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25th Anniversary of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum 310

Alioth writes "Twenty five years ago today, Sinclair Research launched Britain's most popular home computer of the 1980s — the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Costing about one third of the price of its rivals such as the Commodore 64 while having a faster CPU and a better BASIC interpreter, the machine sold well in many guises throughout the 1980s and had more than a staggering 9,000 software titles. The machine may well have done well in the US too, had Timex — the company building the machine under license in the US — not already been in financial trouble and about to fold. The machine was also extremely successful in Russia, although not for Sinclair Research — because the Russians made dozens of different clones of the machine, and did so right into the mid 1990s. The machine still has a healthy retro scene, including the development of new commercial software by Cronosoft, and new hardware such as the DivIDE, which allows a standard PC hard disc or compact flash card to be connected to the machine."
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25th Anniversary of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum

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  • by BluhDeBluh ( 805090 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @08:45AM (#18839013)
    The Speccy was better than the C64. Obviously.
    • by florin ( 2243 )
      It sure made a better doorstop.
      • by Lumpy ( 12016 )
        only for the appliance operators. Those of us that liked hacking loved it as it was a cheap computer for interfacing. I remember getting my first one imported to the USA by a penpal I sent cast to. I was up and running external projects with it far faster than the C64. Only the TRS80 CoCo was easier to interface and hack.

        My absolute favorite though was the Kim-I. ran off of battery power easily and made the best robotics platform.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by iainl ( 136759 )
        I'd have said the Speccy was too small and light to make a decent doorstop. You'd be much better off with the C64 for that. Mind you, a PET would do the job even better.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by iainl ( 136759 )
      Obviously. God, I wish I hadn't sqandered all my mod points on tedious factual argument elsewhere.

      Specifically, Jetpac, Knight Lore, 3D Deathchase and Quazatron along with better versions of Elite, Head Over Heels, Spindizzy and R-Type mean C64 LOSES.
      • by Zaiff Urgulbunger ( 591514 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @09:09AM (#18839181)
        ...although it should be noted that Elite was better on the BBC Model-B; especially if you had analogue joysticks.
        • by jbarr ( 2233 )
          Elite. Ahh, now there's an amazing blast from the past!

          My first exposure to Elite was on an Apple ][ and then on a C-64, and I simply couldn't get enough.

          Later, when I got hooked on PalmOS devices, there came an excellent knockoff called Void [palmgear.com] which, though not perfect and sometimes hard to navigate on a Palm, provided hours of Elite-like fun. It also appears that Elite was actually written for the Palm [harbaum.org] by a third-party developer, but disagreements about distribution by the original Elite developers caused t
          • I loved Elite, played it on a Beeb (which was my second computer after a ZX81). Privateer seemed to be the most recent knock off I found, but someone mentioned an online knock off that recently started and is still limping along. I can't remember the name though, maybe Eve Online? Hours of completely pointless asteroid mining. You can get the PC versions here http://www.iancgbell.clara.net/elite/pc/index.htm [clara.net]. If you feel bored go have a look at Elite - The musical, it's priceless.

            On the Spectrum thread

      • Specifically, Jetpac, Knight Lore, 3D Deathchase and Quazatron along with better versions of Elite, Head Over Heels, Spindizzy and R-Type mean C64 LOSES.

        What you should do is set your love for the little rubber-keyed monster to music...

        Oh wait, it's happened already!

        Hey Hey 16K [b3ta.com] - which might explain some of the peculiar British affection for these machines...
    • It wasn't that it was better. TBH the C64 had a lot going for it.

      Where Sinclair won out was he was able to mass produce computers with cheap/sub-standard parts. Which is why they were so cheap.

      Nice machine though and what I liked about it was how the developers squeezed everything in. Nowdays we just throw more memory/diskspace at the issue.


    • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *
      I gather it was the European C64. OF course, as the OP noted, we had it here in the U.S. too, but it never really caught on. It was sold as a "beginners" computer for kids and marketed more as a toy than as a serious machine. I remember that Sears and other retail outlets sold them, but there wasn't much demand (or software available). By contrast, the C64 was a mammoth, with more software than any one person could ever own. It was more a matter of poor marketing by Timex (and poor software support) than an
    • I know you're kidding, but the submitter obviously wasn't:

      Costing about one third of the price of its rivals such as the Commodore 64 while having a faster CPU and a better BASIC interpreter

      ... and 1/4 the RAM, lower screen resolution (with a color attribute design flaw), single-channel sound, no composite video output, and a terrible "chiclet" keyboard. The C64's only real flaw was the horribly slow 1541 diskette drive, which was adequately resolved with both Fastload carts and the 1571.

      • by Alioth ( 221270 )
        * 48K is not 1/4 of 64K. Besides, the Spectrum had more memory available for the BASIC programmer than the C64.
        * It was a rubber keyboard, not chiclet. It was actually much better for playing games than a spring keyboard.

        The colour attribute design wasn't a flaw - it was part of how they made the machine affordable by keeping it simple. The Spectrum's framebuffer is laid out in such a way that you can get a very good frame rate out of programs on the machine without requiring (expensive) hardware support. C
      • FWIW, the Spectrum in its most popular form had 48k of RAM. Resolution wasn't directly comparable to the C64: the C64's maximum highest was 320x192 (as opposed to 256x192 in the Spectrum), but that had the same "colour clash" issues as the Spectrum. In practice, C64 games tended to be 160x192, using four colours per 8x8 pixels.

        (This should not be interpreted as meaning I have a strong view about which was "better". I never had either as a kid. I'm still in therapy over that. ;-)

      • because we had a the Timex Sinclair 1000 with the 16K RAM cartridge and had major issues with it prior to buying a replacement for it.

        The C64's only flaw was that slow floppy drive. But it had a real keyboard, sprites, 3 channel music, and seemed to be a better quality than what Timex Sinclair offered. We later upgraded to the Commodore 128 which ran CP/M and had 128 mode with a better basic and faster 1571 drive.

        I almost bought a Macintosh 512K, but bought an Amiga 1000 512K instead at half the price. Afte
    • I don't understand why I'm being modded "Funny". I wasn't joking!
  • by Bananatree3 ( 872975 ) * on Monday April 23, 2007 @08:53AM (#18839061)
    All of us math students with Ti-89/92 partial with the ZX can emulate it right on the calculator [ticalc.org]. No more waiting to be at home to play our favorite ZX programs. (mind you the screen may be small, but it's still better than nothing!)
  • by aurelian ( 551052 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @08:53AM (#18839063)
    I learnt to program on my Spectrum - and a lot more besides. It wasn't just a gaming console, and it's significance for the industry was much wider also.
    • by cliffski ( 65094 )
      indeed. If it wasn't for the spectrum, or more notably, the ZX81, I wouldnt have an interest in programming at all, and right now, I'd be working for someone else doing a really tedious job.
      Hurrah for sinclair!
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by dkf ( 304284 )
      I learned to write machine code on the Speccy. This was because the manual came with a listing of all the X80 instruction set, and a printout of a disassembler in a magazine showed me how to put it together. Once you've written machine code (not assembler, honest direct machine code) for a while, you learn to really appreciate what a pointer is and high-level programming languages like C hold no great terrors. (Curiously, it took me a long time before I thought of writing an assembler...)

      The Speccy was also
      • by Viol8 ( 599362 )
        "not assembler, honest direct machine code"

        You mean entering hex codes manually? Jeez , no thanks. But if you're really masochistic why not just do it the way they did before the keyboard and teletype came along - enter the codes via a front panel with switches for each bit in the word and an "enter" button!
  • Z80s all around us (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 23, 2007 @08:55AM (#18839077)
    A friend who did ASM on these chips said that the Z80 processors and variations there of is still (or at least until recently) the most common microprocessor in the world.

