[It's the 30th anniversary of the ZX Spectrum this week - and once again, a few veterans here in the PC & Tech Authority office feel their age. In memory of the machine, we decided to repost this story below, first published in July 2010.]
It never achieved the same superstar status in Australia as it did in the UK, but Sinclair Research's tiny rubber keyboarded 8-bit system heralded one of the first -- and most bitter -- home computer fanboy wars. The elites may have been able to bask in the beige glory of the Apple II, but at the cheaper end of town, it was all about Spectrum vs Commodore 64.
What kind of hardware did the ZX Spectrum run on?
Unlike the Commodore 64, which received aesthetic upgrades but the same basic innards, the ZX Spectrum received a number of component level upgrades throughout its life, most notably around the amount of inbuilt memory. All of the ZX models ran off the 8-bit processor of choice in the 1980s, the Zilog Z80, pinging along at a speedy 3.5MHz. The 16KB model quickly gave way to the 48KB model, and both are remembered also for the distinctive rubber keyboard. Distinctive if only because it rather resembled pressing down on a corpse... or so we're told. We're not keen to run comparative tests on actual corpses to find out!
The Spectrum+ was essentially the 48K ZX with the rubber keyboard dumped in favour of a plastic keyboard, a factor that was kept in the later ZX Spectrum 128. No prizes for guessing how much RAM that model had.
What kind of software did the ZX Spectrum run?
Games. Yeah, OK, there were word processors, art tools and spreadsheets as well, but this was the 1980s, a time when cheaper machines were nearly always about games. Spectrum games were notable for overcoming the significant technical limitations of the hardware itself. The most prominent of these were the limitations around the display of colours onscreen, leading to colour clash. Lots of Spectrum games either opted for few colours, or a few too many, with many prominent arcade conversions suffering through bright yellow, pink or orange character sprites. Often all three at once. Playing ZX Spectrum games with a hangover is not advised.
Whatever happened to the ZX Spectrum?
Clive Sinclair sold the Spectrum brand -- and all the remaining retail stock -- to Alan Sugar, head of Amstrad in 1986. Sugar then infamously turned around and made more from the deal than he paid simply by selling off the back stock, but that wasn't quite the end of the Spectrum brand, as Amstrad sold several "plus" models -- the +2, +2A/B and +3 systems -- up until 1990, when production on Spectrums was wound down.
Why was it relevant?
The ZX Spectrum was insanely cheap for its time, and that meant it quickly became rather ubiquitous. That ubiquity, combined with a relatively easy to learn and open programming interface meant that it was the machine that many games programmers cut their teeth on. Rare (Goldeneye, Banjo Kazooie, Perfect Dark) was founded by the Stamper Brothers as
Ultimate Play The Game to write ZX Spectrum titles. David "Earthworm Jim" Perry did likewise, and Codemasters started life as a budget label publishing to all the 8-bit platforms. The ZX Spectrum is also where one of gaming's earliest platform heroes, Miner Willy (Manic Miner/Jet Set Willy) got its start.
Spectrum development continues to this day, albeit not at as frantic a pace as it used to. Still, the tinkerers have plenty of fun. We were particularly impressed by this rather astonishing bit of code, which makes the Spectrum Twitter-compatible. Honestly.
What's it worth?
Not a whole lot, but that's not surprising for a computer system that started life out cheap. There appears to be something of a market for the Russian-made Spectrum clones on eBay, but basic ZX Spectrum machines won't generate a huge sum of cash for you if you happened to stumble across one. Expect to pay between $20-$100 for a given Spectrum machine if you're particularly keen, but don't expect to see too many for sale on Australian shores.