Mac Musings

Low End Mac Cubed

Daniel Knight - 2001.05.16 -

I bought the first PowerBook G4 to reach my dealer. Alas, it has teething pains.

Over the first weeks I owned Quicksilver, my TiBook, it began to develop a flicker in the lower left corner. I knew it would have to go in for service, but I'd already unloaded my SuperMac S900 to one of my sons. Time to look into a low cost temporary replacement.

Choosing the Cube

I looked at Blue & White G3s and early G4s, but nothing seemed to offer quite the right balance of price, performance, and resale value. Then I discovered MacResQ had some open box Cubes for just $1,200. That sounded perfect -- I didn't need the slots and the 450 MHz G4 should be very comfortable after using a 400 MHz TiBook for the past three-and-a-half months.

After Tuesday's midday site update, I shut down the TiBook and hooked up the Cube. Eight inches square and 10" high may sound small, but size is a factor of available desktop space. I had to clear a lot of things off my desk to make room for the cube, the keyboard, the spherical speakers, and the 19" monitor. I already had a mouse/mousepad, external FireWire drive, and external CD-RW drive set up. Because this is a temporary setup, I also decided to put my UPS and the Cube's external power supply on the desk.

I don't have a whole lot of room to spare. Looking at the whole setup, I miss Quicksilver already.


For the past week or so, I've been running my TiBook from my external FireWire drive in anticipation of being able to hook it up to the Cube and have everything up and running quickly. That almost worked.

The 30 GB hard drive is huge and outperforms Quicksilver's internal hard drive on some benchmarks, so performance has been excellent. I lost my portability, but then I don't often take the TiBook into the field.

Hooking up the Cube was quite a lesson. There are a lot of cables running to it: monitor, power, speakers, keyboard, external drives, and ethernet. The monitor cable needs an adapter; the plug is otherwise too long to fit beneath the Cube. Apple kindly supplies that "pig tail" adapter with the Cube.

Despite all the cables, because of the way AppleDesigned the Cube so they all run out the back, the Cube itself looks very attractive. It deserves a design award.

But then I ran into a snag - the Cube wouldn't recognize the external FireWire hard drive. Not a good thing, since I plan on running the computer from that drive until Quicksilver returns from service.

I updated the OS from 9.0.4 to 9.1 in hopes that might help, but the Cube still wouldn't recognize the drive. FireWire isn't quite as plug-and-play as I'd like.

After some searching, I located the Disk Control 1.1 CD that came with the FireWire enclosure. When I ran the software, it installed a driver, then prompted me to disconnect and reconnect any FireWire device. Instead, I powered down the hard drive, turned it back on, and watched it mount on the desktop.

BTW, copying the operating system from one hard drive to another like this, let alone running two different computers from the exact same setup - well, it's just not the kind of thing that works in the Windows world. Another Mac advantage.

Up and Running

I opened the Startup Disk control panel, selected the boot partition on my external drive, and restarted. Voilà!

Because the drive was no longer connected to Quicksilver, QuicKeys had to find one file. I also had to switch AppleTalk and TCP/IP to ethernet, but then I was good to go.

I've been using the Apple whole-button mouse with the TiBook for several days and have become comfortable with it. I still prefer a two- or three-button mouse, but I've taken a real liking to this one.

I'm getting used to the keyboard, which has a very different feel than the one on the TiBook. I like not having a trackpad to bump or a small arrow key by Shift to hit by accident - both of which would send the cursor and my new text to the wrong place.

I have the speakers turned down (they're loud!) and on the correct sides. (Murphy's Law correctly predicted I'd put the on the wrong side at first.)

I've lost a whole lot of desk space, but gained a larger display (I run the 19" at 1152x870 vs. the TiBook's native 1152x768) and a much wider viewing angle.

The next question: How will it perform.

In a word, it's fast. Rob Art Morgan of Bare Feats has done some testing an concluded that FireWire on the TiBook just isn't up to snuff. Using the same drive on my TiBook and Cube gave me the opportunity to test that for myself.

ATTO Tools Benchmark, 8 MB cache

   Drive           Peak Read  Sust. Read   Peak Write   Sust. Write
   Oxford/TiBook  19.00 MBps  18.80 MBps   12.29 MBps   12.23 MBps
   Oxford/Cube    33.56 MBps  33.54 MBps   23.46 MBps   19.73 MBps
   internal/Cube  57.02 MBps  27.88 MBps   48.43 MBps   27.21 MBps

ATTO Tools Benchmark, 128 KB cache

   Drive           Peak Read  Sust. Read   Peak Write   Sust. Write
   Oxford/TiBook  18.52 MBps  18.11 MBps   12.20 MBps   12.00 MBps
   Oxford/Cube    35.61 MBps  33.42 MBps   23.93 MBps   19.24 MBps
   internal/Cube  55.43 MBps  27.65 MBps   54.52 MBps   27.32 MBps

In every single test, the IBM Deskstar 75GXP with the Oxford 911 FireWire bridge was faster on the Cube than on the PowerBook G4. Sustained writes were over 60% faster, while sustained reads averaged about 80% faster.

It's also interesting to compare FireWire performance with the internal 20 GB hard drive that came with the Cube. Peak scores with the internal drive handily beat FireWire performance, and sustained writes average 40% faster. Curiously, the FireWire drive offers the best sustained read performance, a bit over 20% faster than the internal drive.

The Real World

I really noticed the Cube was faster then the PB G4 when opening files, surfing the Web, and using Claris Emailer. While the TiBook was a lot more responsive than my old SuperMac S900 and 333 MHz G3 upgrade, the Cube feels nearly that much more responsive than my TiBook. At today's prices, the Cube offers an incredible level of performance at a very reasonable price. Unless you need PCI slots, know you'll someday upgrade the CPU, or absolutely need more than 500 MHz G4 performance, the Cube is a far better value than the Power Mac G4.

That said, I'm having a hard time adjusting to this huge 19" monitor. It shows a larger desktop than the TiBook, which is nice, but it also has all sorts of reflections from lights and windows. It's a good reminder why flat monitors and flat panel displays are taking over from the traditional curved screens. While I used to love this monitor, the TiBook's screen has spoiled me.

I'm going to enjoy working on this Cube until my TiBook comes back, but I'm also looking forward to regaining some workspace on my desk, using that gorgeous 15.2" mega-wide display, and having a portable computer again.

Oops, Lockup

As I was preparing the morning update, the Cube locked up. That's not a terribly uncommon occurrence with the Mac, and cmd-ctrl-power forces a restart - but not on the Cube. And, if the Mac has stopped seeing the keyboard, not on any USB desktop Mac.

Instead, I had to reach around the back of the Cube and find the reset button .

One more reason to look forward to Mac OS X.

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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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