    Apparently they are common in dishwashers, washing machines and other programmable appliances. (Can your dishwasher run Linux?)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Z80 [wikipedia.org]
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Alioth ( 221270 )
      The "classic" Z80 (as used in the Spectrum) is still made and can be bought from most electronics supplies firms (only in CMOS versions these days, but the CMOS version is a drop-in replacement for the old NMOS version). Zilog also make several advanced variants designed for microcontrollers, including one with a built in Ethernet MAC (the eZ80). They are cheap and easy to use, and are popular because of this.
    • To paraphrase Jesus; the Spectrum was made for the Z80, not Z80 for the Spectrum. The Z80 was made about 5 years before the first Spectrum, and the Spectrum was by no means its first or only use by a long shot.
  • by fruey ( 563914 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @08:55AM (#18839079) Homepage Journal

    I started with a Sinclair ZX81, 1Kb of RAM expanded to 16Kb with a "RAM pack" that had an edge connector to the main PCB inside. It got hot (as did the power supply) and was often unstable. You could suddenly lose everything you were working on because the system just froze.

    Along came the ZX Spectrum, 48Kb (and later 128Kb) with 8 colours (the ZX81 was black & white), sprites (the ZX81 was limited to the built in character set which included blocks & things until someone worked out how to hack that) and rubber keys (the ZX81 had touch sensitive membrane things).

    It was a revolution, at my school we swapped tapes which didn't always load, had multiface cartridges to enter POKEs (changing a value at a particular memory address) for cheats and in order to create backups... and a big magazine scene.

    I even ran an emulator on my PC to play one game in particular: the game that everyone tried to beat, and still fiendishly hard (and created by a mysterious genius who "disappeared", Matthew Smith [emuunlim.com]) : Manic Miner [xmixdrix.com] (link to a Windows version).

    Those were the days [caperet.com]. The UK 8 bit scene was dominated by this machine.

    • by dkf ( 304284 )

      Along came the ZX Spectrum, 48Kb (and later 128Kb)
      For a short time, the base model of Speccy was a 16kB model, which was still large enough to be interesting. I know, because I had one (you always remember your first computer). Later upgraded to a 48k model, which I've still got somewhere in a box, and which still worked when I last tested it (OK, maybe 4-5 years ago now.) Take that, bit rot!
      • Ah yes, I had one of those too. The upgrade from 16 to 48 kB involved inserting the 8 memory chips, plus 4 others to control the extra memory. One of those control chips had to be hacked (one pin removed, and the adjacent pin bent to fit in the 'wrong' socket). Thankfully a friendly neighborhood nerd helped me out with that one (I was something like 14 yo at the time, had no idea the upgrade would be this complicated).
  • Thank you Sir Clive (Score:5, Interesting)

    by LordSnooty ( 853791 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @09:03AM (#18839143)
    Here's me and a million other Brits aged 25-35 saying 'thank you' for the Spectrum. If it wasn't for this little rubber wonder I doubt I'd be sat at this desk today, working in IT as a career. I'll be botting up the emulator" [geocities.com] tonight to celebrate!

    It's also worth noting Amstrad's healthy attitude to the retro scene (they bought Sinclair Research in 1986, and many of those million Brits will think of Spectra every time they watch The Apprentice...). Anyway, the Spectrum ROM was cracked & emulated before permission was sought. When someone decided to approach Amstrad to seek permission, one Cliff Wilson [worldofspectrum.org] stepped forward with a simple reply: "Yes, do what you like with the Spectrum ROM, just don't charge money for it and don't remove our copyright message." Such an open attitude towards the scene in 1999 means that it's still thriving today.
    • I'll be botting up the emulator tonight to celebrate!

      That's a really confusing statement. Do you mean you're running your botnet inside an emulator? Surely that's inefficient, and doesn't show any of your m4d h4xx0r ski11z?
  • by GaryPatterson ( 852699 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @09:15AM (#18839229)
    It was the first computer in our household, and in many ways by far the most significant.

    I remember learning BASIC and assembly (Z80), playing Elite all through one night, playing games and learning lots of stuff.

    And that little silver-paper thermal printer!

