Can you believe the Sinclair ZX Spectrum is approaching its fifth decade in existence?
The ZX Spectrum (pronounced “Zed-Ex,” if you want to be proper) made waves around the world when it was released in 1982. Its innovative design and discounted price tag made it a top choice for millions of households.
So, what was the ZX Spectrum, and how strong is its legacy today as a symbol of British technological prowess? Let’s dive in to find out.
A Brief History of the ZX Spectrum
Sinclair, a London-based company founded by Clive Sinclair (now Sir Clive), had already found great success with the ZX80 and ZX81 home computers, both built on the popular Zilog Z80 microprocessor.
The ZX Spectrum—known as Speccy by some fans—was Sinclair Research’s third computer model. It would also become their best-seller.
To keep up with the rapid advances in the industry in the early 80s, Sinclair’s industrial designer Rick Dickinson designed the next model by improving on the ZX81 (sold as the Timex Sinclair 1000 in the US).
Sinclair’s goal was to come up with a design that was as inexpensive to produce as possible. They designed almost every component from scratch and didn’t shy away from heavy-handed engineering to meet their goal.
Dickinson kept the Z80 CPU at 3.5 MHz but doubled the ROM to 16 KB. He added either 16 or 48KB of RAM, depending on the model, which was a massive increment from the ZX81’s default 1KB.
He also added a 15-color output, making the Spectrum one of the first home computers to offer color display, at a resolution of 256x192 pixels.
To keep manufacturing costs down, the original Spectrum had a cheap membrane keyboard. Unlike the standard keyboards of the day, with hundreds of moving parts, this rubber keyboard only had four or five parts.
See the heavy-handed engineering at work?
This keyboard would go on to earn a reputation for its lack of tactile feedback. For better or for worse, it would become an iconic feature of the Spectrum, even though later models improved their keyboards quite a bit.
Because of its design philosophy, the circuit board of the ZX Spectrum had its components as close to each other as the technology would allow, making this a tiny computer for its day.
Metal case and all, it weighed 550 grams (1.2 pounds). Contrast that with the four-pound Commodore 64 and the eight-pound BBC Micro.
Upon its release on April 23, 1982, the ZX Spectrum took its place among the first mainstream home computers made in the United Kingdom.
It had a price tag of £125 ($200), half the price of its nearest competitor. For comparison, the BBC Micro sold for £299 ($478), and the Commodore 64, released later that year, would sell for $600.
Even adjusted for inflation, it’s still among the cheapest home computers ever made.
Issue 1 had a run of 26,000 units. You can tell an Issue 1 Spectrum from later models by the light gray color of its keys. Later issues had a blue-gray color.
The ZX Spectrum came in a few years into the home computer revolution, but not too late to make a big splash in the industry.
Almost immediately, the ZX Spectrum became a ubiquitous sight throughout the UK and Europe.
The Spectrum was a very inexpensive computer with features comparable to much more expensive machines. The allure for consumers was hard to resist, and it showed in Sinclair’s bottom line.
Hosts of people who had been priced out of getting a home computer up to that point could suddenly afford one. They flocked to the product.
Hardware companies made fortunes creating peripherals for it. Software companies published 2,000 games for it. Youngsters became pioneer bedroom coders who then built careers in tech.
Thus, the IT industry in the UK was born.
Clive Sinclair earned a knighthood in 1983 for contributions to British industry.
But the success of the Spectrum went beyond Europe. In the United States, Timex Corporation saw what was going on across the pond and jumped right in.
Into a joint venture with Sinclair, that is.
In 1983, Sinclair licensed the design of the ZX Spectrum to Timex, who, with some enhancements, sold it in the US and other countries as the Timex Sinclair 2068. Sinclair later adopted Timex’s innovations into their designs.
There were many others, of course, who sought to piggyback onto the success of the ZX Spectrum. There were over 50 unofficial clones, mainly coming out of Central and Eastern Europe.
With or without those clones, though, the ZX Spectrum remained a top contender in the market, even after Amstrad bought the Spectrum line and the Sinclair brand in 1986.
Amstrad kept pumping out new models to stay competitive. And it worked for several years.
In its 10-year production run under two different companies, the ZX Spectrum sold five million units across eight different models. That’s a hefty increase from the ZX81’s 1.5 million units.
But by the early 1990s, even the latest versions of the ZX Spectrum were showing their age. New contenders, such as the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST, were edging out their older counterparts.
New competition from PC clones, dedicated game consoles, and Japanese manufacturers was heating up.
Amstrad officially discontinued the ZX Spectrum in 1992.
Legacy: Is the ZX Spectrum Still Around?
Even so, you could say the ZX Spectrum is very much alive.
Collectors, historians, and hobbyists make up a vibrant online community of Spectrum fans. Portugal even boasts a fan-made museum, LOAD ZX Spectrum, a hundred percent dedicated to the machine.
And on April 23, 2012, Google honored the Spectrum’s legacy with a Google Doodle.
But the Spectrum doesn’t just live in museums and Doodles. Several modern clones attempt to take you back to the ZX Spectrum’s heyday.
The most recent of the bunch is a Kickstarter project from Brazil called ZX Spectrum Next, a modern 8-bit home computer based on the 128 variant from 1985.
Released in its complete form in 2020, the Next has a Z80 CPU implemented in a modern FPGA. Issue 1 comes with 1MB of RAM, upgradable to 2MB. Issue 2, expected in August 2021, will come standard with 2MB.
It also comes with VGA, RGB, and HDMI ports, and is software- and hardware compatible with the original machine.
Beyond hardware clones, devoted fans are still writing games for their favorite home computer of all time.
Enjoyment for Years to Come
After changing the industry nearly 40 years ago, the ZX Spectrum has many good years ahead thanks to its fans.
Was the ZX Spectrum popular? Very much so. Is it still popular? You bet, if you know where to look.
You can see its legacy in the tech industry to this day. But, even more so, its legacy is in the hearts of those who developed a love-hate relationship with its keyboard by playing their first games or writing their first programs on it.
That’s a mark you can’t erase.
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