As the supply of genuine retrocomputers dwindles and their prices skyrocket, enthusiasts are turning their eyes in other directions to satisfy their need for 8-bit pixelated goodness. Some take the emulation route, but others demand a solution that’s closer to the original hardware. Following the latter path, [iNimbleSloth] is answering the question as to whether it’s possible to build a Sinclair ZX81 from all-new parts in 2022.
The ZX81 was Sir Clive’s second Z80-based computer, and its low price made it an instant success which paved the way for the legendary ZX Spectrum. From here in 2022 the original Ferranti ULA chip that contained all the logic is unobtainable except by raiding another ’81, so he’s using a design that has the same functionality in 74 series logic. The PCB is the same size as the original, and he’s paired it with a keyboard PCB using tactile switches. The video below the break is the first of what is to be a series, and he will be looking at a readily available 3D printed ZX81 case and the re-manufactured membrane keyboard.
For those of us who first learned to code in its meager 1k of memory the ’81 will always be a special computer. Sure it had many faults, but simply having an affordable real computer at all in 1981 was special. To see one being made from scratch is special then, and it would be nice to think that a few other people might learn how a computer works the Sinclair way.
You’ve got to watch out for Loki — he’s a trickster, after all, and he might make you think this semi-cyberdeck mash-up machine is named after him, when the backstory on this build is more interesting than anything in the current Marvel scene.
According to [Steve Anderson], Loki was the name of a mocked-up machine that Sinclair teased in the mid-1980s as a competitor for the Amiga. [Steve] coveted the vaporware machine and never quite got over it, but rather than pine for something that never existed, he created his own Loki. He only loosely qualifies the machine as a cyberdeck — it has some features of the genre, like a Raspberry Pi and a cast-off iPad screen for a display, but isn’t really intended to be as portable as a real cyberdeck. To scratch his Sinclair itch, the machine also includes a ZX Uno, which is an FPGA emulator of the Sinclair Spectrum. The keyboard is hand-wired using mechanical switches, and is backed up by a Pico running custom software so it can talk both USB and PS/2.
[Steve] has much more detail on Loki and his other cyberdeck builds over on his blog, which you should probably check out. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t look like he’s entered Loki in our new Cyberdeck Contest that just launched. Hopefully that’s just an oversight.
First up is something of value to all old Sinclair enthusiasts, he’s found a solution to the original battery connectors being prone to failure. A couple of parts stocked by RS can be used as replacements, which should save quite a lot of Sinclairs with crusty connectors.
Saving the connectors should have fixed the calculator, but only served to reveal that it had an electronic fault. Some detective work traced this to the power supply, which is a small switching circuit. The 1974 chip and associated coil had both failed, which rather drew the project to a halt. A second repair-or-spares Cambridge Scientific was sourced, and by good luck it happened to have a working PCB. So [Adam] got a working calculator, and we hope he’ll succumb to the temptation to shoehorn in a PSU from 2022 to get the other one working.
It’s an auspicious moment for retrocomputing fans, as it’s now four decades since the launch of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This budget British microcomputer was never the best of the bunch, but its runaway success and consequent huge software library made it the home computer to own in the UK. Here in 2022 it may live on only in 1980s nostalgia, but its legacy extends far beyond that as it provided an entire generation of tech-inclined youngsters with an affordable tool that would get them started on a lifetime of computing.
What Was 1982 Really Like?
There’s a popular meme among retro enthusiasts that the 1980s was a riot of colour, pixel artwork, synth music, and kitschy design. The reality was of growing up amid the shabby remnants of the 1970s with occasional glimpses of an exciting ’80s future. This was especially true for a tech-inclined early teen, as at the start of 1982 the home computer market had not yet reached its full mass-market potential. There were plenty of machines on offer but the exciting ones were the sole preserve of adults or kids with rich parents. Budget machines such as Sinclair’s ZX81 could give a taste of what was possible, but their technical limitations would soon become obvious to the experimenter.
