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Sinclair ZX Spectrum Prototype (computinghistory.org.uk)
182 points by guiambros 18 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

All the Spectrum computers were awesome computers that somehow crammed a lot into a very compact package. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum+ was my first computer and I recently snagged one on eBay. With the right transformer and HDMI converter, I had it hooked to the living room TV in no time.

It took less than 30 mins for my 11-year-old daughter to figure out how to draw basic rectangles and circles in various colors on the screen. She was hooked. And I was transported back to my childhood. I saw the same joy I experienced as she discovered new ways to have the computer do her bidding.

Today’s computers can do amazing things, but they sort of miss out on the whole human user experience bit. Maybe they need to go back to basic ;-)

> Today’s computers can do amazing things, but they sort of miss out on the whole human user experience bit. Maybe they need to go back to basic ;-)

It's partly because in 8-bit computers the programming environment was the first thing you were exposed to. You weren't force to program though, you could limit yourself to LOAD "*",8 - but also you were free to experiment with more commands if you wanted to.

In newer computers, the programming interface was replaced by something else, and then completely removed from the system.

Yes, that wild time of discovery, and adventure, and at the time cutting edge. It really was a golden time. I'm sure many generations think that.

Do you have a link to the HDMI converter you were using? I still have a 128k +2 which would love to try and test out again sometime.

Same! I try a composite video to VGA (works like a charm with a Play Station 2), but can't sync with the Spectrum +2 video

Are both devices from the UK? The reason I asked is because I moved from the UK to Canada before HDMI became a thing and we had to deal with PAL and NTSC signals - my DVD player wouldn't work in Canada until I got a PAL to NTSC converter to connect it to the TV.

Is your Play Station 2 PAL (UK) or NTSC (American)? The Spectrum +2 is (I would assume) PAL.

I'm reaching, but if your PS2 is American and thus already NTSC and works, then your converter may be expecting an NTSC input. If you convert the PAL to NTSC before feeding it into the HDMI converter, it should in theory work.

Everything PAL. I live on Spain, and got both on Spain.

Think that analogue signals have a lot of tolerance. The Spectrum PAL signal was very far from followiing 100% the PAL standard.

Back then, a lot of the TVs had frequency and vertical and horizontal hold dials. There was a fair amount of leeway in tuning the device to display the picture consistently.

I would assume nothing needed to be exact because you could fine tune on the fly. I remember when you tuned our 3 TV stations in the UK by dialing the frequency dial to the correct radio frequency. It's been a long time that I don't recall the radio frequencies by perhaps I recall ITV being 68 MHz(?)

"perhaps I recall ITV being 68 MHz" that would vary from transmitter to transmitter, or else they would clash.

Maybe, but our TV's had analogue frequency dials instead of buttons, so we had to tune them manually.

I don’t know what the parent uses, but for RGB you want an OSSC, and for Composite or S-Video you want a RetroTINK 2x.

I'm an avid retro-enthusiast and have an extensive collection of computers, going back to the 70's. I've also kept every computer I've ever owned personally.

This year I'll be doing a retro-exhibit at the MQ in Vienna, putting the machines up and getting them running for folks to interact with and explore. The idea is to show people that, in fact - old computers never die, their users do!

The key thing is that, even if you don't have a use for that old computer - there are a hundred million other human beings out there that might, and to some of them it'll be just as useful as it was the day it was taken out of the box and turned on for the first time. Consumerism requires participation in the fallacy that 'old things have no use' - but as we can see from the resurgence in interest around the retro- scene, this is just a lie.

One of the things that has made this so interesting to me is the experience of having to set up each machine, again, with all its requisite tools. As a developer, to me this of course means having assemblers, editors, compilers, and so on - and it is quite a challenge. But once its up and running, there is no greater joy than hacking on an old machine, with no Internet and only the tools in front of me. It has been one of the coping mechanisms I use to get over the pain, suffering and misery of modern software development, where it seems every month some kid has re-invented the tools we old folks discarded years ago, and for it to become fashionable such that there is no choice, to be current, than to keep up with the rat race of compilers and libraries and editors and frameworks, oh my ..

If you've still got an old machine somewhere, do yourself a favour and get it set up again. It can really help with developer funk.

