The Cube’s Fatal Flaw

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With the recent release of the MacBook Air, there have, of course, been a flurry of reviews and, more relevant to this particular blog post, armchair quarterback style conjecturing as the relevance of the Air’s design within the current marketplace.

Not surprisingly, many of the reviews or commentaries mention The Apple Cube, pictured at left (photo courtesy of wikipedia).

At Daring Fireball, Gruber’s article said in a footnote:

Arguably, the main problem with the G4 Cube had nothing to do with its technical specs, price, or aesthetic appeal, but rather that its case was overly prone to cracking and/or unsightly injection mold lines. I.e., the Cube’s fatal flaw was in the design and engineering of its case.

Close, but not quite. Near the end of the cube’s manufacturing lifecycle, Cubes were on closeout and my company picked up 10 or so to use as general purpose workstations. None of them had noticeable cracking or mold lines.

However, the very design of the cube was fatally flawed.

In particular, the cube sacrificed function in the name of form.

To be blunt: Gorgeous to look at, absolute pain in the ass to live with.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

Update (responding to comments) on the full post…


I de-emphasized the cat thing. It was more funny than a real criticism of the design. It would have been a bigger issue if Apple had been targeting the home market with the same success or vigor as the iMac — not just for cats, but for the overall stuff-falling-into-computer issue.

Mark said:

The key sentences from your review:

“The very design of the cube was fatally flawed” … for “my company … to use as general purpose workstations.”

Yes, I don’t think they were designed for that purpose. Were you the guy who made that decision? The Cube: General purpose corporate cubical workstation. Nope.

Given that a general purpose workstation role is considerably more static — less cabling changes, less dealing with optical discs — than a media / personal / photography machine, the cube worked better in a workstation role than in a personal computing device role.

As I said, as long as you didn’t have to physically touch the machine, it was awesome. Gorgeous. Fast. Silent. A fairly ideal system at a great price!

For the brief time I had one at home, it was a total pain to constantly plug/unplug cables until I bought a USB hub. Then I had this ugly USB hub sitting next to my otherwise very nice looking cube.

Gary Horsman said:

That it’s cat-incompatible was a design flaw? I don’t believe cats are a normal consideration for computer case engineers. That would make couches equally poorly designed.

Good design requires extreme attention to detail. Every last detail. If the cube had been developed as an “everyday computer” similar to an iMac, I would bet that the power button and optical drive would have moved off of the top prior to release.

It isn’t just about cats (really, people, enough with the damned cats. Sorry I mentioned it. ;). It is about having a flat topped, conveniently sized, surface on top of which things will be placed, will fall, and — yes — may choose to nap.

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.



33 Responses to “The Cube’s Fatal Flaw”

  1. BWJones says:

    I would however, love to see Apple come out with a new cube of sorts. Something with just a little more ooomph than the Mini, space for a second hard drive, and the ability to go up to 8GB of RAM. While I have the heavy lifting 3.2Ghz 8-core monster at work, I would love to have a smaller profile machine at home that would make for an ideal Aperture machine to replace the G4 tower that is currently running Lightroom.

  2. K says:

    I’d agree about the cat thing. I knew better than to get one for that very reason.

  3. John C. Randolph says:

    I have to disagree. I used a G4 Cube as my primary development workstation when I was with Illuminex, and I loved it. I don’t live with cats, since they’re allergenic vermin, and a quick shot from a can of air followed by the vacuum with a brush attachment was all I needed to clean it off.

    The thing I really loved about the cube was that it was *quiet*. It was the only time in my career when I didn’t have any cooling fans running in my office.

    -jcr

  4. bbum says:

    Clearly, you didn’t have to plug/unplug USB or firewire cables on a regular basis. Pain in the ass. Worse than the G4 towers. Love the ports-on-front on the Mac Pro / G5. iMacs aren’t much fun, but at least they are easily swiveled and you don’t have to flip ‘em over.

    As long as you didn’t have to actually physically interact with the ports or didn’t accidentally brush the capacitive power switch or didn’t have to move the machine at all, it was an absolute joy and a beautiful addition to any desktop.