1982 was going to change all that, with great excitement surrounding three machines. Here in the UK, the Acorn BBC Micro had been launched in December ’81, the Commodore 64 at the start of ’82, and here was Sinclair coming along with their answer in the form of first the rumour of a ZX82, and then the reality in the form of the Spectrum.
This new breed of machines all had a respectable quantity of memory, high-res (for the time!) colour graphics, and most importantly, sound. The BBC Micro was destined to be the school computer of choice and the 64 was the one everybody wanted, but the Spectrum was the machine you could reasonably expect to get if you managed to persuade your parents how educational it was going to be, because it was the cheapest at £125 (£470 in today’s money, or about $615). Continue reading “The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Turns 40”→
The golden age of 8-bit computing brought us pixelated graphics in bright colours, accompanied of course by chiptune music. This aesthetic is strong enough to define a collective image of a generation’s youth, even if the 1980s reality had much more of the tired 1970s leftovers about it. The truth was that not all popular 8-bit machines had colour, sound, or good graphics, and among these limited-capability machines was Sir Clive Sinclair’s ZX81. With a Z80, 1k of RAM, a membrane keyboard, and not much else, it helped set the stage for the hugely popular ZX Spectrum which followed it. The fun’s not over though, as [Augusto Baffa] demonstrates with his modern recreation of a machine that can switch between the ’81 and its less-popular ZX80 predecessor.
Rather than a Eurocard-sized mainboard and membrane keypad, this clone copies the ZX80 with a full-sized mainboard the front of which carries the keyboard contacts. It also eschews the ULA found in the ’81 for discrete TTL. It’s based upon the venerable Grant Searle design for a homebuilt Sinclair computer, and all of the files for this version can be found in a GitHub repository.
There is a lot to be said for the ZX81 as a model for retrocomputer experimentation, because of its extreme simplicity. It may have been no great shakes in the computing department compared to many of its competitors, but it remains possibly one of the easiest of the bunch whose operation to completely understand. Also we like it for that paltry 1k of memory, teaching kids about memory constraints is a good thing in our book.
Retrocomputer enthusiasts will quite often be found pondering the great what ifs of their hobby. What if Commodore had had a half-way decent marketing division is a popular one, but the notoriously penny-pinching ways of Sinclair Research are also a plentiful source. What if Sinclair had won the competition for a computer in UK schools, not only the first time around when Acorn’s BBC Micro scooped the prize, but also what if they’d entered the fray once more in 1983 when there was another chance? [10p6] investigates this possibility, and comes up with a Spectrum desktop computer that you can see in the video below the break.
The first two-thirds of the video is devoted to renders which, while pretty to look at, offer nothing of substance. In the later part though we see a build, putting a Spectrum 48k board, Interface 1, and two Microdrives in a slimline case along with a power supply. Meanwhile a ZX rubber keyboard is mounted stand-alone on the end of a cable. It’s a computer that we know would have been an object of desire for many kids back in the day, and we agree with the video that it could have been integrated onto one board without the need for a separate Interface 1. We feel it’s inevitable though that Sinclair’s cost-cutting would have caused something to go astray and there would certainly have been only one Microdrive, even though we like that separate keyboard a lot.
They claim that the STLs will be available from a Facebook group, however unless you happen to have a set of Microdrives and an Interface 1 to go with your Spectrum that you’re prepared to butcher for the project we’re guessing that the chief interest lies in watching it unfold and that some of the ideas might translate to other platforms. Meanwhile if you’re interested in the Microdrive, we did a teardown on them last year.
A pocket-sized TV is not a big deal today. But in 1983, cramming a CRT into your pocket was quite a feat. Clive Sinclair’s TV80 or FTV1 did it with a very unique CRT and [Dubious Engineering] has a teardown video to show us how it was done.
A conventional CRT has an electron gun behind the screen which is why monitors that use them are typically pretty thick. The TV80’s tube has the electron gun to the side to save space. It also uses a fresnel lens to enlarge the tiny image.