Year Released: 1985
Original Price: £179
Buy It Now For: £50+
Associated magazines: Crash, Your Sinclair, Sinclair User
Why The Spectrum 128K Was Great: It was the machine that the Spectrum Plus should have been. Extra memory allowed for bigger and better games, and the AY chip made everything sound sweeter. It also holds the distinction of being the last ‘proper’ Speccy before Amstrad muscled in.
Back in the mid-Eighties, alliteration-loving journos used the term Super Spectrum to describe every new computer that Sinclair Research was rumoured to be working on. First to receive the honour was the LC-3 (Low Cost Colour Computer), but this was more of a colour ZX81 than anything else. Then there was Pandora, a portable Spectrum with a flat-screen monitor, and Loki, a Z80-based computer that would go toe to toe with the ST and Amiga. There was also a project predating Loki that was being developed with the codename ‘Super Spectrum’. Sadly, none of these computers made the perilous leap from development to production and very few firm details exist.
“Sinclair was a rather secretive place,” says Rupert Goodwins, who worked at the company as a programmer and helped develop the Spectrum 128’s system software. “There were always projects on the go or in suspended animation, and ideas from abandoned projects often got revived in some form. Most of this stuff, if it existed at all, only got as far as breadboard prototypes. The decision to develop it properly, which would have meant serious money on integrated circuit design and system software, was never taken.”
Money was not something Sinclair had a great deal of at the time. The QL, Sir Clive’s great obelisk of hope, failed to wow the business machine market when launched in early 1984. It was an expensive failure and one that would have an impact on all future projects. Even so, punters and the press were surprised when, after all the speculation involving secretive new products, Sinclair could only muster up the Spectrum Plus. The Plus was just a standard Spectrum stuffed into a new case with a moving QL-style keyboard replacing the old rubber membrane. The hardware was unchanged, making it more Spectrum 1.1 then 2.0. The upgrade wasn’t even launched as such – it just crept on to disgruntled retailers’ shelves in October 1984.
This play-it-safe approach had nothing to do with the QL shambles, however. In fact, the focus shifted back to the Spectrum because the QL failed. “Clive always felt that games computers were a bit beneath the dignity of the company,” reveals Rupert. “The Spectrum was seen as yesterday’s computer and he wanted to stride ahead with wafer-scale integration, business machines and AI. There was a lot of snobbery involved. But when the QL misfired, more attention was paid to working out what had been a success and seeing how it could be best developed. Bright, shiny, noisy and cheap suddenly became desirable attributes.”
“But then we hit other problems with Sinclair – a near-inability to get products out, lots of infighting and, in the latter days, all the money going away. I mean, we couldn’t even get any memory expansion packs or disk interfaces out of the door – stuff that one-man bands were pushing out of sheds all the way from Penzance to Prestonpans.”
For a while, it looked like a proper Spectrum successor might never happen, but then the solution – to the lack of money problem, at least – arrived from overseas. The Spectrum was performing really well in Spain, where it was distributed by Madrid-based firm Investronica. Charles Cotton, Sinclair’s sales and marketing director, claimed that the machine accounted for more than half of all home computers sold in the territory at the time. While the Spanish market was smaller and less developed than the UK’s, the results were good enough to convince Investronica to invest in the development of a new machine. With fresh impetus and much-needed funds in place, Sinclair and Investronica worked to develop an upgrade that exploited the Spectrum’s popularity as a gaming machine.
“The market wanted more memory and better sound in order to help produce more engaging games,” says Rupert. “And that was done in the most mechanical way possible… take a standard sound chip, gate in some more RAM, futz around with the system software and get it out as soon as possible.” The result of all this futzing around was the Spectrum 128.
The 128 may have been a quick and dirty upgrade but it did address most of the Spectrum’s shortcomings. Perhaps the biggest criticism levelled at the original machine was its weedy sound capabilities. Rather than a dedicated sound chip, the Spectrum featured a small CPU-controlled speaker capable of playing a single note at a time. It was known as the ‘beeper’ because that’s effectively what it did. For the 128, Sinclair replaced the beeper with the three-channel AY-3-8912 chip. Unlike the beeper, sound could be channelled through a TV without additional hardware, so you could finally pump up the volume, and sound output no longer impacted on the CPU, allowing for proper in-game music.
Sinclair released an add-on keypad for the computer.
Next on the additions list was more memory. When the Spectrum launched in 1982, 48K was seen as a generous amount, but as we now know, you can never ever have enough RAM. When it came to the amount of extra memory, 128K was a given really as Commodore, Amstrad and Atari had already released 128K versions of their 8-bit machines.
The third main addition was 128 BASIC. The updated version introduced a number of new commands (to control the AY chip, for example), but the most obvious change was the overdue retirement of the one-touch keyword entry system. This idiosyncratic input method, where whole commands were entered by pressing one or more keys, was ditched in favour of a standard entry system where you typed out each command in full. An improved full-screen edit function was also added, enabling users to easily amend BASIC listings using the cursor keys.
Updating BASIC proved to be a rather big headache for all those involved. It was absolutely vital that the Spectrum 128 would run the huge library of existing Spectrum software, so the team had to ensure that it was fully compatible with the 48K ROM. They eventually did this by including the complete 48K ROM and allowing the user to switch from 128 to 48 mode on start-up, thereby circumventing the new 128 features that might cause compatibility problems with older software. This workable solution was complicated by the fact that the original BASIC source was broken. “The biggest shock I had when I started work was that the Spectrum source code within Sinclair was in an unusable state,” says Rupert. “So we – or mostly me, if I remember correctly – had to practically retype it all in from Melbourne House’s Complete Spectrum ROM Disassembly.”
With the innards of the Spectrum 128K all but confirmed it was time to pay attention to its external shell. Interestingly, it wouldn’t take any where near as much time to sort out…
Four Great Spectrum 128K Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 32, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
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