Creator of our fave home computer, Sir Clive Sinclair is fifty this year. Last month we looked at how he started the ZX range of computers and now we complete the story: from the launch of the ZX Spectrum in 1983 up until the present day.
The Spectrum hardware was designed by Richard Altwasser, and the software was adapted from the ZX-81’s by Stephen Vickers. The Spectrum had a new custom chip which could keep a colour display up yet hardly slow the processor at all — but a last-minute bodge was needed to make the keyboard work properly. This was the ‘dead cockroach’ modification: a chip soldered on its back with its legs in the air!
At £125 for 16K, or £175 for 48K, the Spectrum was very cheap and very powerful for its day. The 48K model seemed such a good deal that it sold eight times as well as the 16K model from the start, so a new version was produced — the issue 2 — which could hold 48K on one board. The issue 2 had blue keys, rather than grey ones, to make the lettering on them easier to read under electric light.
Meanwhile Altwasser and Vickers left Sinclair to set up their own firm, Jupiter Cantab, selling a small fast computer that was a cross between a Spectrum and a ZX-80. Their Jupiter Ace flopped.
Sinclair refined the Spectrum again in 1983, making BEEP slightly louder, using a cooler logic array, and adding a minor tweak which unfortunately stopped lots of sloppily-written games recognising the keyboard. This Spectrum was the infamous issue 3.
Meanwhile in the USA... Timex was bemused by the success of the TMS-1000, and tried to follow it with a 16K variation, the TMS-1500. It flopped, so Timex came out with the TMS-2068 — a superSpectrum with graphics much like the SAM Coupé, sound like a Spectrum 128K. That flopped too, mainly because of competition in the US market and poor software compatibility. Timex gave up in February 1984.
The rubbery Spectrum keyboard was universally hated, so Sinclair tried to develop something better-looking. The result was the Spectrum Plus. Brilliantly, with the Plus, Sinclair preserved total compatibility by using exactly the same circuits as in an old Spectrum, in a new box. And the Plus sold well, for a while, though the routines to read the keys still insisted you pressed them one at a time — fine for rubber keys, but now very frustrating.
Sinclair had been putting off plans for a superSpectrum since 1982. He spent most of 1983 designing a portable business computer, but at the last moment a near-random collection of design features merged into the Sinclair QL. The QL was launched, designed, manufactured and made to work, in that order.
In 1985 Sinclair’s main distributor, Prism, collapsed. The QL price was slashed in half. Sinclair, now a knight, was busy advertising electric tricycles. Robert Maxwell stepped in, sniffed the air, and stepped out again.
And by now the Spectrum was not considered sophisticated, even with the new keyboard. People began to demand more memory, interfaces and better sound. A mixture of new and TMS-2068 features were cobbled together to make the Spectrum Plus 128K. The money for the 128 come from Spain, so that’s where it was launched.
In January 1986 the Spectrum Plus 128K was launched in the UK in a desperate bid by Sinclair to look busy as debts piled up. But by March the bank had closed Sinclair’s accounts and the company staff were paid on the firm’s behalf by a large retailer who took stock in return.
On April 7 1986 Amstrad bought the right to make Spectrums, and to kill the QL, for just 25 million, and also paid £11 million for the remaining stocks.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that about 4 million standard Spectrums were produced by Sinclair Research. And there must be about 500,000 128s in circulation, with the bulk of those being first-edition Amstrad Plus.
A few Sinclair staff moved to Amstrad and produced the Plus 2: a 128 in a new box with a cassette drive ‘glued on’, as Amstrad boss Alan Sugar put it.
A year later came the first true Amstrad Spectrum — the Plus 3, minus Sinclair chips and plus the disk system from Amstrad’s CPC range. The Plus 3 was a new design, not very compatible with the old Spectrum and its wealth of 48K hardware and software.
Sir Clive Sinclair went on to sell a portable computer called the Z88, designed by Jim Westwood and using the same Z80 processor as the ZX range. Latest reports indicate plans for a C-15 electric car...!
