A Raspberry Pi-Packing Cassette Powers This ZX Spectrum Emulator

Sometimes we are vaguely aware of the inexorable march of technological progress. Other times it thrums steadily under the surface while we go about our lives. And sometimes, just sometimes, it smacks us right in the face.

Few projects can demonstrate the advancement and miniaturization of computing technology like putting an entire functional computer inside a storage medium that once only held mere kilobytes of data. And that’s exactly what [JamHamster] has done by stuffing a Raspberry Pi Zero W inside a cassette tape to run his ZX Spectrum emulator. It’s an impressive and clean build, and it pairs so well with a downright gorgeous, retro inspired, CRT-lookalike LCD monitor, which is another creation of his.

A Raspberry Pi Zero with several areas lightly trimmed away inside an open cassette tape.

The Pi did have to undergo a bit of light surgery; though he managed to lose only four GPIO pins in the operation. He also put a ton of love into a literally-highly-polished aluminum heatsink, which is entirely hidden within the case but does keep the computer cool in its claustrophobic quarters. Of course, [JamHamster] isn’t new to these cassette builds. You may recognize his work from the TZXDuino, a virtual tape loader for the ZX Spectrum.

Honestly, sometimes we just have to sit back and be amazed at the kind of computer power that can be packed into such tiny packages. The Pi Zero isn’t the smallest or the most powerful of options, but it is far more capable than the computer it is emulating here. So whether they’re hiding inside outdated storage formats or powering a stock-looking sleeper PSP, we just can’t help but be impressed.

Finally! The ROM You Wished Your Sinclair Spectrum Had!

If there is one thing that Sir Clive SInclair was famous for, it was producing electronic devices that somehow managed to squeeze near-impossible performance out of relatively meagre components. This gave us some impressive products, but it’s fair to say that sometimes this philosophy pushed the envelope a little too far. Thus even some of the most fondly remembered Sinclair products concealed significant flaws, and this extended to both their hardware and their software.

Sir Clive never gave us this!
Sir Clive never gave us this!

The SInclair ZX spectrum’s ROM for example had more than its fair share of bugs, and its BASIC programming experience with single keypress was unique but also slow to run. It’s something [Jonathan Cauldwell] has addressed with his Arcade Game Designer ROM, a complete and ready to run replacement for the original Spectrum ROM that contains a scripting language, a compiler, editors for in-game assets, and a game engine upon which to run your games. It’s the ROM you wanted back in 1983, when you were struggling to fit a bit of Z80 code in a Sinclair Basic REM statement.

If you’re a Spectrum enthusiast and think this sounds a little familiar then you are of course correct. It builds upon his past work with his Arcade Game Designer, with the distribution by ROM allowing the developer to use the full 48k available on all but a very few early 16k machines. You’ll need your own EPROM on which to burn it, but we suspect that if you’re the kind of person who has a Spectrum and has writing these games in mind, you already have access to the relevant equipment.

If you’re new to all this Spectrum stuff and where its ROM came from, then maybe it’s time for a trip down memory lane.

The ZX Microdrive: Budget Data Storage, 1980s Style

An enduring memory for most who used the 8-bit home computers of the early 1980s is the use of cassette tapes for program storage. Only the extremely well-heeled could afford a disk drive, so if you didn’t fancy the idea of waiting an eternity for your code to load then you were out of luck. If you had a Sinclair Spectrum though, by 1983 you had another option in the form of the unique Sinclair ZX Microdrive.

This was a format developed in-house by Sinclair Research that was essentially a miniaturized version of the endless-loop tape carts which had appeared as 8-track Hi-Fi cartridges in the previous decade, and promised lightning fast load times of within a few seconds along with a relatively huge storage capacity of over 80 kB. Sinclair owners could take their place alongside the Big Boys of the home computer world, and they could do so without breaking the bank too much.