I realise the ZX Spectrum might not be the most important computer in the history of computing, but it is 100% the most important computer to me. That thing changed my life.

The Spectrum (and ZX81) had a big effect on a whole generation of Brits. I know my folks could not have afforded a C64 or BBC Micro but they did manage fifty quid in Currys to start my lifetime of coding.

Likewise. At the time my folks could just about stretch to a ZX81 plus 16k RAM Pack[0], but not a wobble stopper[1] - so we fashioned one out of corrugated cardboard and gaffer tape. A few years later I scored an upgrade to the ZX Spectrum+ which was an absolute revelation - what with stuff like colour and sound.

I learnt BASIC through typing out listings from ZX Computing Monthly, Sinclair User, Your Sinclair, and others, borrowed from the local library. I forget the name of the magazines which had multi-platform listings, for the Electron and Vic-20 and MSX and others.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAM_pack [1] https://web.archive.org/web/20110614170203/http://www.sincus...

Since it was my first computer, and the reason I started programming, I dug out one of the old badges I earned by submitting POKEs to the magazine:


Computer & Video Games (C&VG) and Your Computer used to have multi-platform listings, even including machines such as the Sharp MZ-80 series.

ZX Spectrum is my first machine. Always wondered how much it could do with such a small footprint.

It gave me so much appreciation for native CPU instructions and efficient use of hardware.

Including Portuguese and Spanish as well, it was the most relevant 8 bit computer in the Iberian Peninsula.

i was fortunate enough to have access to a bbc-micro (acorn) machine while growing up. and spent many a pleasant evenings programming 2d function plots, with zoom and scale, taylor series expansion of trigonometric functions, learning about matrix multiplication, solving small simultaneous equations using gauss-jordan...at some point in time i just stopped studying any ‘fundamental’ subject f.e physics/maths/chemistry much to the annoyance of my parents so much so that i was banned from using the machine. but guess what, i continued writing programs on notebooks by hand, and would run sims to trace their execution...to say that i was obsessed would be such an understatement. i think i was intoxicated on the whole thing... :)

ZX81 was my first machine. Got me hooked on coding at 11, and I'm still coding full time for a living 36 years later.

I learnt the most important aspects of programming on the ZX81 with nothing more than 1k RAM, a small B&W CRT TV and a tape recorder.

I think the 8-bit generation of computers were very important to a lot of folks, and Sinclair was amazing for packing so much in such a low cost computer. A lot of folks wouldn’t be in computing without Sinclair.

Every single programmer I've known from the UK that was from working-class roots started on a Spectrum, so I'd argue that, at least for one country, it's among the most important in history.

It was the computer that started me programming, and so I feel much the same.

(Largely because the tape-player in our bundle didn't work, so instead I was "forced" to read the manual(s) instead..)

A neighbour of mine, the father forbade him to buy games and gave him a pile of programming books instead.

You know, those packed with game listings back then.

My Mum was a single Mum and we couldn't afford games. My first programming books were for programming games. That started my programming career which from the age of 8 is still going 35 years later. It's amazing how far we've come since then.

Thinking back we had about 20-50 games for our Spectrum. I know I bought a few of the budget games for £2.99 from WH Smiths, or similar places, but most of the games we owned were copied on blank audio cassettes.

I'd estimate at least 80% of the games I "owned", and my friends played, were copied. Though I'm hazy on how they arrived. I know my dad would bring some home from the post-office where he worked, and I'd swap taped copies of some games with friends at school.

For me too, got one for my 10th birthday (and got it working again a couple of years ago). For me it was my father who "forced" me to read the Basic manual before I was allowed to use it by my self.

I think it is a very important computer in the history of computing. It was a seminal machine for British Software Development.

It's cheapness and ubiquity turbo-charged the UK computer scene.

It's clones crossing the iron curtain also had a profound effect on Eastern European computing.

Brilliant just finished watching micromen and loved it even though I was in the commodore camp myself. The spectrum next project is really cool for a 8bit remake computer. I hope to get one for the kids when it’s generally available.

