The ZX Spectrum Finally Gets A Proper Keyboard

A 3D-printed case for the ZX Spectrum with a mechanical keyboard

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum is fondly remembered by many for being their first introduction into the wonderful world of computing. Its advanced capabilities coupled with a spectacularly low price made it one of the great home computers of the 1980s, at least in the UK and nearby countries. What was less spectacular about the Spectrum was its awful keyboard: although a step up from the flat membrane keyboards of earlier Sinclair computers, the Spectrum’s tiny rubbery keys made typing anything more than a few characters a bit of a chore.

If you’re planning to do any serious programming on your Spectrum, you might therefore want to check out [Lee Smith]’s latest project in which he redesigns the Spectrum’s case to include a proper mechanical keyboard. [Lee] got this idea when he was looking for ways to fix a few Spectrums with broken or missing cases, and stumbled upon several projects that aim to recreate classic Sinclair machines using modern components. He took a keyboard PCB meant for the ZX Max 128 project, populated it with some high-quality switches, and added a modified set of keycaps from the ManuFerHi N-Go.

A new ZX Spectrum case, opened to show the keyboard connecting to the mainboard
The new keyboard plugs into the original connectors and doesn’t require any board-level modifications.

Together, those parts formed a modern, comfortable keyboard that still had the proper labelling on all keys. This is rather essential on the Spectrum, since each key is also used to generate symbols and BASIC keywords: for instance, the “K” key also functions as LIST, +, LEN and SCREEN$.

With the keyboard design settled, [Lee] set to work on the rest of the case: he designed and 3D-printed a sleek enclosure that takes the new keyboard as well as an original Spectrum mainboard. The resulting system is called the ZX Mechtrum, and looks fabulous with its matte black exterior and the obligatory four-coloured rainbow. A replaceable rear panel also allows several board-level modifications, like composite video or VGA output, to be neatly incorporated into the design.

We wrote an extensive retrospect on the Spectrum on its 40th anniversary earlier this year. If, somehow, you actually like the Spectrum’s original rubbery keyboard, then you can also modify the whole thing to work with modern computers.

34 thoughts on “The ZX Spectrum Finally Gets A Proper Keyboard

      1. They were bad enough new, let alone after 4 decades! That ribbon cable was the reason I owned two ZX81s as a child… the day I replaced it with a Commodore 16 was a delightful day indeed!

      2. I have user a Arduino to interface between my PC keyboard thru the Arduino console to send ASCII to the Arduino as serial input and then “connect” the right row and the right row.

  1. ” A replaceable rear panel also allows several board-level modifications, like composite video or VGA output, to be neatly incorporated into the design.”

    Better install a VBS output (via BNC) and/or a mono VGA output.
    Both IBM CGA and ZX Spectrum should never, ever get even close to a color monitor! 😁

    1. Yes, but the FPGA you’d use for video format conversion would be able to just fine.
      I don’t even own an VBS display, so I’d need an additional converter for VBS to composite anyway.

  2. Forty years ago there were lots of surplus keyboards. And theywere just the keys, or could be rerouted. I bought one and wired it up, and used it with my Radio Shack Color Computer. I still have it.

    1. That’s neat, the ZX81 had a lot of software (hires games, 3D Monster Maze etc) and sometimes was used as an affordable control unit for electronics projects (measure temperature with an external temp sensor, switch some lights on, etc etc). So it definitely made sense to do that. In fact, using it with a ZX81 was less of a waste than keeping it as a replacement and installing it in a TI99, eventually.

      1. I’m not sure they sold the actual TI-branded replacement parts, but they carried their own line of functionally equivalent off-brand replacement part keyboards for several models of 8-bit computers including the TI99/4A, Commodore 16, etc. You can still sometimes find new old stock examples of them for sale on eBay now.

        1. I don’t remember that. I remember 99/4 keyboards in the ads.

          At one point Radio Shack planned an upgrade to the Color Computer, then changed their mind. So the better keyboards were sold off. Then later they had the CoCo III.

          Radio Shack was always looking for deals.

          1. These are the ones I’m thinking of. They’re “Archer” branded, but they have a Mitsumi sticker on the bottom so presumably they were sourced from the same factory that made the official ones. Technically not the official TI part, but they rolled off the same assembly line and are physically identical.

            https://www.ebay.ca/itm/225127878884

        2. If they are branded “Archer” likely just a way Radio Shack categorized things. Why would Radio Shack sell replacement keyboards for the 99/4 when the original keyboards were “fine” and hadn’t had enough time to wear out?

          They were surplus keyboards Radio Shack got a good deal on.

          1. Have you never accidentally broken something that wasn’t yet close to worn out? Stocking repair parts on the shelf for people to walk in and buy to fix things themselves without having to take it to (or send it away to) a service centre or mail-order the part was something RadioShack used to pride itself on.

  3. heh, i wonder if the keyboard is really what kept me off of the device. i got one at a garage sale for $2 in 1991. i remember i couldn’t get the tape load/store to work, but the keyboard was what really frustrated me. it was the first computer i actually owned myself, but because i knew i would always have to enter my program on *that* keyboard each time, i gave up without even making a single silly program on it. i spent much more time using even a comodore 16 and atari 800 that i had intermittent access to.

    1. That’s understandable, considering that late 80s magazines still had listings inside then.

      Alternatively, some magazines experimented with bar codes – to be read with a serial port bar code reader (just led+photodiode, essentially).

      Anyway, it was unavoidable that cheap computers had bad keyboards.
      The keyboard, CPU, RAM and mechanical storage (floppy drives, internal datasette drives) were the most costing parts.

      The Z80 CPU, however, was already mass-produced and cloned multiple times by then, gratefully. So it was possible to build Z80 based systems without a headache.

      The ZX81 even went a bit further and used defective RAM of higher density. The defective cells were simply bypassed.

  4. I have just that for the Czechoslovakian Didaktik M Spectrum clone recently. Unfortunately sourcing properly labeled keycaps is quite a challenge – I have resorted to using the “relegendable” keycaps meant for POS terminals where you stick a paper legend under a plexi cover. It works but it isn’t very nice :(

    However, it gives that Didaktik the best keyboard it ever had – Didaktik M keyboard was likely even worse than the already bad ZX Spectrum membrane one …

  5. What I remember from the ZX81 is that you could not touch-type, as you had to keep the key depressed for quite a long time for it to be registered. So a better keyboard does basically not allow you to type that much faster than you’d expect.

    Not sure if it was the same with ZX Spectrum.

  6. Well, say what you want about the Amstrad/Sinclair period but at least the 128K +2 and +3 speccies had very decent keyboards – as long as you used the superior 128K BASIC good times!

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