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3D On The ZX Spectrum 48K

There are times when a project becomes such a big part of a maker’s life that they find themselves revisiting it even years later. [Thanassis] combined this phenomena with his love for the ZX Spectrum when he ported one of his old 3D rendering projects to the ZX Spectrum 48K. The video below shows the result, and they speak for themselves.

The roots of this project go back around three years, when [Thanassis] posted a similar project for the ATMega328 which employed fixed point math tricks for achieving the graphics. The code needed to be even tighter to run on the Spectrum, eventually getting boiled down to just a handful of calculations. This got the proof of concept working with the z88dk compiler, but it wasn’t quite fast enough.

In the end, hand assembly optimizations nearly doubled the performance to a blistering 10 frames per second. There’s also a version that kicks it all the way up to 40 FPS, but only if you give it a few minutes to do the calculations ahead of time. With a few teaks and the right display, this project could produce some very cool retro visuals.

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FPGA Raises Component Video From A Sinclair ZX Spectrum

An abiding memory of the early-80s heyday of 8-bit computing for many is operating their computer from the carpet in front of the family TV. While the kids in the computer adverts had parents who bought them a portable colour telly on which to play Jet Set Willy, the average kid had used up all the Christmas present money on the computer itself. The cable would have been an RF connection to the TV antenna socket, and the picture quality? At the time we thought it was amazing because we didn’t know any different, but with the benefit of nearly 40 years’ hindsight, it was awful.

For ZX Spectrum owners in 2020 a standard modification is to bring out a composite video signal, but [c0pperdragon] has gone a step or two beyond that with a component video interface. And this isn’t a mod in which the signals are lifted from the Spectrum’s colour encoder circuitry, instead it uses an FPGA hooked directly to the ULA chip to generate the component video itself.

The Altera chip sits on a little PCB designed to occupy the footprint of the original Astec modulator, and sports a neat bundle of wires hooked up to the various Spectrum signals it needs. There are a couple of jumpers to select the output type and resolution, it supports YPbPr or RGsB outputs and both 288p and 576p. If you think perhaps it looks a little familiar, that’s because it’s the sister project of an earlier board for the Commodore 64. So if you have a Spectrum and are annoyed by UHF and PAL, perhaps it’s worth a look.

Download A Bit Of Sinclair History

If you are a devotee of the Sinclair series of 8-bit home computers then a piece of news from the Centre For Computing History in Cambridge may be of interest to you, they’ve released a copy of the ROM from their ZX Spectrum prototype. This machine surfaced last year as part of a donation form the company originally contracted to write the Spectrum ROM and has been given pride of place int heir exhibition ever since. They’ve been doing some very careful work on it, and while The Register reports they can’t yet make the board boot, they have extracted the code for study. In the video below the break, we see it running on the Speccy emulator on an older Windows PC.

The ROM comes with an invitation to the ZX Spectrum community to analyze it against the stock version, in the hope of revealing ossified fragments of code such as that for the Microdrive storage peripheral which never made it into the stock Spectrum. But should you simply want to try your favorite games with the earliest possible version of the ROM, you can do that too.

We covered the machine’s emergence last year, meanwhile, if you haven’t been to the Centre for Computing History yet, we suggest you take a look at our review from a few years ago.

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The ZX Spectrum Next Arrives

Sinclair Research was best known in the United States for the tiny ZX80, and the ZX81, under its Timex branding. However, they also made the ZX Spectrum which had many features that were — at the time — unusual. A few years ago there was a Kickstarter to recreate a modern version of the Spectrum, and [Nostalgia Nerd’s] new ZX Spectrum Next has finally arrived. As you can see in the first part of the hour-long video he was very excited about it. Almost too excited for YouTube.

The new incarnation of the Spectrum claims to be fully compatible with the original but also offers improved graphics modes, SD cards instead of tape, and an optional 7 MHz clock speed. The 512K of RAM would have been sinfully luxurious back in the day when the original model came with 16K, although the most iconic Spectrums would be the 48K models. The new version even has the option of taking a Raspberry Pi Zero to act as an accelerator.

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