Retro Computers - Original ZX Spectrum - Retro computer

ZX SpectrumOriginal ZX Spectrum
An 8-Bit rainbow worth more than any pot of gold.

The ZX Spectrum was an 8-Bit personal home computer released by Sinclair Research Ltd in 1982. It had been referred to during development as the ZX81 Colour and ZX82, before it was finally given the 'ZX Spectrum' moniker.
This was an apt name as it highlighted it's colour display, compared to the black and white of its predecessors, the Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81. The Spectrum was initially released in three different models, ranging from the entry level model with 16KB of RAM, to the more popular 48KB model and the ZX Spectrum + (which also had 48KB of RAM).

The Spectrum was among the first 'mainstream audience' home computers in the UK, similar in significance to the Commodore 64 in the USA (Although the Commodore 64 was also a very popular machine in the UK).

The introduction of the ZX Spectrum led to a boom in companies producing software and hardware for the machine (computer games really took off on it), the effects of which still resonate on and on throughout the 21st Century. Even now classic games and retro arcade games are popular, partly down to this machine.

It managed to reach this mainstream audience through clever pricing. The cost of the machine was attractive to potential buyers, by 1984 the 16K model was retailing at £99, whilst the 48K was going for £125. A snip when compared to many other machines of that era.

The Spectrum was a far superior machine than the ZX81. Most people opted for the 48K model, so you already had alot more RAM to play with. It also had 8 colours (with a 'brightness' level so you effectively had 15 colours plus black) and finally for Sinclair, a sound generator! Okay, so the sound was nothing special (a one channel beeper) - but something is better than nothing right?

Games developers actually managed to make it produce interesting sounds effects and music over the years, with covertape arcade game Hyperactive being a good example of what could be acheived.

The machine did have some graphical 'limitations' however. The image resolution was 256 X 192. Now, to conserve memory, the colour was stored separate from the pixel bitmap in a low resolution 32×24 grid overlay, corresponding to the character cells. An 'attribute' consisted of a foreground and a background colour, a brightness level (as mentioned above) and a flashing 'flag' which when set, caused the two colours of a graphic to swap at regular intervals.

Unfortunately this method of displaying characters etc led to what was dubbed colour clash or 'attribute clash'. Some truly bizarre effects in the animated graphics of arcade games would be seen over the next few years.

This problem became a distinctive feature of the machine and an in-joke among Spectrum users and advocates of other systems would laugh and point at it. Other machines which were available around the same time did not suffer from this graphical problem.

The machine's Sinclair BASIC interpreter was stored in the ROM (along with some fundamental system-routines) and was once again written by Steve Vickers on contract from Nine Tiles Ltd. It was a decent version of BASIC, with simple routines and commands allowing amatuer users to draw shapes and create graphical images with relative ease. Good old Steve must have had a sense of humour with the debugger informing you that the line of code you had just entered was 'Nonsense in BASIC'. Great stuff.

Apart from the attribute clash problem, the Spectrum also had another feature which was laughed at by all of those un-cool non Spectrum users. It was the chiclet keyboard which was mounted on top of a membrane in a similar fashion to calculator keys. Because the keys were made of rubber it was dubbed the 'dead flesh keyboard'.

When each key was pressed an audible 'click' would be heard through the beeper, which was actually pretty cool when you were on a programming roll. Each key was also marked with BASIC keywords (in a similar vein the the ZX81) - so pressing 'G' would insert the BASIC command GO TO. You would use shift, symbol shift etc to switch modes and program BASIC commands.

It was difficult at first, but once you had mastered this method of 'typing', you're hands would be magestically flying over the keyboard with so much grace and flair any onlookers would have though that you'd been trained by Mister Miyagi.

One Step Beyond:
Despite the machines slight flaws, it went on to be more popular than me on a night out. Games developers churned out titles for the Speccy (as it was now fondly known), with many quality titles available. It is now known as one of THE classic games machines of the 1980's.

There were also plenty of peripherals to be had:
  • A printer
  • Joysticks (Kempston joysticks being the most popualr)
  • Micro Drives (Despite being reliable and capable of storing a massive 80KB worth of data they never took off)
  • Fuller Box (Improved sound and music - very useful in arcade games)
  • Interface 2
  • Speech synthesisers (Does anyone remember Currah Micro-speech?)
As the years rolled by, developers really started to push the machine further than the theory of relativity should allow. Music that sounded like 'two channel' sound was appearing in arcade games (Check out the Ping Pong menu music by Joffa Smiff). Highly detailled colour graphics moved smoothly across your screen - better than anything Commodore or Amstrad could muster. Clever developers even managed to write games without any attribute clash. True genious.