    Of course, it was also damned tempting to toss books, magazines, disks, etc… on that nice flat cube top. Didn’t do much good for the ventilation.

  5. Mike says:

    I also owned a cube and had none of the issues above. Our cats are relatively trained (as much as you can train a cat) and they stayed away from the cube. As for unplugging and plugging USB cables, I found a simple solution to that: a small USB hub. I had more than enough USB devices to justify it, and it was well worth the $12.99 I paid for it. Plus, it was small enough that you never noticed it behind the cube unless you looked for it.

  6. Jim Gaynor says:

    Let us not forget the paucity of USB ports, one port immediately sacrificed to the speakers, another to the keyboard/mouse. Do you have a scanner? USB printer?

    Pain.

    Some of that design aesthetic remains on the iMacs. One USB port on the side, PLEASE, for digital camera and USB sticks…

  7. Gary Horsman says:

    That it’s cat-incompatible was a design flaw? I don’t believe cats are a normal consideration for computer case engineers. That would make couches equally poorly designed.

    I still maintain the G4 was the best designed Mac ever, and Apple’s got the best designed computers in the world across the line. I used one in my studio at work and it was a joy to work with. I even slipped in an illustrated wraparound sleeve I made myself as a decoration.

    Every criticism I’ve ever heard about the Cube has always eluded me, because they really were nitpicky or irrelevant.

    Cats? Please.

  8. Mister Snitch says:

    Well done. This design did, indeed, throw practical, everyday considerations out the window. It was a diva. To Apple’s credit, it seems to have taken the lessons learned to heart.

    No more inaccessible cable connections. The Mac Pro, which you’d expect would need a more-than-typical amount of cable-swapping, now has some of its connectors on the front. Apple designed the connectors as best it could, to create a pleasing aesthetic, rather than try and hide them, as it did with the Cube. Even the portables (except the fashion-heavy Air) no longer bother with doors to hide connections. The doors would ALWAYS break off. Not practical, and therefore, bye-bye.

    No more slots in the tops of machines. Unless you’re using your Mac in outer space, gravity and dust are your tireless enemies. Even the cheapest MacBook (like, uh, mine) features a tight, felt seal around the disc insert. Apple has realized that GOOD design is design that meets the needs of its users, not merely design that (as the Cube did) wins design awards.

    Which, by the way, is quite a commentary on design awards. But that’s another column, eh?

  9. Mark says:

    I used it for five years and loved it. Perfectly silent back when that was a rarity. I sold it at a high price because they are collector’s items here in Japan. I rarely had to change anything about the cables once it was set up: that sounds like a “no replaceable battery” type of argument. The power switch problem was covered under warranty: you just had to let Apple have it for a few days.

  10. Mark says:

    The key sentences from your review:

    “The very design of the cube was fatally flawed” … for “my company … to use as general purpose workstations.”

    Yes, I don’t think they were designed for that purpose. Were you the guy who made that decision? The Cube: General purpose corporate cubical workstation. Nope.

  11. oomu says:

    I love my cube. also I didn’t often disconnect usb or firewire stuff. I used mostly the network. In my opinion the connector was poorly placed but well, connectors are a pain.

    for me the real problem was the HUGE power adapter and the external usb device for sound.

    but I love the cube, it was perfectly silence : NO FAN and little on my desktop.

    I only stopped to use it because I wanted to use a bigger screen (30″) and so I took a powermac. but I still have my beloved cube.


    the cube was too soon. now it would be possible to create a very beautiful cube with wifi + 2 pci express port , 4gbyte of memory, a cooler and powerful cpu, one usb+firewire+dvi+sound+ethernet in the back and have the power adapter inside the cube. and just a optical/analog sound connector

    but, yes, I still thank apple to have done that damn little computer.

    now of course I think the future will be a very very very incredible thin Imac sticking on the desk by magic :) no more magical little box, but just a magical display working from the air. yes. But I would still think the cube was a nice little computer, perfectly silent and loved to work with it.