At the 1988 PC Show, Amstrad launched its own machine — the Sinclair Professional PC 200. The machine found many critics — mainly because no-one understood who it was aimed at — it wasn’t a good games machine (it features only four colours and, at a basic starting price of around £350, is wildly expensive) and not powerful enough for a serious PC alternative. Not really Sinclair stuff at all.
Christmas 1989 saw the launch of the machine every one was really waiting for — the Miles Gordon Technology SAM Coupé. 256K RAM, four colour modes, fast operating speed and compatibility with the majority of 48K Spectrum games. Initially the ROM chip was bugged, but in April MGT delivered new ROM chips for users to fit themselves. By May 1990 the first signs of real software support were showing — Enigma Variations’ specially created SAM Coupé Defenders Of The Earth was just a week or so off release. Things were really looking up, and hardware sales appeared to be good.
At the time of writing there is no Part Three. However, recent events suggest there could be very soon. Will the Coupé continue its successful journey into the mainstream computer market? Additionally, what are Amstrad’s plans for the Spectrum range? Well, by the time you read this, someone from CRASH will have been to a confidential Amstrad conference, somewhere in France. The rumours suggest that Amstrad is launching a new range of CPC computers and a console — will there be any news of something happening on the Spectrum front? There’s only one way to find out — tune in next month as CRASH goes one step further...
£100, 4K ROM, 1K RAM; whole numbers only; very limited black-and-white graphics but basic 32 * 24 screen established. Total sales about 50,000.
£80. 2K RAM; ZX-80 kit copy
£70, £150; 8K ROM, 1K RAM; floating-point maths; slow but continuous black-and-white display. 500,000 sold in the first year
$100; licensed ZX-81 — a big hit for Timex in the USA
£125 (16K), £175 (48K); 16K ROM, 16K/48K RAM; colour graphics and much-improved display circuitry. 60,000 issue 1 Spectrums sold; grey keys; add-on 32K, ‘dead cockroach’ bodge.
ZX-81 price cut to £50
TMS-1000 price cut to $40
500,000 issue 2 Spectrums sold, blue keys, 48K RAM onboard; bodge transistor soldered over ULA
3,000,000 Plus Spectrum issue 3s sold; new low-power ULA, louder BEEP, runs cooler, no colour tweaks, key port incompatibility. Prices cut to £100/£130 (16K/48K)
$80; 8K ROM, 16K RAM; ZX-81 with better keyboard — a flop
$150/200; 24K ROM, 16K/48K RAM, paged in 8K lumps up to 256K. Improved BASIC, sound and muck better display, but very incompatible. UK PAL TV version never marketed.
£180, issue 3 circuits (with minor revisions) and extra RESET button, new box and keys.
Spectrum Plus price cut to £130, 16K and rubber-key versions discontinued
£180; 32K ROM and 128K RAM, in 16K pages; RGB; old box and chunky heat sink; no keywords; three-channel sound; clumsy screen editor; MIDI/serial port; funded by Investronica
£140, the old 128 on a new box, with a better keyboard and cassette unit ‘glued on’; 250,000 sold in first year; the first Amstrad Spectrum.
£249, 3-inch disk, AMSDOS in 64K ROM; first radical redesign since 1982. Earlier 128s were more compatible with existing hardware and software than the Plus 3 — they hod extra features just bolted on rather built in.
Spectrum Plus 3 price cut to £199 — some stores discount further to £180
64K ROM, 128K RAM; outwardly as older Plus 2s but less compatible inside.
16-bit processor 8Mhz 8086, 512K RAM. One 3.5inch 720K disk drive. Medium resolution CGA graphics 320 x 200 pixels in four colours Never hit the big lime.
MGT launches the SAM Coupé. The new British computer offering compatibility with the majority of Spectrum software
Amstrad hold a secret conference in France, with major announcements expected