FOR MILLIONS of a certain age, the ZX Spectrum is an icon of an era. First released in 1982, the tiny rubber-keyed computer was one of the contenders to be the official BBC Micro Computer, but went on to become far more successful in its own right, selling over five million units and popularising home computing in the UK with its low price point.
Additionally, it spawned a breed of bedroom coders creating a cottage industry of homemade software, much of it programmed in Sinclair BASIC.
What goes around comes around, and during 2014 two different Kickstarters launched to fund recreated versions of the ZX Spectrum, and in the event both arrived at the same time. So is nostalgia what it used to be? Or was it a dumb idea? The two manufacturers have taken very different approaches.
Before we get started on them, let's look at the original.
NAME: ZX Spectrum
MANUFACTURER: Sinclair Research
YEAR OF FIRST RELEASE: 1982
FUNDED BY: The success of its predecessors the ZX80 and ZX81
GAME STORAGE: Cassette, takes three to five minutes to load
SCREEN: Your TV's RF cable
PRICE: Around £50 on eBay
PROS: Hipster value
CONS: Too many to list
The original ZX Spectrum that we're using is (for completist nerds) an Issue 4 that we got at Christmas 1984. By this time the Spectrum was selling by the bucketload and a quick look at the underside shows that this was actually a mass produced version made by Samsung.
It has a Z80 chip running at 3.5MHz - that's megahertz not gigahertz - and boasts single channel sound and a dazzling eight colours that clash when they overlap.
Nevertheless, it sold millions of units, spawned sequels such as the Spectrum +2 and clones like the SAM Coupe and the Timex TS2068, because in those days, we didn't care that it took five minutes to load a game and there was a one in five chance that it wouldn't load first time.
There's an old-world charm about getting the ZX Spectrum out from under the spare bed. The rubbery 'dead-flesh' keys bring back a sense of muscle memory, and even the tiny ZX Printer that prints onto thermal tinfoil still works. But times move on.
Thirty years later, there are two remakes, in stock and ready to confuse the heck out someone's kids this Christmas.
NAME: ZX Spectrum Vega
MANUFACTURER: Retro Computers
YEAR OF FIRST RELEASE: 2015
FUNDED BY: Indie-Go-Go and (apparently) Sir Clive Sinclair himself
GAME STORAGE: Internal with SD card slot for more
SCREEN: Your TV's component cable
PROS: 1,000 games on board
CONS: Cables everywhere, no full keyboard
"The only one endorsed by Sir Clive Sinclair!" burbles the Vega website. This diminutive all-in-one machine comes licensed with 1,000 games. Yes, 1,000. Fully licensed, and raring to go.
Gone is the full rubber keyed approach and instead the Vega is about a third of the size of the original and has just four old-style keys. This is all about gaming and there are some classics on here. Most of the legendary Ultimate Play The Game titles - Jetpac, Atic Atac and Knight Lore to name but three - are present and correct, and to cap it all Skool Daze and Back To Skool are there too.
Plus all four Horace games. Wait a minute. Four? There were only three Horace games. And that's when you realise that in fact some of the titles are recent creations from the keen hobbyists who still program for the Spectrum.
The Vega connects to your telly, just as the original did, but rather than use the RF hook-up that used to cause endless arguments when you forgot to put it back afterwards and your parents couldn't get a picture when they wanted to watch Howard's Way, this uses the composite inputs used by your video camera, along with a USB power source.
Loading is, as you'd expect, a matter of milliseconds, not minutes, but we did find that the lack of buttons made some games difficult to control, and some functionality almost impossible to perform as you have to use a bolted on soft keyboard in the firmware.
But perhaps the most disappointing thing about the Vega is the cabling. It was a classic part of the original, but having five metres of cable across the room is not an aspect we fondly remember. More than once there were tripping incidents resulting in the computer and the person involved needing repair. So why on earth have they decided on this approach?
In short, if it was the only game in town, we'd love the ZX Spectrum Vega, but it probably wouldn't get used that often. It's got ugly trailing wires, it needs a TV to work, and it seems to have actually taken the original backwards instead of forwards.
Did we mention there's no Jet Set Willy or Manic Miner? Well there's not. But as the company reminds us, you can download just about any game you like from "gaming sites" around the web - everything ever written for the Spectrum is up there in some form - and add it to your unit using the handy microSD slot.
Then there's the opposition.
NAME: The Recreated ZX Spectrum
MANUFACTURER: Elite Systems
YEAR OF FIRST RELEASE: 2015
FUNDED BY: Kickstarter
GAME STORAGE: Your existing computer or tablet
SCREEN: Your existing computer or tablet
PROS: It's the real deal, but wireless
CONS: Messier launch, game selection is still trickling out.
The Recreated ZX Spectrum is a joy to hold in your hands. If it wasn't for the fact that you can't see the Tippex mark where the logo was "touched up" on the original, you'd be hard put to tell them apart.
Created by Steve Wilcox of Elite Systems, one of the premier games manufacturers for the Spectrum, the Recreated ZX Spectrum (as they have to call it for legal reasons) has taken the essence of the original and made it better.
The company has gone to Sky TV, which bought Amstrad, which bought Sinclair and as a result claims to be the "only full-sized recreation of the 1980's personal computer". The keys feel wrong, which means they feel right, and it's easy to hold.
Rather than go for a plug into the TV approach, Elite's version is a Bluetooth keyboard with modes - a regular mode where it functions as a keyboard for any device, and a gaming mode which allows you to use it with those licensed for this machine, either through a web app, or on your tablet with apps for iOS and Android. Then, if you want to play on a TV, all you need to do is beam them using Chromecast, Roku or Apple TV. We've even had it working on a Raspberry Pi.
The other big draw for the Recreated ZX Spectrum is it has exclusive rights to Chuckie Egg, Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy - as well as all the Elite releases, as you'd expect. There are more coming all the time, and if you want to go 'off grid' you can use a ZX Spectrum emulator to play any game you want.
And if you feel like getting really retro, you can take the plunge into Sinclair BASIC. The 48K and 128K versions of the programming language are there, so you can make something for yourself. It's good practice before you start learning to code proper.
Even the manuals have been lovingly scanned and provided to help you on your way.
The Recreated ZX Spectrum manages to combine the essence of the original, makes it wireless (it takes rechargeable batteries), futureproof and yet, unlike the Vega, loses nothing from the original.
Its launch has been a bit messier. The Android app was released on 28 September, and the games are taking longer to license, but there's still a fair few to get you started.
Longer term, it's a no brainer. The Vega is a fun toy, but the Recreated ZX Spectrum wins hands down. Now we're waiting for the Bluetooth Kempston joystick and microdrive. But perhaps that's wishful thinking.
A final note about Sir Clive Sinclair, who invented the original. History shows that after the ZX Spectrum he backed a number of also-rans. There was the C5, the QL, the Z88, all of which got it nearly right. Nearly. Sinclair has backed the Vega. There's something quite poetic about that. µ
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