The Cambridge Z88 Lives! (As A USB Keyboard)

What did [Clive Sinclair] do next? After his line of home computers including the iconic ZX Spectrum hit the buffers and was sold to Amstrad, that is. No longer in the home computer business, he released a portable computer for the business market. The Cambridge Z88 had a Z80 at its heart, a decent keyboard, a text-only LCD display, and ran for an impressively long time on a set of AA alkaline cells. It made a handy portable word-processor, or a serial terminal thanks to its rare-for-the-time RS232 port. And it’s that port that [Spencer Owen] made use of his Z88 in a modern setting, using it as a USB keyboard.

It’s a few years old, so he used a Minimus AVR microcontroller board to provide a serial-to-USB HID keyboard interface, and to keep things tidy he’s made a poor man’s enclosure for it using Sugru. It’s not quite an amazing hardware hack, but we’re featuring it simply for its use of a Z88. Retro computers used as keyboards are a common theme, but a Z88 is a particularly eclectic choice.

If you’re not British you may only know the name [Sinclair] through Brits on the Internet waxing lyrical about their ZX Spectrum computers, but in fact the man behind them is a serial electronics entrepreneur whose career has continued since the 1960s and has touched fields as diverse as portable television and bicycles aside from the computers he is best known for. Often his products took technology to the limit of practicality, but they were and continue to be the ones to watch. If [Clive Sinclair] is working in a field his products may not always hit the right note when released, but you can guarantee that you’ll be buying the same thing from the big boys within a few years. The Z88 is a classic Sinclair product, a little before its time in 1988 and pushing the technology a little too far, but delivering a truly portable and capable computer with a meaningful battery life a couple of decades before you’d find the same attributes from all but a few other niche manufacturers.

Not had enough USB HID devices? How about a Morse key? And if [Spencer] rings a bell, he’s the originator of the RC2014 retrocomputer we reviewed last year.

A Thoroughly Modern Sinclair ZX80

At the end of the 1970s, the 8-bit home computer market had been under way for several years. Companies like Apple and Commodore had produced machines that retain a cult following to this day, and there was plenty for the computer enthusiast to get to grips with. As always though with a new technology, the trouble was that an Apple II or a Commodore Pet wasn’t cheap. If you didn’t have much cash, or you were a young person with uncomprehending or impoverished parents, they were out of reach. You could build a computer from a kit if you were brave or technically competent enough, but otherwise you were out of luck.

As you might imagine, the manufacturers understood that there was an untapped market for cheaper hardware, so as we entered the new decade a range of budget machines that appeared to satisfy that demand. Gone were internal expansion slots, dedicated monitors and mass storage, for cheap keyboards, domestic TV monitors, and home cassette recorders. 1980s teenagers would have computers of their own, their parents safe in the knowledge they were educational while the kids themselves were more interested in the games. Continue reading “A Thoroughly Modern Sinclair ZX80”

Power For An Amstrad Spectrum

If you were an American child of the early 1980s then perhaps you were the owner of a Commodore 64, an Apple II, or maybe a TRS-80. On the other side of the Atlantic in the UK the American machines were on the market, but they mostly lost out in the hearts and minds of eager youngsters to a home-grown crop of 8-bit micros. Computer-obsessed British kids really wanted Acorn’s BBC Micro, but their parents were more likely to buy them the much cheaper Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Sinclair Research was fronted by the serial electronic entrepreneur [Clive Sinclair], whose love of miniaturization and ingenious cost-cutting design sometimes stretched the abilities of his products to the limit. As the 8-bit boom faded later in the decade the company faltered, its computer range being snapped up by his great rival in British consumer electronics, [Alan Sugar]’s Amstrad.

The Amstrad Spectrums replaced the rubber and then shaky plastic keys of the Sinclair-era machines with something considerably more decent, added joystick ports and a choice of a built-in cassette deck or one of those odd 3″ floppy disk drives for which Amstrad seemed to be to only significant customer. For that they needed a more capable power supply offering a selection of rails, and it is this unit that concerns us today. [Drygol] had a friend with an Amstrad-made Sinclair 128K Spectrum +2 with a broken power supply. His solution was to wire in a supply retrieved from a small form factor PC that had all the requisite lines, and for safety he encased it in an improbably huge piece of heat shrink tubing.

Wiring a PSU to a DIN plug for a retro computer is not an exceptional piece of work in itself even if it’s tidily done and nice to see older hardware brought back to life. What makes this piece worth a look instead is the teardown of what is a slightly unusual footnote to the 8-bit home computer story. We’re shown the familiar Z80 and support chips with the Spectrum edge connector and modulator on a through-hole board with a piece of cutting edge tech for a 1980s home computer, a single SMD chip unusually mounted nestled in a hole cut in the board.

Amstrad eventually stopped making Spectrums in the early 1990s, having also tried the Sinclair name on a spectacularly awful PC-compatible home computer. [Clive Sinclair] continued to release electronic products over the following decades, including a portable computer, the last of his trademark miniature radio receivers, and an electric bicycle accessory. Amstrad continue to make computers to this day, and [Alan Sugar] has achieved fame of a different sort as host of the UK version of The Apprentice. He has not yet become Prime Minister.

We’ve featured another Amstrad Spectrum +2 losing its tape deck for a slimmer machine. On that note, the Spectrum wasn’t Amstrad’s only entry in the 8-bit market, and we’ve also shown you a compact clone of their CPC464. As for [Drygol], he’s featured here several times. His mass-restoration of Commodore 64s for instance, or bringing a broken Atari ST back from the dead.

