This posthumous criticism

Tech Life

The other day I was reading Daring Fireball as usual, when something got my attention. On his Linked List, John Gruber linked to an article by Bill Bumgarner entitled The Cube’s Fatal Flaw. Knowing that Gruber has a fine eye for noticing interesting and fascinating material on the Web, I assumed that this too was the case. The blurb he posted was enticing enough to make me click on the link, curious to discover what was that Fatal Flaw which doomed the poor PowerMac G4 Cube.

Expecting a somewhat interesting essay, I was disappointed to read Mr Bumgarner’s thoughts on the Cube. As a G4 Cube owner myself, I certainly agree with him when he writes:

The design was such that anything requiring a cable change was inconvenient. You had to physically tilt the machine over, often all the way onto its side, connect/disconnect the cables, and then very carefully re-route all the cables through the little gap in the back.

That is true. When I set my Cube up, I had a difficult time especially with the VGA connector and cable. Being both thick and not quite manageable, I had to take special care in positioning the Cube so that the VGA cable was not too angled to end up prematurely broken by excessive bending. The space on the bottom of the Cube is far from abundant, and when one connects two USB cables, Firewire cable, Ethernet, VGA, and power cord, it gets really cramped down there.

Alright then, when it comes to cables, things could have been better. Let’s move on and find that Fatal Flaw. Bumgarner continues:

The top wasn’t much better. The top featured both the slot for the optical drive and the power button. Unless you paid careful attention, it was damned easy to brush the power button when dropping in or removing a disc.

This is a bit of a stretch, in my opinion. Sure, one has to be careful with the power area (I call it power area because there’s not really a button there, but a sensor), but in my experience I never found that easy to brush the power area when handling an optical disc (actually it never happened to me). If you look at the very picture of the Cube on Mr Bumgarner’s blog, you’ll see that the power area and the optical drive slot are not that close. Apple’s worst power button placement, in my opinion, remains the ill-designed case of the PowerMac 6100, where the power button can be easily mistaken for the floppy drive eject mechanism.

Back to Bumgarner:

Worse, the top of the machine was a magnet for dirt, hair and cats. Hair would fall across the optical drive slot and then get sucked right into the drive when you inserted a disc.

Well. Dust can be annoying on a flat surface like the Cube’s. I clean my Cube frequently to prevent the accumulation of dust and dirt. But I do that with everything on my home-office desks: my PowerBooks, monitors, desk lamps, iSight, speakers, keyboards and mice. Hair? Oh I don’t know, I think it depends on the owner and where the Cube is placed. However, the problem of hair/dirt being sucked into the optical drive when a disc is inserted looks a little exaggerated to me. With minimal care, this is something easily avoidable. Certainly not a Fatal Flaw. So let’s proceed.

And, yes, cats. My friend had a cube at his home. The cats would love to sit on top of the nice, warm, flat cube. Which would both fill it with cat hair and turn it off… then on… then off… then on… then off for as long as the cuts stuck around. He finally had to put one of those pigeon guard kind of strip of nail things on top of the cube to keep the cats from corrupting his filesystem!
(People seem to think I actually take the cat thing as a serious criticism or design flaw. Please. It was funny, that is almost all. Certainly, if the cube had been marketed like the iMac, it would have been a consideration — not a big one, but a consideration none the less.)

Thankfully the part regarding cats has been revisited by the author, after some commenters pointed out pretty much the same I was about to say: the cat argument was silly, more than funny. If being cat-proof were the primary standard by which any product design should be judged, many products would badly fail. The colourful G3 iMacs had the same fan-less cooling system, were certainly prone to dust and dirt entering the perforated plastic top all around the handle, and of course were not cat-proof. Yet, they were hugely successful, unlike the Cube. The Fatal Flaw must lie elsewhere.

The cube was certainly a gorgeous piece of engineering. As a piece of art, it deserved all the awards it received.

However, as a computing device, it really sucked.

Eh, the article basically ended here, before Mr Bumgarner wrote some comment-related addenda. I must have missed the Fatal Flaw and all the consequent analysis. Perhaps it was in that sentence, In particular, the cube sacrificed function in the name of form. Well, that there were some compromises seems quite evident in such a machine. But the sacrifices, if we talk about the Cube’s technical specifications, were more than acceptable. Considering the Mac line available back in 2000, the Cube was powerful enough. Gruber, again, is spot on here:

But here’s the thing: the Cube was not underpowered. It was, if anything, overpowered. I’ve long thought that if it had been the G3 Cube rather than the G4 Cube — powered more like the then-current iMacs than the then-current Power Macs, and down-priced accordingly — it would have been far more successful. I offer the Mac Mini as proof.

(From The Appeal of the MacBook Air).

So, it was not a matter of power. Bumgarner’s opinion is that the main flaw of the Cube was basically design-related, although his argument does not seem particularly convincing (the Cube failed and sold poorly because handling cables was tricky, and if you didn’t clean it regularly dust and dirt could enter the top vents? Hmmm). I still maintain it was a matter of pricing. Look at the Apple Store page on May 2000 (approximately). 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.

Mr Bumgarner concludes his addenda writing:

Unless you are one of the few that can actually maintain a minimal, uncluttered, desktop, stuff stacks up. Having a computer’s primary ventilation, optical drive, and power switch built into a conveniently attractive target for stacking is just flat out a bad idea.

Actually, the bad idea is stacking things over the Cube’s top:


This image is on page 13 of the “About the PowerMac G4 Cube” booklet, quite easy to find even for those users who don’t particularly love reading manuals. Furthermore, it should really be a matter of common sense: if you prevent air from entering your lungs, you’re going to have some troubles. The same principle applies to machinery vents, no? My desk space is far from uncluttered but the Cube has its own corner, undisturbed, as it should be when you take proper care of a tool you use. Many people use their PowerBooks and MacBooks also as desktop Macs, attached to an external monitor, and with the lid closed for practical reasons. There are no vents on a laptop lid, but that doesn’t mean you can happily stack things over a closed PowerBook or MacBook. Anyway, let’s admit that the best design ever should be idiot-proof, I still can’t be convinced that the reason of the Cube’s early demise lies somewhere in its mere design. Design is what actually enticed people into purchasing the Cube.

All in all, I expected a better linkage from Gruber (at least considering his high standards) and more analysis from Bumgarner. However, as a computer device, it really sucked isn’t some tremendously insightful criticism.

The Author

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