Mac Musings

What Is the Cube?

Oct. 20, 2000 - Daniel Knight

To see Power Mac G4 Cubeit is to want it. The Cube is that stunning.

If that's the case, why isn't it selling well?

As Steve Jobs said, it's because we perceive it as being overpriced, a poor value. To help move inventory, Apple is now offering a $300 rebate - but only if you buy an Apple monitor with the Cube. Jobs has also promised a less costly Cube for Spring.

I've suggested how Apple could demolish the perception that the Cube is overpriced by selling a 400 MHz version of the Cube, possibly with a smaller hard drive, for about US$300-400 less (see How to Rescue the Cube). If they did that, a $1,799 450 MHz Cube could look reasonable in comparison.

The big problem is that Apple doesn't know how to present the Cube, probably because it isn't a single-market computer.

A G4 without expansion

The most obvious comparison, and the most dangerous to Cube sales, is with the Power Mac G4. Because of the $1,799 price, we compare it most readily with the $1,599 Power Mac G4 with a single 400 MHz CPU. It has exactly the same features as the Cube - plus three PCI expansion slots, several drive bays, and room for internal Zip, CD-RW, and/or DVD-RAM drives. Sure, it's a bit bigger, but it costs $200 less than the Cube.

Hence the perception that the Cube is overpriced.

The other problem is that the Power Mac G4/450 now comes with dual processors, making it seem a much more powerful computer than the Cube at a $2,499 price tag. If Apple had left the G4/450 at $2,499 with a single 450 MHz processor, the Cube could seem like a real bargain.

No matter how you slice it, the natural comparison to the Power Mac G4 leaves the Cube stunning to look at but overpriced. The easiest way Apple could address this would be to eliminate the 400 MHz Power Mac G4, which I am not recommending.

An iMac without a monitor

Some people call the Cube a G4 iMac without a monitor. That's closer to the truth, but the Cube really loses out that comparison, too. Snow iMacEven the fastest iMac, the 500 MHz iMac DV Special Edition, costs less. On top of that, for $300 less than the Cube you also get an integrated monitor.

Sure, in terms of expansion options, the Cube is a lot like the iMac, but in terms of the market, a headless iMac - even with a G4/450 processor - shouldn't sell for this much more.

The Cube pales when comparing value with Apple's consumer desktop.

The PowerBook

Although nowhere near as portable as the $2,499 PowerBook/400, the Cube with Apple's 15" flat panel display costs about the same, once we factor in the current $300 rebate. For those choosing the PowerBook primarily for the LCD screen and quiet performance, the Cube could be a reasonably priced alternative.

On the other hand, almost everyone who picks a PowerBook does so for portability. So even though the Cube is a comparable value with the Pismo PowerBook, that's not a realistic comparison for most buyers.

The thin client

We're looking at a Windows 2000 application server at work, along with a bunch of IBM NetVista computers. They call these "thin clients," but they're really full-fledged computers with limited expansion options.

Doesn't that sound a lot like the Cube?

The big difference, of course, is that you can buy two NetVistas with 17" monitors for about what a single Cube and monitor would cost.

Still, the Cube could be positioned as a thin client with a slower CPU (350 MHz PowerPC 750CX?) and a much lower price tag. If Apple could sell a G3 Cube with a 10 GB drive, 64 MB of memory, and a CD-ROM drive, it could be a great business solution for Mac lovers who want something larger than the iMac's 15" display. At $800-900, it could also be competitive with Windows thin clients.

The artist

Apple remains the dominant computer in design departments around the world. Video producers may be interested in RAID arrays, lots of expansion slots, gigabit ethernet, and the like, but a lot of designers just want a fast, competent computer. They don't need the expandability of the Power Mac G4, but the do want G4 power for Photoshop along with a huge, wicked fast hard drive.

This could be the Cube's strongest market, except that Apple dropped the ball with the hard drive - it's too slow. If you follow reader reports on Accelerate Your Mac, you may already know a favorite hack among Cube owners: pulling Apple's slow hard drive and dropping in a fast IBM UltraStar 75GXP drive. Apple should definitely offer these drives as an option; instead, buyers get the flavor of the month when they buy - whatever brand Apple has in stock.

Designers are results-oriented. Give them a fast computer with a fast drive and gobs of memory. They will buy. And if it looks gorgeous, even better.

At the same time, artists have budgets. A slightly faster G4 (450 MHz is only 12.5% faster then 400 MHz) is hard to justify, even if it is just $200 (also 12.5%) higher. Still, it shouldn't be too hard a sell.

The executive

Most users don't need to add a single thing to their computer from the day they set it up until the day they replace it. They buy enough memory, choose the right monitor, and live with it for several years.

That makes a Mac with limited expansion options - I include the iMac, iBook, PowerBook, and Cube in this category - a very viable choice. Apple realizes this; they are marketing four such models!

For the workers in the trenches, a thin client like the iMac or a G3/350 Cube would be perfect, but those higher up the corporate ladder usually get a more powerful computer as a perk. The iMac simply doesn't have the executive look. The Cube does. And it's whisper quiet. Best of all, it simply looks good, which every executive's computer should.

The home user

I'd be happy with a Cube at home or work. I need a big monitor. I don't really need all the expansion slots and drive bays in my current computers. The Cube could replace it.

There's a huge market of home users ready to upgrade from Performas, Quadras, Power Macs, and Windows PCs. But these people are rarely willing to spend $1,800 for a personal computer - and that doesn't even include a monitor. (The most I've ever spent was $1,350 for a Centris 610 in 1993.)

It's the price, stupid

Sorry, Steve, but no matter how I try to spin it, the Cube certainly looks overpriced. I want to make it look reasonable, but except as an executive perk, I can't do it.

Businesses will spend $1,599 and up for a production computer for the design department. We do it all the time at work, but these G4s get decked out with lots of memory, Zip drives, DVD-RAM drives, and SCSI cards (for those legacy scanners, Jaz drives, etc.). Starting from scratch a Cube with FireWire peripherals might be cool, but a more expensive box that doesn't want to work with all our SCSI hardware isn't realistic.

Businesses will spend $799 and up for a workhorse computer for people who need to write, research on the Web, handle email, and do database work. We do it all the time at work. We love the iMac 350. (Unfortunately for Apple, we see no reason to buy a more costly iMac.)

Businesses will spend $1,499 and up for a powerful enough laptop. We do that at work, and my wife's business has already purchased to FireWire iBooks.

In all these cases, Apple offers a practical computer at a realistic price to meet the needs of the market.

Unless the Cube is meant for the too-much-disposable-income market, it is overpriced. The only way to get the kind of sales Apple hopes for is to sell less expensive Cubes, and soon (why wait until spring?). The best way to do that is to offer reduced, but still adequate, features. Maybe a G3 instead of a G4. Maybe 350 or 400 MHz instead of 450. Maybe a 10 GB drive. Maybe CD-ROM instead of DVD. All of these are ways to reduce the end cost of the Cube.

The econoCubes may not have the same power and prestige as today's Cubes - maybe Apple could use a different color scheme to differentiate two or three levels of performance, as they do with the iMac and iBook - but they would sell. It seems a shame to waste such a wonderful design by keeping the Cube so expensive that many Mac users can't consider buying one.

In the final analysis, Apple makes its money selling stunning computers, but only if buyers perceive their value. As a Mac user, a Mac advocate, and an Apple shareholder, I sincerely hope Apple will see it that way and release more affordable versions of the Cube.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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