinitely. The company said there is a small chance it will reintroduce an upgraded model of the unique computer in the future, but that there are no plans to do so at this time.
PHIL SCHILLER It's not really dead, Steve! Maybe it will come back someday. [hangs up the phone] Break the molds. Salt the earth.
For all the myth-building around Steve Jobs’s return to Apple, it’s important to remember that the early years of his return were full of flails and fails. The Power Mac G4 Cube was one of the highest-profile failures as Jobs and his team tried to figure out the right path forward for innovation in the computer world.
I keep wondering if Apple could have done something different to make the Cube a success. John Gruber has suggested to me that perhaps it would’ve worked with a G3 processor, which would have taxed the Cube’s fanless cooling system a lot less. Perhaps, but with G3 performance Apple couldn’t have charged anything near $1,799 for it.)
That price, too… the Cube cost more than the Power Mac G4, which meant Cube buyers had to pay a premium for cool design. Some did, of course, but I suspect most people saw it as a bad deal.
Really, if you pull on one thread the entire tapestry unravels. The Cube was an expensive product to make, and that made it expensive to buy, and that limited its appeal. Couple that with the fact that its design technically limited it in terms of cooling, component reliability, and upgrades, and you’ve got a product that was simply too much, too soon.
Apple would do better with the Black Box approach later. In 2005, Apple announced the Mac mini, which is very much a budget version of the G4 Cube concept. And the Mac mini was so successful that, 15 years later, it’s still with us.
Still, no Mac mini has ever had the sheer design appeal of that eight-inch cube suspended in lucite. There might be a bunch of Mac minis in museums, but they’re all probably positioned behind the scenes, running the lighting systems. The G4 Cube, on the other hand, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
It’s just a success of a different kind, I suppose.
I’ll be back next week with number seven.
- Shades of the 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro again! ↩
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