    I've still got the 1981 ZX-Spectrum 48K in a box somewhere, with tapes of many games and that printer (and some spare 'paper'). The keyboard membrane has pretty much had it, making the computer almost useless, but one day I'll get a replacement, just for the nostalgia.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Alioth ( 221270 )
      Rwap services sells brand new (made in 2007) keyboard membranes for Spectrums for about 8 quid.

      http://www.rwapservices.co.uk/ [rwapservices.co.uk]

      Also rubber keyboard mats if yours has worn out.
      I still frequently use my Spectrum (well, ahem, one of my FOUR Spectrums - a rubber keyed 48K, a Spectrum+, a toast rack 128, and a bare board I use for testing hardware) because they are still a lot of fun. These days, you can download most of the software from World of Spectrum. On a rainy day, it's good fun to pull out the Speccy, dow
  • ZX Spectrum was meant to be an aid to the young programmer, not the gamer. But the "market" was made by gamers.
    Sr Clive also gifted us with the Sinclair QL [wikipedia.org], another product the market largely ignored despite its potentials.
    The Acorn Archimedes [wikipedia.org] was meant to be a powerful innovative PC. But the "market" was aimed to IBM PCs and to Amigas
    That was the history: the market can esily ignore techinical advances against fancy worse products!
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Dogtanian ( 588974 )

      Sr Clive also gifted us with the Sinclair QL, another product the market largely ignored despite its potentials.

      From what I've heard, the problem with the QL was that it was marketed to businesses, not the enthusiast market. I've also read that the QL was quite flakey when it launched (i.e. lots of bugs) and that the Microdrives were unproven; much as I hate to say it, I would not have entrusted my business to such a machine, even if it was technologically brilliant.

      The Acorn Archimedes was meant to be a powerful innovative PC. But the "market" was aimed to IBM PCs and to Amigas

      The Amiga was a fantastic and cutting-edge machine when it came out. Don't compare it against the PC which (even at its launch) was conservative and

  • by rapiddescent ( 572442 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @09:31AM (#18839367)
    I got my spec
    trum 48k to c
    onnect to the
    internet and
    work with sla

    REM disconnec
  • I was a zx pirate (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jerryatrix ( 984426 )
    I'll admit I ordered games from Britain, copied them and sold them to my mates and people I hardly knew. I was only 13. Attic Attack was a big seller. Happily my life of crime finished there, and my life of programming took off.
  • by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Monday April 23, 2007 @09:42AM (#18839447) Journal
    I've also made a 25th anniversary hardware project for the Sinclair Spectrum - an add-on board to be used for helping diagnose problems with sick Sinclair Spectrums:

    http://www.alioth.net/Projects/Spectrum-Diag [alioth.net]

    It uses LEDs to display the test progress and status, so even if you can't get a picture out of the Spectrum, you can at least find out if the CPU and memory is working, and a good idea whether the ULA is servicable.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 23, 2007 @09:45AM (#18839469)
    And I blame it all on my using a ZX81's membrane keyboard when puberty hit. Instead of developing sleek, feminine fingertips I have hands that resemble welding gloves.

    Thanks a lot, you bastards. :P
  • My proudest Spectrum moment remains getting two solid colours in the border using a clever switching technique with no attribute clash. Took me weeks to figure out how to do it. Things were sooo much simpler back then. :)

    The spectrum was only beaten by one machine in the 1980s, the BBC micro. Without that, it has no equal.

  • by Maury Markowitz ( 452832 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @09:51AM (#18839507) Homepage
    "Commodore 64 while having a faster CPU"

    It did not have a faster CPU. It had a CPU running at a higher external bus clock. You'd think that after all these years that people would realize that MHz != performance, but I guess not.

    The 6502 ran on a bus multiplier, meaning it ran faster internally than it did externally. This is true of practically any modern CPU, but was not so common back in the day. In general terms the 1MHz 6502 and 4MHz Z80 ran at the same internal speeds. That said, the 6502 was much more efficient and RISC-like. In practically any benchmark that scales for speed, the 6502 comes out ahead.

