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Tilting A Cube

by Dale Dougherty
01/19/2001

I went to the recent Macworld, having bought a G4 Cube in December. After getting an iMac for my daughter, and getting hooked on iMovie, I decided to buy a dedicated machine for digital video editing and organizing my digital photos. It's a great example of buying a computer because it offered a compelling new application: digital video editing with iMovie. Apple makes this easier than anybody, and it's a combination of great software and great integration. In general, I'm very satisfied with the Cube and Apple's 15" flat panel display. But there were some surprises, maybe flaws, in the Cube's design.

The G4 power supply.

The G4 power supply -- a separate unit.

As with all products, it's not what they say; it's what they don't say that really matters. The Cube does have a small profile, and because it does not have a fan, it's quiet. What they don't tell you is that the power supply was moved out on its own -- a rather sizable unit that's half as heavy as the Cube itself. Fortunately, it can be placed on the floor. However, once you've seen it, you start to think of the Cube as having two main components: the plastic box and the power supply.

A second "don't say" is that the Cube's USB, Ethernet, and Firewire connectors are on the bottom of the Cube. This means that if you want to plug in a digital camera via a USB port or a DV camera via a Firewire port, you have to tilt the unit on its side to get at the connectors. Nobody wants to tilt the Cube when the system is running, but who wants to perform a system shutdown to attach a "hot-swappable" device? On several occasions when I've tried tilting the box on its side while the system was running, I've run my fingers across the touch-sensitive power switch, shutting down the machine anyway. These touch sensors are really cool -- a glowing sensor that reacts to your slightest touch. Yet, because the sensor doesn't stand out from the surface of the system (there's also one on the monitor), it's hard to avoid it -- and keep from accidentally shutting down the machine. I once had a laptop with a press-in power switch on the side, and whenever I picked it up, I shut it down.

Tilting the G4 cube.

Tilting the G4 cube. Watch out for that power off button!

What you really need is a single hub for all of these connectors, one that can be easily accessed while the machine is running. Another option for multiple Firewire devices is to daisy chain them together.

I've been wondering, is the Cube a desktop box or a server? No doubt part of G4 Cube's appeal is its small footprint on the desktop. Other PC manufacturers are beginning to develop alternatives to the mini-tower box, as shown by Bill Gates at the CES show. I ask the question because the G4 Cube reminded me of the Cobalt Qube, a Linux server box now owned by Sun Microsystems. The Cobalt cube is a workgroup server, incorporating file, print, e-mail, and web services in a single box that could be accessed for setup and administration through a web browser. The G4 Cube, coupled with Mac OS X, could be the same kind of server, placed not on the desktop but in a dark closet. The G4 will need to be cheaper and faster, however, to work as a server.

Finally, I didn't see faster models of the G4 Cube introduced at Macworld. New models of the Power Mac G4 boasted faster processors, but not the G4 Cube. I'm not sure what that means. Perhaps the existing G4 Cube inventory is too high and interest too low to extend the line. Maybe word has gotten out that you have to tilt a Cube to connect to it.

iDVD

The "don't say" rule applies to iDVD, which I saw previewed at MacWorld. iDVD is a fascinating piece of software, in league with iMovie, that allows you to create and burn your own DVDs, which can be played on standard DVD players. You may have seen DVD-RAM on the market, which does allow you to write to a DVD disk that has more storage capacity than a CD-ROM disk. However, the data is encoded so that it can be read only on DVD-RAM disks, not your home theater's DVD.

iDVD is the real thing, but you have to purchase the new Power Mac G4 Ultimate model at $3500 to get that software and the drive. It's very cool, no question. With iDVD, you can create a menu-based interface to introduce a set of video clips; it frees you from having to watch in sequence or fast forward as you would on tape. DVD also provides a better way to distribute your home videos to friends and relatives than VHS. Apple has created another compelling application that will no doubt cause some people to buy their boxes. Apple is making available prosumer tools that would have cost a lot more, yet the cost is still pretty high for most consumers.

However, after my iDVD demo, as much as I liked it, I came away wanting that capability less. Why?

I learned that it takes three hours for the Mac to create and burn a DVD. This task has to run in the foreground to utilize all your machine's resources. So, you'll have to have other plans if you start burning a DVD. Maybe go out to the movies.

