|ON THE BENCH|
|S P E C T R U M +|
|As predicted in our last issue, Sinclair Research did indeed launch an upgrade to the ZX Spectrum - the ZX Spectrum+. Max Phillips grabbed it as it came through the door to give us his verdict.|
Well, the great day came ... and went.
There was no major launch for the
Spectrum+, just an anonymous knock on
the editor's office and a cheery, "Look
what you've got in the post this morning!"
This isn't the type of fanfare we've come to
expect from Sinclair Research ... but then
neither is the new machine.|
The Spectrum+ (or the 'Plus' as I'm sure it'll be known on the streets) is the much-awaited upgrade to the ZX Spectrum. But don't throw your old Speccy out of the window just yet, the new one's just a quick cosmetic job. All you're getting is a new case and keyboard, six bundled programs, a shiny new user guide and a slick intro tape. Oh, I almost forgot ... and a price rise to £179.95!
WITH LOOKS TO KILLLooking like a sawn-off QL with a very crowded QL-style keyboard, the Spectrum+ is certainly better built than its predecessor and includes two fold-down feet in its base; these tip the machine to a suitable typing angle for users who can't afford an Interface 1. The new casing allows a free flow of air through the real 'QL-type' grills and should help with the overheating that dogged some Spectrums in the past.
The only genuine mod that I could find on the whole machine was a reset button tucked under the left edge of the case. Pressing it is the same as switching off and on, so its only use is to save wear and tear on the plugs - there's still no warm-restart facility.
Moving inside the case, there's nothing but an ordinary Spectrum; it looks like an Issue 3, but carries a very original '1983 issue 4B' label. The ROM is identical to the Spectrum (you can check this with the VERIFY command) so, unless there are further board mods that I couldn't unearth, absolutely all Spectrum software
and hardware should work with the Plus.
And, I'm afraid to report, this may turn
out to be the machine's best feature.|
(Chatting around the subject a little, if I may, it'll be interesting to see if a program can be made to tell which of the two machines it's running on. There's no simple message in ROM to make the job easy - but it would allow programs to adapt between the two different keyboards so that the user was never asked to press keys that didn't exist and so on.)
ON-BOARD ADD-ONSThe Spectrum+'s keyboard has extra keys to simplify the keyword and editing system; these are hard-wired to produce the same signals as the original keyboard - doing it this way meant that there was no need to alter the firmware. A positive side-effect of this is that, although many keytops are unmarked, all the original key sequences on its predecessor still work. A hardened Spectrum user will still probably find it easier to use Symbol Shift and the 'P' key for quotes than go looking for the separate quotes key ... but for new users - well, that's another story.
There are now two Caps Shift and two Symbol Shift keys. What's more, you can go straight into Extended or Graphics mode at the press of a single key. Edit, Delete and Break also get their own keys, as do True Video and Inverse Video (although the latter two do seem rather unimportant). Purists, like the rest of us, would argue that Delete should really be above the Enter key and Break should be out of the way on the left... but that's the way the keyboard crumbles. What did you expect Sinclair Research to do anyway - follow established trends?!?
The most obvious benefits are separate cursor keys, quotes, semi-colon, full stop and comma keys, and a relatively full-
sized Space bar; with a bit of practise, you
can even type on it! Even so, I'm not
convinced the new keyboard is that much
of an improvement - if you remember the
comments generated about the QL's
keyboard, it's hard to imagine why Sinclair
Research has plumped for the same design
... apart from the fact that it looks very
stylish alongside its big brother, the QL.|
Despite the new keys, the layout remains awkward and the absence of colour coded legends is surprisingly a real pest - to be honest, I'd kind of got used to that colour scheme. I'd like to say that the keyboard of the Plus is more reliable than its predecessor, but even so the review sample had started to come to bits; for example, unless pressed very gently, the 'J' key would generate a 'j' (or 'LOAD') on the way down and a 'g' on the way up. Another thing that bothers me ... just how long will the keytop legends stand up to constant wear and tear?
ADDITIONAL PLUSSESThe Spectrum+ User Guide is really twee. Published by Dorling Kindersley, it's a full colour, heavily designed book that looks more like a 'week-by-week, builds into a pile of magazines you never read' series than a manual. The message is loud and clear. From now on, computers must be as presentable and approachable as videos and washing machines.
Although the new book is a triumph of its genre and will no doubt be welcomed by newcomers to computing, it has to be less detailed than the original Spectrum manual ... it's smaller for a start! For a computer manufacturer whose success is based on the expertise of its customers, this is a mistake. By all means have such a simple introductory book ... but don't leave out the old manual as well.
The new machine also heralded the end
for the Horizons tape - the enclosed intro
tape for the Plus contains some very flash
software, although it's mostly fancy logos
and screen clears. There's a long keyboard
tutor on side one, which seemed a bit
simplistic under all the wrapping (and had
at least one obvious bug) and the other
side contains two simple games and a nice
character generator (which can be used to
alter the graphics in one of the games).|
But, of course, software's not really a problem because, apart from the thousands of commercial programs already on the market, the Plus has six tapes bundled in with it; the one-time best- sellers and members of the 'Spectrum Six Pack' are Scrabble, Make-A -Chip, Chequered Flag, Chess, Tasword 2 and Vu-3D. And that little lot should be more than enough to keep a new owner quiet!
MARKET FORCESThe Spectrum+ is quite openly a bit of traditional marketing. Every once in a while a product's fluffed up and offered at a little bit more than 'last year's model' - hardly Sinclair Research-style, but who can blame them in this day and age? It's
obvious that Sinclair Research must be
suffering lost micro sales along with
everyone else this year, that and the
components costing more at the moment.
There's also the fact that the going will be
a lot tougher, starting this Christmas.|
But the price of the Plus is still a bit shocking! Sinclair Research could have taken a bit more time and effort to produce a machine it's worth upgrading to. Of course, Sinclair Research can't do a very enhanced Spectrum (say, with CP/M ability) as the product would more than likely knock spots off the QL. So what we get instead is a rather limp marketing ploy and a return to old Spectrum prices. And while I'm on this tack, you'll notice that the idea of a 16K colour computer for under £100 has been quietly dismissed. I suppose I'm disappointed. Something around the size of an Apple II with a Fuller-style (Who? What! Ed.) keyboard would be a good start; a spare RS232 port could be used for a proper detached keyboard if the user wanted. The system should be capable of total compatibility with existing software but would include lots of extras, such as 16K pages of RAM below Basic and Interface 1 ROMs; these
pages could be used for development
software and so on, and switched off when
full compatibility is required.|
RGB and composite video ports are obligatory, and several expansion slots would be really appreciated (maybe Sinclair Research should have taken a peep at the USP system from U-Micros). You could then offer floppy controllers, 80 column boards, extra RS232 and Centronics ports and so on and so on.
Such a machine would have a lot going for it. Few people would mind paying around £400 for a starter system - it becomes the number one Spectrum development tool and also a viable business system. With the Spectrum's current software and user base, it would seem to make a lot of sense.
OK, the Plus does look good and, when you consider the current industry support for the existing Spectrum, seems set to be with us for many years to come. That's not such a bad thing - the Spectrum has done a great deal to promote the art of programming and the Spectrum+ will no doubt follow the tradition. I suppose we should be grateful it didn't come with its own kludge ...