Sinclair I/O Board Completed Over 30 Years Later

In the early 1980s when the 8-bit microcomputer boom was well under way, [Alan Faulds] was a student, and an owner of a Sinclair ZX81. He had ambitions to use it, in his words, “to control the world“, but since the Sinclair lacked an I/O port he was thwarted. He bought an expander board and a couple of I/O card PCBs from the British electronic supplier Maplin in the days when they were a mail order parts stockist rather than a chain of stores chasing Radio Shack’s vacated retail position.

Sadly for [Alan], he didn’t have the cash to buy all the parts to populate the boards, then the pressures of a final year at university intervened, and he never built those Maplin kits. They sat forgotten in their padded envelope for over three decades until a chance conversation with a friend reminded him of his unfinished student project. He sought it out, and set about recreating the board.

zx-io-thumbnailThe ZX81 had a single port: a PCB edge connector at its rear that exposed all the Z80 processor’s lines. It was notorious for unreliability, as the tiniest vibration when a peripheral was connected would crash the machine. Maplin’s expansion system featured a backplane with a series of edge connector sockets, and cards with bare PCB edge connectors. Back in the 1980s it was easy to find edge connectors of the right size with the appropriate key installed, but not these days. [Alan] had to make one himself for his build.

The I/O card with its 8255 and brace of 74 series chips was a double-sided affair with vias made through the use of little snap-off hand-soldered pins. [Alan] put his ICs in sockets, a sensible choice given that when he powered it up he found he’d put a couple of the 74 chips in the wrong positions. With that error rectified the board worked exactly as it should, giving the little ZX three I/O ports, albeit with one of them a buffered output.

We haven’t featured the little Sinclair micro as often as we should have here at Hackaday, it seems to have been overshadowed by its ZX Spectrum successor. We did show you a VGA ZX81 emulated on an mbed though, and a rather neat color video hack for its Brazilian cousin.

Pocket Calculator Emulates Pocket Calculator

msp430 Calc Emu

[Chris] has built a pocket calculator that emulates… a pocket calculator. Two pocket calculators, in fact. Inspired by [Ken Shirriff’s] incredible reverse engineering of the Sinclair scientific calculator, [Chris] decided to bring [Ken’s] Sinclair and TI Datamath 2500II simulators to the physical world.

Both of these classic 70’s calculators are based on the TMS0805 processor. The 0805 ran with 320 11-bit words of ROM and only three storage registers. Sinclair’s [Nigel Searle] performed the real hack by implementing scientific calculator operations on a chip designed to be a four function calculator.

[Chris] decided to keep everything in the family by using a Texas Instruments msp430 microcontroller for emulation. He adapted [Ken’s] simulator code to run on a MSP430G2452. 256 bytes of RAM and a whopping 8KB of flash made things almost too easy.[Chris’] includes ROMs for both the TI and the Sinclair calculators. The TI Datamath ROM is default, but by holding the 7 key down during boot, the Sinclair ROM is loaded. The silk screen includes key icons for both calculators, as well as some Doge-inspired wisdom on the back.

All joking aside, these really are amazing little calculators. Children of the 60’s and 70’s will be taken back when they see the LEDs flash as the emulated TMS0805 performs algorithmic arithmetic. [Chris’] code is up on Github. While he hasn’t released gerbers yet, he does have images of his PCB layout on the forums.

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Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2A Slims Down


[Carl] got his hands on a dead Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2A. He decided he wasn’t just going to fix it, he was going to improve it! The ZX Spectrum Compact is literally a “sawn-off” Spectrum +2A. [Carl’s] inspiration came from a similar mod at the Old Machinery blog.

Amstrad seems to have had a habit of bolting on additions to their products. In the case of the Spectrum +2A, it was a tape drive. Tapes weren’t a great storage method in the 80’s, and today they’re downright annoying. [Carl] didn’t need the tape interface, as he’s using a DiVide ATA interface.

The modification is rather straight forward. [Carl] broke out the hacksaw and cut the right end cap away from the tape drive. He then cut the entire tape drive away. The motherboard wasn’t safe from the saw treatment either, as the printer interface was cut off. Thankfully there were no components on the printer interface. Apparently [Carl] didn’t short any traces as he went to town with his saw.

With the motherboard modified to fit the abbreviated case, [Carl] was ready to begin reconstruction. He glued the cap onto the sawn-off case with Grip Fill glue, which also served to fill any gaps. Some sanding, priming, and painting later, The ZX Spectrum Compact was finished. This isn’t a perfect mod, as the gap is still slightly visible under the paint – but it’s good enough for [Carl]. Hey, it’s good enough for us, too – we can’t all be [Ben Heck]!


Obsolete technology band

Radiohead held a contest for fans to remix the single Nude from their album In Rainbows. Frontman Thom Yorke mentioned on NPR that the contest was essentially a joke, since the Nude track is recorded at 6/8 timing and 63bpm, much slower than traditionally mixed music. The above video from [James Houston] is one of the most creative entries. Using old computer hardware he has recreated the track in a very unique way. He uses a Sinclair ZX Spectrum for the guitar track, a dot matrix printer for the drums, a scanner for bass, and a hard drive array for vocals.

Want to make your own band with obsolete technology? Click through for a few pointers to get you started.

Continue reading “Obsolete technology band”