  12. GadgetGav says:

    I have to disagree completely.
    You would have to have hands the size of serving platters to hit the power button accidentally while putting a disc in the slot. They put the disc slot at the very front and the power almost all the way to the back. I never accidentally hit the power on the Cube. I did hit the one on the screen occasionally but I would call it a design flaw – I was usually meaning to hit the brightness one or just being clumsy. I don’t blame Apple for my clumsiness…
    Plugging and unplugging cables was never really much of a problem to me either. As others have pointed out, there were not many built in ports. That meant I had a USB hub and a FireWire hub hooked up to my Cube and velcro’d under the desk. When I needed to plug something in, I went there instead of under the Cube.
    I used my Cube for many years. I upgraded the CPU, I put in a better graphics card, I even added a slimline fan in the bottom in the end (on the mounting points Apple put there). I never put books on it, and I wouldn’t have called it a flawed design if I did.

  13. Luciano says:

    Totally agree with the cat thing. I know designers might not consider it, but as you put it….

    “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.”

    FTW.

  14. E.J. says:

    Joke or not, I’m actually with you on the matter of cats. If you’re going to design, market and sell a computer that claims to be cutting-edge, you really ought to think about real world application. Not how the thing looks in some ideal scenario like a magazine ad or the all-white display table at the Apple Store, but how real people are going to use the thing and what mix of environments it will be placed in.

    Obviously, you shouldn’t be expected to account for some of the more absurd auxiliary uses people concoct for their computers, but stuff like hair, pets, crumbs, children… all those should factor into the design of a machine. Because none of us lives in a pristine, sterilized environment where no hair gets shed and no dust settles onto our hardware.

    Just as you outlined with the Cube, Apple’s come up short on many counts in this matter of real world application. F’r instance, I just had to snap my Mighty Mouse apart to remove the accumulated finger gunk from the scroll wheels. (No design genius considered this? Are we expected to scrub our hands or slip on gloves before sitting down at the computer?) And then there’s the absence of user-replaceable batteries on the iPhone and MacBook Air. And the translucent plastic on the pre-aluminum keyboards that turned them into crumb and hair display cases. And so on, and so on…

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Apple’s first class when it comes to design. But I also wonder why they don’t get a normal slob like me to sit down with Jonathan Ive and the other visionaries to show them how their objets d’art will be used outside the R&D facility.

  15. The Cube’s Fatal Flaw: Cats < Aki Björklund says:

    [...] bbum’s weblog-o-mat: The Cube’s Fatal Flaw (via) Post a comment | Trackback URI [...]

  16. PowerBook says:

    I have e Cube running upstairs in the office, as a spare next to a 24-inch iMac. Still a gorgeous, viable piece of 20th-century industrial art.

    One of the best things about the Cube? The AD, remember that? Jimi Hendrix playing “Purple Haze,” and a voice-over by Henry Rollins. I still play the ad once in a while, to hear Henry talk about a superfast, super quiet, super computer, and then (incredulously), “in an eight (pause) inch (pause) cube.”

    What a great machine! And a great ad, Apple! Bring back Henry!

  17. AMusingFool says:

    Just thought I’d throw my two cents in. I have an old cube I still use as a mail/web/whatever server. I have it on a separate shelf from my desktop, and it’s routed through a (USB) KVM switch. I like it quite a bit. I seem to recall setting something a long while back to keep it from turning off if I accidentally hit the power switch, though. I’ll probably replace it with a mini if it dies. It would be cool if they’d come out with a more-capable mini (maybe with the same CPU as the Air?).

  18. Randy Smith says:

    I am surprised to hear how many people unplug and plug stuff into the ports on their Macs. Mine were filled shortly after I bought mine. I currently have a USB/Firewire combo hub and 4 USB hubs to connect all my devices to my old eMac. Thank god for daisy chaining on firewire drives! The only good thing about all these connections into my old eMac is that it keeps my Macbook nice and clean as I can network into the eMac to get what I need or to print to various printers.

  19. Glen says:

    The best part about the Cube was when you tilted it over to plug something in and it caused the power cable to fall out. Oh no, wait, the best part was that stupid D/A USB audio thingy that only actually worked 1/3 of the time. Thanks for the nostalgia piece! May I never see a Cube again!