Every time someone mentions Micro Men I feel compelled to mention that the original script title was "Syntax Era"

The end credits/epilogue of MicroMen is a lovely bit of visual poetry https://youtu.be/XXBxV6-zamM?t=4900

And so sad :-(

Really ought to have a HN meet up in the pub where the famous fight between Sinclair and Curry Happened.

A few years ago, the Centre for Computing History (as per the article) hosted the pair. No fisticuffs... :)

You can still get a real working zx spectrum off ebay for about £30-50. Go on, treat yourself!

I only got to play with one during summer holidays in Spain since my uncle had one. I remember being very surprised about the microdrives.

Steve Vickers taught first year Java (and more) at the University of Birmingham and I was lucky enough to be taught by him, he was a great teacher, we'd learn Java by implementing parts of his larger Turtles application (similar to LOGO).

I remember there was a semester long competition that he held wherein you would have to write a turtles program to generate an interesting output, I thought my tesseract was quite good, and then a student who spent most of time in lectures playing LocoRoco had animated an entire movie, of a turtle enrolling at the university, I realised then that I was a very average programmer.

For those like me looking for a bit of retro nostalgia but with some modern conveniences, I discovered a laptop version of the spectrum being made now with new parts: https://retroradionics.co.uk/omni-128-hq-laptop.html

review here: http://markfixesstuff.co.uk/review/zx-spectrum-omni-laptop-r...

That's very cool. I wish there was a Commodore 64 version. Running an emulator on a laptop isn't quite right because of keyboard differences. Plus there's the whole joystick port thing.

The mega 65, when it will be ready, should do

The laptop form factor is really the key for me.

I can't see if it's an emulator or uses a real z80 etc. Looks cool though

I am surprised at how many sub-contractors Sinclair used for his products.

He had quite a media profile at the time and one imagined that everything came out of a Sinclair building with all the magic happening inside that building, with Sir Clive very much hands on with his minions.

In reality though the product was as much about managing suppliers and contractors as much as it was about design.

The thing is that I would have thought that in those days writing your own ROM (all 8Kb of it) was core functionality and not something outsourced. Sinclair wasn't as 'vertically integrated' as I imagined.

Does anyone know if they outsourced the ULA design and even the printed circuit board layout?

The custom gate array it uses was reverse-engineered and is described in detail in this book:


(Incidentally, it's GFDL so you can also find a legal PDF of it, but only buying a physical copy will support the author.)

Great book. The author should strongly consider to sell the PDF version of it.

The Complete Spectrum ROM Disassembly is a great book which I have had since those days. It is incredible how much they packed into that thing, and reading through for each function your reaction is going to be "is that it?". Available as a PDF with a quick Google. I have referred to it often to see the most economical way to do stuff.

Great article! I wonder why the "Related Items" list does not include the Timex 2068 Color Computer [1]? Is this because the Museum does not have one?

I cut my teeth on the 2068 and only just gave it up on eBay a year or so ago. I would have been glad to donate it to this museum had I known about it. Maybe a Wanted Items list could be posted?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timex_Sinclair_2068

Mainly because it was never available in the UK. There was a euro variant in Portugal and Poland, but it was incompatible with the UK Spectrum (both hardware and software), so didn't really have much point in the UK - where the Speccy was ubiquitous and easy to find software and peripherals for.

Speaking of ZX Spectrum ... you might want to check out the QEMU Advent Calendar disk image[1] for it from 2016. The blurb:

"ZX Spectrum was one of most successful 8-bit machines of all time -- with still an active community! Relive the experience with a selection of homebrew games, using the Free Unix Spectrum Emulator."

[1] https://www.qemu-advent-calendar.org/2016/#day-23

I can recommend this recent podcast episode on coding for the ZX Spectrum - in this instance commissioned by the authors of Black Mirror. https://hanselminutes.com/670/coding-for-the-zx-spectrum-and...

I was gifted a discarded zx81 - cos some of the keys didnt work. a kid in my class rewired it with touch-phone buttons :) fun times ..

For anyone feeling a little nostalgic: Hey, hey 16K https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ts96J7HhO28

It's a pity Sinclair tended to make at least one bad design choice per device. Eg the Z88 was about the most amazing device of its time if only it had had something else than eproms for storage.

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