The ZX Spectrum

So continuing on with my current binge in retro computing, I recently bought a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K. It was in quite good condition. It came with power supply, original box and manuals as well as tape cables and a cassette player with some original commercial games on tape. The keyboard still worked.

Unlike all the other 80s computers I have (Amiga 500, Atari 800XL, Electron), I never ever saw a Spectrum during the 80s. I saw the magazines, but I never knew anyone who had one (this was in Australia). I still wanted one though. So powering it on was a ‘new’ experience.

I tried RF output originally straight into our 40 inch Bravia … and it worked, but the colours were way off. So then out came the soldering iron to hack it to do composite. Originally I just tried composite straight off the wire leading into the RF modulator, but that didn’t work so well, so I tried the single transistor composite mod and that worked much better … on the Bravia.

I also tried the composite feed into my composite/svideo to vga converter and the picture bounces around and looks very bad. I would really like it to work via this adapter … so I haven;t given up on it. I am guessing the sync signals are rather vague for the PAL standard … so  I am playing with a few ideas re the composite output. An interesting thing that I hope to discuss in a future post is that of the three 8 bit era computers I have; Atari 800XL, Spectrum and Electron, only the Electron produces a rock steady picture via this adapter …. which is weird. The other two produce awful unusable pictures. So for now we have to use our 40 inch Bravia with the tiny little Spectrum.

So I tried a few games, both using the cassette player and using a TZX player program off a laptop. I must admit the Spectrum is a lot better at loading stuff than the Electron. The Electron is super picky when it comes to tape volume settings. Spectrum games all have a bit of a ‘home brew’ feel about them. No offence intended. I am thinking this must have inspired a lot of teenagers to go ‘I can write something like this’. The games are quite colourful and fun.

One interesting thing with the Spectrum is how much my 4 year old likes it. I guess there are a few things that might explain it; its tiny. He can pick it up and carry it around the house. The keyboard is ‘kid sized’. Because of the contextual command line interface he can make it write out ‘big words’ pretty quick. It’s quite easy to type in different colours too. It hasn’t taken him long to understand all the funny key combos on the Spectrum. The often forgotten thing about early 80s computers is that they ‘instantly turned on’. This concept of ‘waiting for it to boot’ didn’t really occur for all these ‘start in BASIC’ computers (I am still waiting some 30 years later for someone to invent a computer that instantly turns on and is useable  … and I realise a lot of modern stuff ‘instantly resumes’ … but its not quite the same thing).

I think my son likes all the cables you have to plug in with these old computers like the Spectrum. I don’t leave it set up anywhere so he needs to pick it up, take it to the TV, I take the power supply, and he will pick up the tape player and the tapes and we plug it all in together and turn it on. He knows how to type LOAD “”. And he really likes the tape player. In the modern world everything is seemingly a very soft touch interface with virtually no tactile feedback, whereas an old-school tape player is clunky and very mechanical. You press REWIND and you can hear the tape reels whir. You can hear it ‘clunk’ when it gets to the beginning of the tape. It takes some effort for a 4 year old to push the PLAY button so he is pretty pleased when he does it. He also gets to ‘choose’ because all the commercial game tapes have glossy cartoony cover graphics.

We actually typed in a BASIC program from the manual the other night. My son did maybe 80% of the typing. It was an example in the manual to  put all the available colours on the screen. It was 13 lines. It was fun. My son seemed to enjoy it. He could enter RUN at the end and see all these cool colours.