  20. Josh says:

    I can’t believe that no one has mentioned the real major flaw of the Cube yet: At least half of the users encountering one had no idea which way to insert CDs. Top towards me? Top away from me? In the end, the single Cube I maintained as part of a student computer lab was left on its side permanently, to make it easier for students to drop in disks, label-side up. Before that our solution was a sheet of paper taped to the thing with a note explaining CD direction.

    Heck, I still can’t remember if the label was supposed to face me or not when using it. At least I know it’s label up on my MBP.

  21. PH says:

    We sometimes forget the longview. Sometimes, companies introduce innovative products that they intend to be successful, but ultimately they provide more value as R&D. Would Apple have preferred the cube have been a commercial success? Undoubtedly. Did they learn a lot about plastics, including translucent plastics, injection molding, air flow/cooling, industrial design, etc.? Absolutely. I’m writing on a Macbook Air, which appears to have benefited from many of these lessons. The most important of these? Apple is not so afraid to fail that it won’t take chances. Too many companies today won’t take the risks required to achieve truly great design.

  22. Clark says:

    I still have my cube – very good value at the time and I still love the crt I purchased with it. But it was the most annoying Mac I have ever used. I can’t count the number of times I accidently touched the power button when tipping the case over to change a cable; the power cable would come out far too often as well. I hate the power brick, especially since the cord was always loose.

  23. george kaplan says:

    Cubes as servers? Really?!?

    Funny, but I used mine as a PC. Perhaps that’s why my experience was good and yours was less so?

    It sat on the desk next to my bed. Stone silent. Powerful for its day. A computer you didn’t mind having out on display (or have we all forgotten how ugly towers and desktop PCs were back then?). It did everything I asked it to do, and did it well. I used it for years, it was on 24 hours a day.

    I miss it (I gave it to a friend who needed a computer when my needs changed and I got a iBook).

  24. Mark says:

    Josh: You insert CDs in the direction that you can see the label from, as with every PC ever made.

  25. Nick Valvo says:

    I also use mine as a (fairly low-strain) webserver these days. It’s quite elegant for that purpose (doesn’t take up a lot of room, etc., is quiet and attractive), although I will point out that mine has an overly sensitive heat switch, which had to be modified with the insertion of a round piece of paper between case and innards to prevent it from occasionally turning itself off.

    My sister had the machine for awhile, also, and I will add that she hated it.

  26. swarmofkillermonkeys says:

    You dinged it for cats?! How could- no, wait, that isn’t what I was going to say… ;)

    There was actually a problem with static charge building on the acrylic case and triggering the (at least the initial) capacitance switches. I first noticed this when I was wiping a plastic desktop mat and it would sleep/unsleep/sleep the cube that was on it. So there is more there, there, that you might think…

    But the silence is so sweet.

  27. Byron says:

    I’m still using my Cube. It’s been my only computer since November 2000. It’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve started to wish for something faster. (Although, the ATA/66 hard drive ALWAYS seemed a little slow…)

    As for the port/cable problems – I use the USB ports on the side of the keyboard for my printer, scanner, and memory sticks – yes that means I have to unplug one to use the other, but they’re right there on the keyboard – no tilting required. If I do need to plug in a USB device that needs more power (the keyboard port doesn’t carry a lot of power), I unplug the speakers from the back of the monitor, and use that port. I never have to tilt the Cube itself. And all my Firewire is daisy-chained, so there’s always an open port on the back of the last device on the chain.

    And dust in the optical drive? I don’t know, it might be full of dust, but it still works great after 7 years and 3 months. But I don’t have cats, so I can’t address that concern.

    The power switch is all the way on the other side of the cooling vent from the optical drive slot, so I’m not sure how anybody could accidently hit it while inserting a disc…

    But I’d gladly put up with any perceived or actual inconvenience for the blessed silence of this machine. Oh, and it looks good, too.