Also, I can't upgrade my practically new Cube to iDVD. As of now, I'd have to buy the new machine, and I'm definitely not ready to "upgrade." No doubt there will be a DVD burner available from a third party someday.

Adobe Premiere and Apple's Final Cut Pro

I spent most of my time at Macworld sitting through demonstrations of Apple's Final Cut Pro and Adobe's Premiere, both of which are digital video editing packages that offer a lot more than what you can do in iMovie. I'm not sure I'm ready to move up or that I need to do so. But it is rather exciting and a bit intimidating to see all that you can do in these programs. It is also amazing at how much an amateur like me can do that up until recently only professionals with a sizable budget could accomplish.

Interoperability ups and downs

I can say that networking on the Mac has improved immensely over the years, but I can't say that the G4 Cube fits easily into my home LAN. It is definitely much easier to connect a Mac to a TCP/IP network, but I couldn't easily add a Mac to a PC-based LAN without buying additional software for file and printer sharing.

My Cube is on a home LAN along with several other PCs and one iMac. They are connected together via Ethernet or wireless (the iMac has an Airport card.) However, I had to buy Thursby Software's DAVE product to allow the Macs to share files and printers with the PCs. With the software costing $150 per seat, I felt like I was having to pay a fine for using a Mac. Apple should make interoperability standard and make it easier for a Mac to fit into a heterogeneous network.

Apple got it right with Airport. Airport is successful because it is based on the IEEE 802.11b standard and not some in-house Apple protocol. Therefore Airport works with other wireless devices from vendors other than Apple. My PCs use wireless PCMCIA cards and communicate with a Lucent Access Point. The Airport card fits right in and lets the iMac establish a wireless connection. I was extremely excited to get all of these working computers connected.

Connectivity is what really matters, and it was a good sign that Palm and Visor were very visible at Macworld. For Apple, making sure that handheld devices work well with the Mac is far more important than making handhelds. Apple needs to have companies like Palm as partners.

Microsoft has not been good about having its Office applications share data seamlessly with the Palm. Microsoft's own investment in CE and now the PocketPC has kept it from supporting Palm as well as they should have -- not for their own good but for the good of their customers. Sad to report that my Compaq iPAQ, which runs Microsoft's PocketPC operating system, cannot talk to Microsoft Office for the Macintosh. I'd like to see PocketPCs talk to Macs somewhere in the future, but the few Microsoft people I asked at the show weren't very encouraging.

I also visited VST to find out why my VST Firewire drive makes so much noise. The drive has a rather noisy fan, and now it's sitting next to my Cube that I bought because it was so quiet. A VST representative told me to disable the fan with a pencil or remove it completely. He didn't think the fan was so essential, and it shouldn't heat up. He did offer to try to replace the fan, if I really wanted to go to the trouble of sending it back.

It is one of the strengths of the computer industry that you can go to shows like Macworld and speak your mind directly to vendors. You can gripe about a product or you can praise it. You can ask questions and learn a lot about what a company is doing and make well-informed decisions to support them or not. A couple of times I found myself waiting in line behind a person who seemed to arrive at Macworld with a laundry list of questions he was determined to get answered. I imagine that a lot of people like that go home pretty happy, having gotten a chance to ask such questions. I certainly was happy to have a chance to talk about the noisy VST Firewire drive. I can't think of other products that I own that engender as direct a connection to the people who build and sell the product.

So, a final thought: In reading Stephen Job's keynote, he says that Apple will be "the digital hub of our emerging digital lifestyle." I don't like the word lifestyle. Do tools make a lifestyle? (At the last LinuxWorld I attended, I was amazed to see Linux promoted as a lifestyle.) My G4 Cube is a hub for digital video and photography; I bought it because my DV camera connects to it so easily, much more easily than it would on a PC. But I don't think of any particular PC as the hub of my "digital lifestyle." I'm the hub, and I ask this: How much time do I spend getting all my devices working together properly? Each new piece of equipment requires me to maintain a relationship with practically all the other pieces of equipment I own and all the companies that built them. These digital lifestyles are nothing if not high maintenance.

Dale Dougherty is the editor and publisher of MAKE, and general manager of the Maker Media division of O'Reilly Media, Inc.


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