    Arguably the fastest, in theory, 8-bit machine was the Atari series. They ran a 2 MHz 6502 (declocked to sync with video), which was twice as fast as any of the other 6502 machines and effectively the same as an 8MHz Z80. But again, these machines always finished at the bottom of the heap in BASIC benchmarks, which again demonstrates the point at the top.

    • You're going to make our little challenged friend feel bad... Let it have it's day in the sun.

      Between all the Apple, Commodore, TRS 80, and Sinclair fans there is no winning.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Alioth ( 221270 )
      The 6502 had fewer registers and fewer instructions - it took more code to do the same thing. A Z80 could do a 16 bit add in 11 cycles - it took the 6502 around 20 cycles to do the same thing. The fastest 6502 instructions took 3 clock cycles to complete, the fastest Z80 instructions took four.

      Machines like the BBC Micro got better performance than the Spectrum not from the 6502, but because they had more hardware support which meant the CPU didn't have to do everything. But a BBC Model B, while undoubtedly
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by julesh ( 229690 )
        A Z80 could do a 16 bit add in 11 cycles - it took the 6502 around 20 cycles to do the same thing. The fastest 6502 instructions took 3 clock cycles to complete, the fastest Z80 instructions took four.

        Many 6502 instructions completed in only 2 cycles, although I believe the decode phase of the instruction was executed in parallel with the register write phase of the previous instruction, so in some circumstances it may have taken 3 cycles to execute the same instruction.

        Re 16 bit add, and assuming one memor
  • some acquaintance of my father brought a zx spectrum, and i played with it just 50 cm away to where i am sitting now. i remember it like tomorrow. i was what, 7 or so then.
    • by toQDuj ( 806112 )
      Time to move out of your parent's basement then.

      I keed, I keed.

      • vehhhhhhhhhhh.

        actually flats in turkey do not have basements.

        however i now inherited this flat. im living in it now. the same saloon i played with zx, is the saloon i work now.
  • Homage post (Score:3, Interesting)

    by fsmunoz ( 267297 ) <fsmunoz&member,fsf,org> on Monday April 23, 2007 @10:08AM (#18839691) Homepage
    Not really much to add, but I feel compelled to post in homage of the computer that changed the life of so many people, including my own.

    My very first computer was a ZX Spectrum 48k. I still remember the beautiful banner: "(c) 1982 Sinclair Research, Ltd. Chuckie Egg II was my very first game, and BASIC the very first programming language I tried. The ZX Spectrum and the Timex had an almost monopoly here in Portugal in the '80's, to the extent that I never really saw a C64. The Timex plant in Portugal continued making them after the main branch closed its doors, and exported the machine to several countries (Poland was one of the main markets IIRC).

    To Sir Clive: Hip! Hip! Hurrah!
  • Nostalgia time (Score:3, Interesting)

    by scrm ( 185355 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @10:09AM (#18839711) Homepage
    I started with a ZX81 and its 1kb of RAM, little flush keys and built-in BASIC. Moved up (or should I say 'was moved' - I was five years old) - to a ZX Spectrum when that came out. Ahh, the white-knuckle action of Arcadia [wikipedia.org]! The blistering platform mayhem of Horace and the Spiders [worldofspectrum.org] (by Psion no less)! I spent many a late night (sometimes not retiring until 8pm) hammering away at the rubber keys, navigating some hideous pixellated sprite.

    Damn I can still hear the staticky 'eeeeeee-ktsch' of the tape drive now.