    As for the MacBook Air, it doesn’t do anything at all for me, but I remember reading all the negative comments about the Cube back when it first came out, and wondering how anybody could criticize such a beautiful machine that fit my every need. So, even though the MacBook Air isn’t for me, I’ll never criticize it, since I’m sure there are a lot of people out there for which it’s the perfect computer. I’ve often wondered if all the negative comments about the Cube affected it’s success…

  28. Lee Harvey Osmond says:

    I decommissioned my Cube in the month preceding the release of Leopard. The Cube replaced a G3 iMac, and was replaced in turn by a 20″ aluminium iMac. [See also http://blog.guykawasaki.com/ , where Guy talks about buying a MacBook Pro and and a MacBook Air and in iMac in one month, and finding that the consumer desktop iMac is one of the best computers he's ever had.]

    I endorse almost all of the remarks made here, but especially bbum’s central tenet about how the thing sacrificed function in the name of form. Bill, you missed the observation that because the ports were on the bottom and the power button was on the top and far too easy to operate by mistake, it was extremely easy to pick the cube up for access to the underside and discover you’d switched it on. Consider William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition, where Cayce Pollard encounters some Cube quirks that are sufficiently familiar so as to sound to me like Gibson filing a bug report.

    Cats? See also http://icanhascheezburger.com/ . No FLB ever managed to sit atop my Cube.

    Dated? Yes, but then when it was launched in 1999 disks bigger than 120GB were new rare and expensive, there were no superdrives, 1.5GB of RAM was possible but impractical on grounds of cost; USB 2.0 did not exist; and so on.

    Upgradable? Not really. But better than the iMac G3, and the Summer 2000 DV-SE I had was the best variant of that product line from that point of view. The stock 20GB IBM drive in my Cube was too noisy, so I put successively bigger quieter Seagates in it. Compared to that Cube, a PC with a fan sounded like somebody running an airliner engine test. And I used it as a silent webserver.

    Lack of ports? Yes. I had Firewire devices daisychained off into the distance, and a 7-port USB hub. The Cube’s supplied speakers (looked like whatever the Pro speaker range was called, but they weren’t) required extra power so the Cube only had trick USB ports to supply it; but I decommissioned those speakers early on in favour of USB Soundsticks as they sounded nasty compared to the iMac+iSub. Clutter everywhere.

    As I recall the Cube got invented because customers said they wanted it, after The Steve’s return to Apple in Dec 1996. People, including me, were expecting something 12″x12″x12″ in black-painted metal, not something 7″x5″x5″ in clear plastic. A Pro system in a funny-shaped case using a laptop motherboard perhaps, and certainly upgradable and practical. Possible now; but if I really wanted that sort of a Pro system now, I could buy one, provided I was prepared to have something with a case in a more practical shape.

    MacBook Air? What, does that make my consumer MacBook a MacBook Heavier-Than-Air now?

  29. Lap Cat Software Blog » Blog Archive » NSScrollView in a key view loop (or Fembot in a wet T-shirt) says:

    [...] To avoid these problems, simply connect your views together in the key view loop as if the scroll view did not even exist. You know, like Mac OS X Tiger. (Of course the keyboard firmware update requires Quick Look and Time Machine!) Only the views that become first responder — as opposed to becomeFirstResponder — need to be hooked up. When a cat is lying on the trackpad, you will be thankful for setting the key view loops in your app, and so will your users. Cat-friendliness is in fact the most crucial consideration for designing both software and hardware. [...]

  30. This posthumous criticism « The Rizland Observer says:

    [...] 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 [...]

  31. tim says:

    I don’t understand “A fairly ideal system at a great price!”

    It was $200 more than an equivalent PowerMac, which (at the time) themselves weren’t exactly known for being cheap.

    Laptops are more expensive, but you get a tangible feature for your money. For $200, all I get is a bit more desk space (and a bit less expandability), and you know, I can buy more than a PowerMac worth of desk space $200.

  32. bbum says:

    We bought around a dozen cubes at around $1,000/each; reasonably configured with drive and ram, too. As I said in the post, we acquired our cubes near the end of their product life cycle at the point in time in which they were being closed out.

  33. Riccardo Mori » This posthumous criticism says:

    [...] 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 [...]

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