Bring back the Cube

Matt Loney: The cracks in Apple's Cube ran deeper than the perspex case, but now the time is ripe to resurrect it - as a media centre device.

Almost every product to leave the Apple factories since Steve Jobs returned in 1997 is a fantastic example of quality engineering working in concert with great ergonomics and targeting a clear market segment.

I say almost every product because although the G4s, the iBooks, the Xservers and even the iPods continue to enjoy huge success, there is one member of the family that Jobs and co. would no doubt rather forget. I'm thinking, of course, of the Apple Cube; a fantastic example of quality engineering with great ergonomics -- conceived without the slightest conception of the target market.

That gorgeous Perspex case, it seemed, was not the only facet of the Cube to develop cracks. Nobody ever quite knew what the Cube was supposed to be used for: it didn't have enough expansion for power desktop users; people who wanted a mobile solution were buying iBooks; and it looked just too damn nice to be used as a server.

Apple did the decent thing and pulled the Cube after sales shrank to a third of what the projections said they should be. Now, though, the time is ripe for a new Apple Cube, and it should not be sold as a desktop PC, or as a semi-mobile PC nor as a server.

No, if Apple wants to bring back the Cube then it should bring it back as a media centre PC. Imagine that silky Perspex cube replacing your black hi-fi stack as the entertainment source in your living room. Of course Apple's Cube is not -- was not -- fitted out for home entertainment, but it doesn't need much extra: hardware DVD decoding, six channel sound, together with an infrared control and an LCD panel for playing CDs without having to switch on a monitor (or TV).

Why would such a device make sense? First, everybody wants an Apple Mac in their living room. One of my neighbours sits their Apple G4 system case on a table in their front window. Us PC owners in the street tend to hide our beige boxes away under the desk.

Second, if Apple doesn't replace the hi-fi soon then it will lose ground to those companies that are beginning to do so. Microsoft, which has made no secret of its ambitions in the living room, probably poses the least threat here due to its undying insistence that everything -- including one day your remote control and probably even your footstool -- must run Windows. Blue screen of death anyone? We've seen what Microsoft operating systems can do to phones -- and while people may be prepared to live with the occasional mad scrolling snowstorm of doom on their phone, the first flicker of blue on their remote control will send any self-respecting couch potato into paroxysms of, well, apathy.

Apple has always had an edge over the PC world that has let it innovate faster in every area, and that edge is the control it has over the operating system, the electronics (in particular the motherboard form factor) and of the course the system case -- the ergonomics. In the world of the PC, even the big system manufacturers can barely do more than spray paint beige cases black to make them stand out from the crowd; a tactic that works for only so long as it takes everybody else to cotton on. PC manufacturers seem to be caught in an endless vicious circle with the motherboard makers (read Intel) that effectively stops new form factors emerging into the mass market.

Several companies are trying to break the mould, and of these VIA currently stands out as one that might just succeed. After all, VIA has almost everything it needs to be able to do whatever it wants: processor, chipset and graphics technologies together with a motherboard manufacturing facility. The only gaps in its arsenal are system cases and operating systems.

VIA discovered firsthand the problems with trying to get system case manufacturers to make system cases for a new form factor when it launched its tiny EPIA motherboard based on its own mini-ITX form factor earlier this year. Everybody liked it, but nobody wanted to commit a production run to an untested technology. Now, things are changing. With the upgraded EPIA M, which features hardware DVD decoding and has the ability to play CDs and DVD from BIOS (so you don't have to wait for Windows to load), VIA has partially cracked the operating system problem too.

And so the Hi-Fi PC, which may or may not arrive next year based on the EPIA M will, with its LCD front panel, be able to play DVDs with 5.1 channels of sound without having to wait for Windows to boot, and shuffle CD tracks without having to switch on a monitor. The reference design even has an attractive (for a PC) brushed aluminium finish, and VIA reckons it could be sold alongside hi-fis as easily as in the PC section of electronics stores.

All in all, the Hi-Fi PC is shaping up to be what the Cube should have been, but of course it is highly unlikely ever to be the device that the Cube could still be. VIA and VIA's OEM partners simply do not have the industrial design magic that makes Apple products so appealing.