Of course the arrival of the Spectrum + in October of 1984 gave users a 'proper' typewriter keyboard. But people will fondly remember names such as Joffa Smith, DK Marshal, Mike Singleton, Keith Burkhill, Mike Follin, the always uber-cool sounding Bo Jangeborg and of course, Matthew Smith. Hold these names in reverance folks.

By 1986, developers were really becoming accomplished at writing arcade games and text adventures for the Speccy. It was good timing for an improved model to be released. Uncle Clive and his Spanish buddies at Investrónica treated us to the ZX Spectrum 128 in January of that year. Based loosly on the Spectrum +, it had a proper keyboard (it was nice to have a Space bar), and three-channel audio via the trustty AY-3-8912 chip.

Due to this it also had MIDI compatibility, an RS-232 serial port, an RGB monitor port, 32KB of ROM including an improved BASIC editor, and an external keypad. On top of this you now had a whopping 128KB of RAM.

The extra memory was handy as some larger computer games required to be loaded in from tape in 'portions' - as you completed one part of the game, you would load the next part in. If you had one of these new machines, the whole game could be loaded in one go. Marvellous!

The Spectrum 128 was the last of the 'Sinclair Spectrums' as Amstrad bought the rights to the machine and would produce them for the next few years.

The Spectrum 128 (and it's later models produced by Amstrad) gave the machine longevity which allowed it to live on into the early 1990's. Only the C64 had a similar life span. It is unlikely that any other machine will live as long again.

Despite there being other machines that were in some ways superior, none had the charm of the Spectrum. Looks wise it was probably best of the bunch. The original 'rubber key' models were compact and very stylish. The black plastic case with the greyish blue keys and rainbow stripe along the bottom right corner was a right looker. The Sinclair logo was printed in a nice font too.

Whereas other machines perhaps seemed a bit more 'professional' (- look at the Beeb), character oozed from the Speccy in spades. The machines character led to one of the infamous machine v machine debates of the 1980's.

An intense rivaly developed between the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum which has gone down in the annals of geekdom. It truly is the stuff of legends. Arguments would run into the wee small hours covering which latest arcade game was the best, smooth yet blocky sprites against detailled single coloured characters. Scrolling speed, keyboard responsiveness, playablility etc etc.

These sort of things made computing real fun back in the 80's. I'm wiping a tear from my eye just thinking about it. The BBC and Amstrad CPC models were also close rivals, but nothing could divide the 'spice' between Sinclair and Commodore.

Over the earlier part of the 1980's Clive Sinclair oversaw licensing deals allowing other companies to clone the machine. Uncle Clive was eventuallyawarded a knighthood for his 'services to British industry' - and rightly so.

The ZX Spectrum, in all of its incarnations was a great machine. The way it was pushed way beyond it's limitations by clever developers is testament to the machines popularity and it's versatility. The fact that many classic arcade games were converted (and converted well) marks the Spectrum as an all time classic computer.

Remove your hat, bow, then raise a glass of champers and toast the Speccy. A fine retro computer.

To see further information about games, developers and software houses for this machine, go to ZX Spectrum Games

For more general Speccy info and vids go to Sinclair ZX Spectrum

We recommend trying to pick up one of these machines.
Look at computers for sale online or even locally.

If you don't want to get hold of the real hardware then try and download an emulator and
download those classic games. Alternatively you could try and play them online.

MACHINE TYPE: Home 8-bit Computer (classic games machine)
RELEASE YEAR: April 1982
END OF PRODUCTION: Standard 48K - 1984. Spectrum 128 - 1986
BUILT IN LANGUAGE(S): Sinclair Basic
KEYBOARD: QWERTY rubber keyboard (40 keys) with up to rather crazy 6 functions by keys
CPU: Zilog Z80 A
SPEED: 3.5 MHz
RAM: 16KB or 48KB (42KB available for programming)
ROM: 16k (Basic & OS)
TEXT MODES: 32 x 24
GRAPHIC MODES: 256 x 192
COLORS: 8 with 2 tones each (normal and bright except for Black which only had one tone)
SOUND: Basic beeper capable of 1 voice over 10 octaves
SIZE / WEIGHT: 16K - 48K - A nice and compact 23 x 14,4 x 3 cm / 550g
I/O PORTS: Expansion port, tape-recorder (1200 bauds), RF video out
POWER SUPPLY: External PSU, 9v DC, 1.4A
PERIPHERALS: ZX printer, ZX microdrives, Joystick Interfaces
PRICE: 16K model retailed at £99 (UK 1984) 48K retailed at £125 (UK 1984)

Retro Computers and classic games