    Modern computing seems so flat, routine and devoid of character by comparison. What happened?
  • Memories (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CrazyTalk ( 662055 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @10:14AM (#18839799)
    I remember that machine well - a friend of mine actually had one. Without the memory expansion pack, it was pretty much useless. Still, if you you wanted a computer (And who didn't?) you couldn't get any cheaper than that. I remember towards the end, they were literally giving them away for free at our local service station with purchase of an oil change.
  • Finally, I can post this without feeling like off-topic pimping... I've actually written and published a book ( http://zxgoldenyears.com/ [zxgoldenyears.com]) on the ZX Spectrum (full-colour, coffee table format) which I decided to do last year as a 'tribute' to the machine that defined my youth... The Spectrum was a fantastic machine for the time, even though it had weedy sound. It's a shame the Clive lost his way after the Spectrum+ and didn't add enough improvements to the 128k edition of the machine. I wonder if things wo
  • by gaspyy ( 514539 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @10:52AM (#18840249)
    Living in Eastern Europe, we didn't have access to most western hardware/software.
    When I was 7, my father built a 48K Spectrum from scratch using smuggled components (the Z80 processor, the EEPROMs), parts from other computers (the case and keyboard); he made the PCB by himself as well as copying and programming the ROMs. I still remember the hardware debugging sessions.

    Later we managed to make the Interface II (I think that was its name) addon board and get a floppy drive to work. It was an East-German Robotron 5.25" drive; we were using 360Kb Bulgarian floppies (sorry, can't remember the brand).

    It was a wonderful machine and it's the way I got into computers and learn assembler (Zeus ruled). At 12 I was busy cracking the games' copy protection to be able to copy them from tape to disks. Oh, btw, games had to be smuggled in too - one network used airline pilots, some of the few kind of people who could travel outside the country with ease. Don't get me started with books, it was hard even to photocopy one, as access to photocopiers was restricted.
  • by MobileTatsu-NJG ( 946591 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @10:59AM (#18840357)
    My dad told me a story about a friend of his that purchased a Sinclair. He was so excited to have a computer. He hooked it up, turned it on, and thought he'd ask it a simple question. "Who was the first president of the United States?" "SYNTAX ERROR" What?! My dad explained to him that he had to write a program to tell the computer how to answer that question. "Well if I have to tell it what I already know, what's the point?"!

    Yeah, he didn't get it. Actually, I imagine he's a lot more into computers these days. Finally got what he wanted, twenty years later.
    • by Inda ( 580031 )
      I knew a little more than that. I forget the syntax but my first program went a bit like this:

      10 A = 1
      20 B = 2
      30 PRINT C

      Why didn't the computer didn't know what "C" equalled? Surely that was obvious?

      I was 10 years old. These day I write Visual Basic, so not a lot has improved in the last 25 years. :)
  • Speccys in the US (Score:3, Informative)

    by itsdapead ( 734413 ) on Monday April 23, 2007 @01:26PM (#18842471)

    The machine may well have done well in the US too, had Timex -- the company building the machine under license in the US -- wasn't already in financial trouble and about to fold.

    There were 3 big barriers (at the time) to stop British machines taking off in the US:

    1. The TV standard - NTSC has less scan lines than PAL, so while a US computer could easily be tweaked to output frequencies that a PAL TV could cope with, going the other way tended to mean losing a row or two of text or graphics from the screen - which broke any software with the screen size hard-coded in (which, in those days, was most of it).
    2. EM emission standards. At the time, I don't think the UK had got round to regulating this and a Speccy or BBC Micro had no EM shielding and would wipe out any FM radio within earshot, so cases etc. had to be redesigned to accommodate EM shielding.
    3. Price - despite the Pound varying between $1.40 and $2 over the years, there is a long and continuing (*cough* Microsoft *cough*) history of US firms setting UK prices by crossing out the $ sign to a £. In the UK, Spectrum vs. C64 argument tended to be a non-argument because the former was so cheap. This advantage tended to evaporate once the computers hit the US market. Once the price advantage was removed it became kinda obvious that the C64 was better built and had more sophisticated hardware than the Speccy. Likewise, the Apple ][ was fairly unaffordable in the UK and never had much market share - leaving an open niche for the BBC Micro that didn't exist in the US. Sadly, instead of consolidating this niche by producing a BBC with more memory and 80-column text (actually, the first would have enabled the latter) Acorn tried to compete with Sinclair by prodicing a BBC-with-all-the-good-features-removed and lost ground.

Executive ability is deciding quickly and getting somebody else to do the work. -- John G. Pollard