Liam Proven (liam_on_linux) wrote,
Liam Proven

Confessions of a Sinclair fan

I'm very fond of Spectrums (Spectra?) because they're the first computer I owned. I'd used my uncle's ZX-81, and one belonging to a neighbour, and Commodore PETs at school, but the PET was vastly too expensive and the ZX-81 too limited to be of great interest to me.

I read an article once that praised Apple for bringing home computers to the masses with the Apple ][, the first home computer for under US$ 1000. A thousand bucks? That was fantasy winning-the-football-pools money!

No, for me, the hero of the home computer revolution was Sir Clive Sinclair, for bringing us the first home computer for under GB £100. A hundred quid was achievable. A thousand would have gone on a newer car or a family holiday.

In 1982, my parents could just about afford a 2nd hand 48k Spectrum. I think they paid £80 for it, postage included. I was so excited to receive it, I couldn't wait to try it out. Rearranging a corner with a desk and a portable TV would take too long. So I lay on the lounge floor, Spectrum plugged into the family colour TV and sitting on the carpet. Said carpet, of course, blocked the vents on the bottom of the Speccy so it overheated and died in half an hour.

Happily, it was under guarantee. I sent it back, the original owner got a warranty repair, returned it to me, and I took much better care of it after that.

I learned BASIC and programming on it. My favourite program was Beta BASIC, which improved the language and the editor. I wrote programs under Beta BASIC, being careful to use a subset of BASIC that I could compile with HiSoft BASIC for the best of the Speccy's meagre performance.

I put it in an LMT 68FX2 keyboard for it.

Then an Interface 1 and a microdrive. A terrible storage system. I told myself I was used to Sinclair cost-cutting and it would be OK. It wasn't. It was slow and unreliable and the sub-100 kB capacity was crap. I bought special formatting tools to get more capacity, and the reliability got even worse. My watchword became "save 2 copies of everything!" It still stands me in good stead today, when Microsoft Word crashes occasionally corrupt a document or I absent-mindedly save over something important.

So I replaced the 48k Spectrum with a discount ex-demo 128, bought from Curry's. I could save work-in-progress programs to the RAMdisk, then onto Microdrive when they sort of worked. Annoyingly it wouldn't fit into the keyboard. I put the 48's PCB back into its old case and sold it, and mothballed the keyboard. To my surprise and joy, I found it in 2014 when packing up my house to move abroad. It now has a Raspberry Pi 2 in it, and any day now I will fit my new RasPi 3 into it for extra WLAN goodness.

At Uni, I bought an MGT +D and a 5¼" floppy, plus a cheap Panasonic 9-pin dot-matrix printer. The luxury of fast, reliable storage -- wow! 780kB per disk! Yes, the cool kids had the fancy new 3½" drives, but they cost more and the media were 10x more expensive and I was a poor student.

The +D was horrendously unreliable, and MGT were real stars. They invited me to their Cambridge office where Alan Miles plied me with coffee, showed me around and chatted while Bruce Gordon fixed my interface. The designer himself! How's that for customer service?

I am not sure now, 30 years later, but I think they gave me a very cheap deal on a DISCiPLE because they couldn't get the +D to run reliably. Total stars. I later bought a SAM Coupé out of loyalty, but lovely machine as it was, my Acorn Archimedes A310 was my real love by then. There was really no comparison between even one of the best-designed 8-bit home computers ever and a 32-bit RISC workstation.

I wrote my uni essays on that Spectrum 128; I was the only person in my year at Uni to have their own computer!

Years later, I bought a second 128 from an ad in Micro Mart, just to get the super-rare numeric keypad, Spanish keycaps and all. I sold the computer and kept the keypad.

So I was a Sinclair fan because their low cost meant I could slowly, piecemeal, acquire and expand the machines and peripherals. I never had the money for an up-front purchase of a machine with a decent keyboard and a good BASIC and a disk interface, such as a BBC Micro, much as I would have liked one. I was never interested in the C64 because its BASIC was so poor.

The modern fascination with them mystifies me a bit. I loved mine because it was cheap enough to be accessible to me; those of its limitations that I couldn't fix, such as the poor graphics, or the lack of integer variables and consequent poor BASIC performance, really annoyed me. The crappy keyboard, I replaced. Then the crappy (but, yes, impressively cheap) mass storage: replaced. The BASIC, kinda sorta replaced. Subsequent additions: proper mass storage, better DOS, proper dot-matrix printer on proper Centronics interface.

Later, I even replaced the DOS in my DISCiPLE with Uni-DOS, replacing sequential file handling (which I never used) with subdirectories (which were massively handy. I mean, nearly a megabyte of storage!)

I was never much of a gamer. I'm still not. At school, I collected and swapped games like some kids collect stamps -- the objective was to own a good collection, not to play them. I usually tried each game a couple of times, but no more. Few kept my attention: The Hobbit, the Stranglers' Aural Quest, The Valley, Jet-Pac. Some of the big hits that everyone else loved, like Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, I hated. Irritating music, very hard gameplay, and so repetitive.

And yet now, people are so nostalgic for the terrible keyboard, they crowd-funded a new version! One of the first things I replaced, it was so bad! There are new models, new hardware, all to play the to be honest really quite bad games. Poor graphics, lousy sound on the 48. And yet everyone rhapsodises about them.

I agree that, back then, game design was more innovative and gameplay often more varied and interesting than it is today. Now, the graphics look amazing but there seem to me to be about half a dozen different basic styles of gameplay, but with different plots, visuals and soundtracks. Where is the innovation of the level of The Sentinel or Elite or Marble Madness or Q-Bert?

I have a few times played Jet-Pac in an emulator, but I am not a retro-gamer. I enjoy playing with my Toastrack, immaculately restored by Mutant Caterpillar, and my revivified LMT 68FX2, given a brain-transplant by Tynemouth Software. The things I loved about my Sinclairs seem to be forgotten now, and modern Spectrum aficionadi as nostalgic about the very things I resented -- the poor graphics and bargain-basement sound -- or replaced: the rotten keyboard. It is so weird that I can't relate to it, but hey, I'm happy that the machines still exist and that there's an active user community.
Tags: +d, beta basic, disciple, mgt, sinclair, spectrum
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