Back in early 80s Britain, when home computing was still very, very young, Sinclair's ZX Spectrum opened the eyes of bedroom gamers to a new world of color and became a massive hit. The affordable 8-bit computer-in-a-keyboard was literally everywhere, as were the strangely musical electronic sounds as games loaded up from the cassette player, and the agonizing cries of youth when software crashed. It was a time of enthusiasm and wonder, and the folks at SpecNext are looking to recapture this adventurous spirit with a modern take on the Sinclair classic called the Next.
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum – affectionately dubbed the Speccy by its users – replaced the cheap and cheerful ZX81, with its love it or hate it membrane keyboard. The new model's keyboard was much improved, having raised chiclet keys above the membrane, but the real upgrade attraction was the ability to display color graphics on an attached TV screen rather than the monochrome capabilities of the 81 before it.
Though later Spectrums did come with a floppy disc drive, most Speccy gamers will have loaded software onto the system using a cassette player. Once a cassette tape was popped into the player, users would need to wait a few minutes – yes minutes – for the game to load, unless it crashed and the process had to be restarted. Happy days.
Speccy hackers have since modified the original system to accept games loaded onto SD cards, thrown in better processors and added more memory, and improved the graphics.
These home-grown upgrades can make it difficult for developers still creating content for the iconic home computer, so London startup SpecNext has come up with an upgraded and enhanced flavor of the ZX Spectrum that's compatible with the original. This means that any software or hardware originally designed for the original will work with the updated model, but recent software creations developed to take advantage of modern tech will also run.
At the heart of the new Next model is a Z80 processor that can run at 3.5 MHz or turbo 7 MHz modes, supported by 512 KB of RAM (though this can be bumped up to 1.5 MB internally and 2.5 MB externally) and SD card storage. Video can be sent out through VGA or HDMI, it's compatible with joystick controllers and has a serial interface for an old school computer mouse. Software can also be loaded into the computer using a cassette player courtesy of the included Mic and Ear audio jacks. And there's an optional Wi-Fi module, too, but a noticeable absence of USB.
The look of the Next model appears quite an authentic retro effort, and that's thanks to a design supplied by Rick Dickinson – the man responsible for the look of the original. The keyboard of the new Speccy is promised to be a marked improvement on the original though, and uses a butterfly mechanism to make sticky keys a thing of the past. And thanks to a charitable donation promised by SpecNext, the Next even sports the name Sinclair up top.
Enthusiasts who would rather use original housing can slot the Next's board into an old case for a more authentic feel, while benefiting from the upgraded hardware. Tinkerers can also give the Next a slice of Pi by slotting in a Raspberry Pi Zero to allow the system to make use of the mini board's memory, processor and GPU.
In development for a while now, the ZX Spectrum Next has launched on Kickstarter to secure production funding. Pledges for just the board start at £99 (about US$125), rising to £175 for a fully assembled computer. If all goes to plan, shipping is expected to start in August. Check out the pitch video below for more on the project.