Year Released: 1989
Original price: £169.95
But it now for: £200+
Associated magazines: FRED, SAM Prime, SAM Revival
Why the Same Coupé was great: The Sam Coupé may have only sold aro0und 12,000 units, but it nevertheless built up a firm following over the years, thanks to a great community scene and some impressive games.
To call the Coupé a ‘Super Spectrum’ is tantamount to blasphemy in SAM circles. It’s a lazy phrase, after all, based on the fact that one of the computer’s four video modes mimicked the idiosyncratic output of the Sinclair machine, thereby allowing the SAM to run Spectrum software.
Using the machine as a Spectrum emulator was a bit like shoving it in first gear and gave no indication of the true power under the hood. The SAM’s motor was a Z80B processor that ran at almost twice the speed of the Spectrum’s Z80A, and it came with a minimum of 256KB memory, with 512KB quickly being standard. Audio was provided by a six-channel stereo sound chip, while the top-end graphics mode had a resolution of 256×192 and could display up to 16 colours from an available palette of 128. Its capabilities were more in line with the Atari ST than the creaky old Speccy, hence the fans’ contempt for the ‘Super Spectrum’ moniker.
Yet the SAM’s association with the Spectrum shouldn’t really be sniffed at, as it was crucial in marketing the machine to potential owners. Four-page advertising features that appeared in magazines like Crash and Your Sinclair revealed just why you needed the new machine. “You’ve been building up your Spectrum software collection for years,” ran the ad. “You want a computer with better sound, better graphics, more power – but you don’t want to lose your software. The Coupé is the computer for you.” It was a sound strategy.
The SAM launched in 1989 when the Spectrum hardware was seven years old and really beginning to show its age. All Amstrad had done since acquiring Sinclair was bolt a tape player and disk drive onto the existing 128K model in a bid to prolong the machine’s life. It had worked up to a point, yet some publishers were starting to talk about dropping 8-bit support and focusing on the 16-bit formats instead. Spectrum owners looking to upgrade were naturally drawn to the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST or a PC-compatible, so the idea of a powerful new computer in the same league as the 16-bits, yet still able to play all the old Speccy games, was pretty damn persuasive. It also guaranteed that plenty of positive SAM editorial appeared in the Sinclair magazines.
However, there’s more to the relationship between the two machines than just software compatibility. If you look closely at the SAM you’ll see that the Spectrum’s DNA runs right through it. The two men behind it, Alan Miles and Bruce Gordon, both worked for Sinclair Research before founding their own company, Miles Gordon Technology (MGT), in 1986. MGT specialised in designing neat peripherals for the Spectrum, such as the DISCiPLE floppy disk drive, which was presented as the professional alternative to Sinclair’s flaky Microdrive storage system. Sales of the DISCiPLE, and its successor the +D, provided MGT with the funding to finance the SAM project.
When designing the SAM hardware, Bruce Gordon was clearly influenced by the work and principles of his former employer. Similar to the ZX81 and Spectrum, the SAM’s innards incorporated several off-the-shelf chips and a custom ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit). This design helped reduce the chip count and drive down manufacturing costs, thereby enabling MGT to undercut the competition by a considerable margin. And just as Sinclair Research had done with its computers, the SAM was to be launched in ‘core’ form, with the idea being that extra memory, storage solutions and other expansions could be bolted on as and when. “With the Coupé, your computer can grow with you,” stated the advert. “There are output ports for almost everything we can think of.”
The machine’s internal programming language could also be traced back to the Spectrum. SAM BASIC was an updated flavour of Beta BASIC, which in turn was an enhanced version of Sinclair BASIC developed by Dr Andrew Wright. Anyone who had learnt to program using Sinclair BASIC would feel immediately at home on the SAM, while the new features and functions ensured that more experienced coders would not be held back. The final link to the past was Flash, the art and animation package that was bundled with the SAM. Developed by Bo Jangeborg, Flash was an update to the popular Artist programs, which he’d written for the Spectrum. Besides introducing a bunch of new drawing tools, Flash was designed to demonstrate the SAM’s visual prowess by enabling the user to create graphics in all four of the screen modes.
With the hardware and software in place, the SAM sped towards its launch date, but it wasn’t going to be an easy ride…
4 Great SAM Coupé Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 74, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop