HANDS ON THE 128
THE SPECTRUM 128 is here.
Try as I might, I could not persuade the editor to cough up for a trip to Spain, and so I had to track one down to a very wet and windy part of Surrey.
The 1281 saw was still warm from Spain, complete with Spanish manuals.
The excitement of getting my hands on this elusive machine soon turned to disappointment. It is hardly a quantum leap for the Spectrum - more like a marketing exercise to get the maximum publicity for the minimum of outlay.
According to sources inside Sinclair Research most of the design work on the 128 was carried out at Cambridge. The reason for launching it in Spain hinged on three things.
The deal with Dixons which prevented, apparently, the launch of a Spectrum rival in the UK before the end of December '85; the readiness of the Spanish government to provide production facilities at minimal cost, to build up its electronics industry prior to its entry into the EEC; a law, due to be introduced in Spain at the end of November which would have effectively banned Sinclair from exporting Spectrums to Spain, its biggest market after the UK.
Choosing a 128K machine appears to be largely a matter of fashion. Amstrad, Commodore, Acorn, Enterprise and Sinclair have decreed that 128K will be the norm for 1986, and so that's what we get whether we want it or not.
Sinclair paved the way with the QL, but soon found that with no software, sales were well below expectation.
The solution, reached by all the manufacturers, was to take a standard machine and add a bit extra, while still being able to run all the existing software.
In Sinclair's case 'adding a little bit extra' meant another 64K of memory, a new sound chip, a superfluous cursor pad and a few extensions to Basic.
To outward appearances the 128 looks like a Plus with a large heat sink on the right-hand side. That might be because it is a Plus case with a large heat sink on the right-hand side.
The raised ZX Spectrum Plus logo is still there - '128K' has been added - and the hole at the back where the EAR and MIC sockets have been untidily blanked off and an RGB socket added. That socket has the same pin-outs as the QL, so, in theory, you can plug your QL monitor straight in.
The cassette sockets have been moved to the left-hand side along with a new RS232 socket. That is billed as a MIDI interface, but that appears to be more wishful thinking than the industry standard. Its main use will be as a printer port but, as with the QL, it is a phone type socket and so you will need a special lead...
At the front another phone socket accepts the separate numeric keypad. That is used for editing in 128 mode, a sort of poor man's mouse.
The TV socket is in the same place at the back of the computer and, unlike normal Spectrums, gives a rock-steady picture. That is due to more care being taken in arranging the circuitry around the modulator.
When the 128 is powered up it goes straight into 128 mode. In that mode all keywords must be typed in full using the screen editor.
The syntax of the lines is checked as they are entered, with the flashing figure of a bug used in place of the normal question mark for errors.
The screen editor can be used as a primitive word processor, but with 32 characters to the line, no formatting commands, block moves or search its uses are limited. The cursor pad provides extensive cursor control and, compared to the old Spectrum method of entering Basic, it is easy to use.
As with the whole machine, however, a little more effort could have made a lot of difference.
Apart from the few additions, 128 Basic is the same as Spectrum Basic. You can move to Spectrum mode, retaining the program in memory, by typing 'SPECTRUM'. Once in it you cannot return to 128 mode.
In Spectrum mode all existing 48K software should be compatible.
Apart from Interface One anything with ROM in it has problems, due to the way in which memory is paged in and out. The 128 has a 32K ROM - in early models an EPROM. The machine I looked at had an EPROM with 'Derby' scrawled across the top, Sinclair's early code name for it.
The other major difference is the sound chip - the evergreen AY-3-8912. That is controlled in 128 mode by the new command Play. A string is filled with a number of parameters, then played by the command 'PLAY a$'. The chip has three voices, white noise and eight preset envelopes built in so quite complex sounds can be made. Sound is output via the TV.
The other additions to Basic allow you to use to extra RAM as a RAM disc. Those are similar to the Interface 1 microdrive commands LOAD!, SAVE!, FORMAT!, CAT!.
Naturally, none of these extra facilities, including the RS232 port, are available when in SPECTRUM mode.
The lack of tangible additions to the Spectrum Plus is highlighted by the slimness of the new manual. You get the old Plus manual, and a new one giving full details of the 128 - 16 pages.
At the time of writing it was not known how the UK version of the 128 will compare with the Spanish model. It seems unlikely that there will be any major differences, to ensure software compatibility.
It is difficult to see what Sinclair is attempting with the 128. While compatibility is undoubtedly important, the 128 mode is a disappointment. At least there should have been a joystick port, a parallel port and possibly a disc interface. An enhanced Basic, such as Beta Basic, would have been relatively simple to implement or even, as Commodore has done, the option to run CP/M.
Too little too late?