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ATPM 11.05
May 2005

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How To

by Matthew Glidden, mglidden@atpm.com

Buy a Mac mini or Upgrade Your Cube?

Introduction

Apple recently introduced its new kid on the block, the Mac mini. The tiny size and quiet operation immediately recalled my veteran and familiar Cube, chugging away on the desktop, a model long since discontinued.

The Cube’s small, silent concept kept it appealing long after the development of bigger, meaner Macs. “Sure,” my internal user would say, “they’re faster, but how about those fans? Imagine the racket! Ah, peace and quiet.”

The Mini rattled my smug internal user with its low price and superior form factor. Was it time to trade in the Cube and shrink the desktop even further? It was probably an illusion, but my Cube suddenly felt older and slower. To forestall the inevitable, I let my internal user shop for upgrade options.

Children of the Cube

As the 2005 conceptual offspring of 2000’s space-saving, whisper-quiet Mac Cube, the Mini is impressive value on physical volume alone. $499 gets you the base 1.25 GHz Mini and beaucoup Apple software. Another $100 will get you a 1.42 GHz CPU and 80 GB of disk space. (Drive size and cost is a bigger concern for the Mini, since it uses pricier 2.5" notebook hard disks, instead of the typical 3.5" desktop size.)

Performance and cost are major factors in buying a new system rather than upgrading the existing one. Swapping the Cube’s CPU isn’t trivial. You’ll need tools, a clean working area, and technical confidence. Previous experience taking apart your Cube isn’t essential, but it definitely helps. The faint of heart should just head to the Apple Store or Apple.com.

Performance

As a newer piece of hardware, the Mac Mini isn’t just a faster CPU. A variety of internal improvements make it perform better than a Cube running at the same CPU speed. As an approximation, compare these XBench Mac Mini and GigaDesigns CPU upgrade results.

Even if you get a more recent CPU upgrade than the 7455A, the Mini will perform better at the same CPU speed.

Cost

Several manufacturers make CPU upgrades cheaper than the base Mini’s $499. I bought the single-CPU PowerForce7457 1.3 GHz G4 processor. It’s currently $329 from Other World Computing, which also offers Sonnet’s 1.2 GHz EncoreG4 for $299. (You might save money buying aftermarket from eBay, but caveat emptor.) Manufacturers also offer dual-CPU cards, which some applications benefit significantly from.

The CPU upgrade may be slower than a new Mini, but remember that you’re actually comparing it to what you’re using now (in my case, a stock Cube). The new CPU should be notably faster! Also, you save the headache of moving all your applications and files to a new Mac. For day-to-day convenience, a CPU upgrade wins. (Convenience of the installation itself is another story.)

Before You Install

For Cube owners, upgrading the CPU means (Cube owners, grit your teeth) installing a fan. It’s practically Cube heresy, but I’ll spoil the ending—the PowerLogix fan is very quiet. You’ll have plenty of other things to concern yourself with, anyway. In the end, the fan will seem like a minor detail!

Before you unplug anything or even turn off the Cube, check your firmware. You must have version 4.1.9 installed, which my Cube did not. Run the Apple System Profiler to check your firmware version. Download the firmware installer if it’s not at least 4.1.9! (See the CubeOwner.com firmware page for assistance. The site’s forums provide a great post-install resource.)

To actually upgrade the firmware, you’ll need to boot from a Mac OS 9.1 (or later) partition. If you’ve got one hard drive and it’s formatted solely for OS X, this can be a major pain. By hook or crook, you’ll need to install OS 9.1 on something and boot from it. Have a friend with a spare external hard drive? Time to call in a favor.

The updater itself takes a few minutes to install. Follow the firmware instructions and then verify the system is up and running again.

Installation

My PowerForce7457 included a CD-ROM with PDF and QuickTime installation guides. They guide you through taking apart your Cube and swapping the CPUs. Again, this is for the technically confident! If you’re worried about snapping something or shorting out an electrical component, have a Mac service shop do it for you or stick to buying new systems.

Rather than writing a step-by-step installation guide, since you’ll have them, here are some installation observations.

1. Electronics stores carry the Torx wrench needed to remove the Cube’s internal screws.

2. The hard drive chassis uses a smaller Torx size than the rest of the Cube. If you’re also swapping the hard drive, as I was, make sure to have both sizes.

3. This is a great chance to bond with your PC-using computer geek friends. There’s a persistent belief that Mac users are afraid of the inside of their machines. Taking apart your Cube before their eyes should put that to rest.

4. Don’t take everything apart in your Cube. After a half-dozen disassemblies, I realized that my initial swap took longer than expected because I removed components I didn’t need to.

5. The motherboard is secured (but not permanently attached) to the metal shielding on the bottom of the Cube. It will take a lot of wiggling to get it loose and probably dislodge the plastic inset on the USB ports. Set it aside for reconnection after reassembly.

6. There are lots of nooks and crannies inside the Cube. Be careful not to lose screws in the internals!

7. Installation took about an hour the first time, with occasional breaks to consult the manual. Don’t plan to do it all in ten minutes.

PowerLogix L3 Cache Issue

Computers are complex, so fixing one thing can break another. After I finished the installation, the included PowerLogix CD-ROM installed some software necessary to make the new CPU work. Watch out for the PowerLogix L3 cache patch! Ostensibly, it allows L3 cache ratios over 6:1, which would provide a minor speed improvement. However, many Cube owners find that it causes subtle and maddening problems elsewhere on the system. My own system suddenly sprouted disk read and write errors and would lose sound on the speakers. Eventually, it would lock up. It’s a mystery why this patch causes problems, but my advice is to disable it or check with PowerLogix for a new patch. (Thanks to the CubeOwner.com forums for finding this fix and preserving my sanity!)

OS 9 Boot Issue

The PowerForce CPU can only boot to Mac OS X, so it’s not possible to create a dual-boot drive or even boot from a Mac OS 9 CD-ROM after installation. This doesn’t affect running applications inside Classic, just booting to the actual OS. (The PowerLogix installation CD-ROM includes instructions for re-enabling Mac OS 9 bootability, should it be needed.)

New CPU Impressions

Adding the CPU upgrade gave my Cube a new lease on life, once the L3 cache problem was fixed. Major concerns were Web page loading speed and paging through photos in iPhoto. Both could take several seconds with the original CPU, but it’s a fraction of that now. Video editing is once again practical, and Final Cut Express works like a champ. A system that felt sluggish and very 20th-century should now last another few years, probably until the Mac minis are small enough to be mistaken for the original iPod.

Summary

Upgrading a Cube’s CPU is technically challenging, but proves there’s plenty of life left in the system itself. If you want to keep your system around, a few hundred dollars and an hour of care will improve its speed dramatically. Just make sure to follow the instructions and back yourself up with Apple support or a user resource like the CubeOwner.com forums.

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