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ATPM 6.09
September 2000


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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Matthew Glidden,

Why My Next Mac Will Be a Cube

The only room for expansion is in my mind…

The introduction of Apple’s new Mac, the Cube, sparked two immediate questions: “How do they think of these things?” and “Who the heck is going to want one?” The first question is one of respect for design intuition and skill. The second question is, well, at least slightly critical of marketing intuition and skill. Like most new Apple products, however, the Cube makes more than a technological statement of, “Look at me! I’m small!” In a market whirling with bulk and complexity, the Cube is a welcome breeze of conceptual simplicity. Who wants one? I do, for both utilitarian and—dare I say it—philosophical reasons (at least in a computer sense).

Computer design is like Dr. Dolittle’s pushme-pullyou beast, simultaneously seeking the opposing goals of contextual simplicity and computational power. (Computer people often use the pushme-pullyou as a work metaphor, delighting in its childish image of competitive capitalism and paradoxical nature in a field ruled by logic.) Power typically wins out, producing a panoply of bulky desktops. Simplicity typically comes at the expense of function, shown by the current crop of handheld devices. The Cube strikes an impressive balance, eliminating the cumbersome (bulk, wires, noise) but preserving the power.


© 2000 by Jamal Ghandour

If you haven’t read about the Cube before, here’s a quick summary of the first week’s worth of news articles and speculation: “Blah blah, 8-inch cube, blah blah, noiseless—no fan, blah blah, no PCI slots?, blah blah.” For the technical details, see the Cube page.

I mentioned computing philosophy earlier, as I consider the Cube a new generation of simpler high-end computers. With the exception of the 20th Anniversary Mac (which certainly set the precedent), “big” dominates high-end computing. Big boxes with big expansion, big processors, big disks, and big memory. They have their audience, but big boxes also have big baggage. You have to make space, debate over video cards and storage options, and match the curtains (well, Mac users do). Beyond its physical simplicity, the Cube offers mental simplicity, something that’s nigh impossible to find in a high-end desktop.

Mentioning simple design, however, begs the question, “Why not an iMac?” It has similar features, simple expansion, and a lower price tag than the Cube. There are two reasons, one clear and one subtle. The clear one is the monitor, as a new monitor would mean a new iMac. I like my 17" Studio Display and will probably switch to LCD within a year. The subtle reason feels vaguely elitist, but as a “power user” (note the meaningful anagram: “super ower”) I couldn’t replace my Power Mac 8500 with an iMac for the same reason I won’t go from an old RX-7 to a new Jetta. As this point in my computing life, I want that extra joie de vivre.

So is there a downside?

After five years, I’m accustomed to a multi-monitor desktop. My Power Mac 8500 can use two displays out of the box (monitor and video-out). For home video production, I used three at a time by adding a video card. The video days have passed, but the monitors remain. That’s my sole “con,” as the Cube only supports one monitor (until someone makes a specialized Cube video card). It’s not a big downside, however, since I reclaim the second monitor’s desk space and power consumption (and taste, as the second monitor is beige).

The monitor sacrifice brings up the Cube’s lack of internal expansion, which caused some soul-searching on my part. (A rarely admitted geek trait is the need to “soul-search” to make computer-related decisions.) It took me five years to fill my 8500's three PCI slots with 3D graphics, 100BaseT Ethernet, and USB cards, all functions that come standard on new Macs. I have two peripherals, a cable modem and a venerable StyleWriter 1200 that screams to be replaced. Internal expansion used to be a requirement for me, but in the name of simplicity I’m glad to see it go.

With all this talk about design simplicity, you may wonder if I think the Cube is “the way things ought to be” (quoting Rush Limbaugh for the only time in my life ever, I promise). The answer is definitely “no,” as computers are still huge intellectual leaps away from being what they can be. The Mac desktop can organize files topically, but it can’t dynamically contextualize. A mouse eases navigation, but limits you to two-dimensional input. A processor can perform virtually limitless calculations, but requires a significant amount of space and energy. Software helps us perform cumbersome tasks efficiently, but can’t do anything without being explicitly programmed. While the Cube certainly isn’t the final answer on any of these points, its progress in design clarity and concept unquestionably make it my next Mac.

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