Is this the greatest Spectrum ever? Graham Taylor reviews the first Amstrad Sinclair - the Spectrum 128K +2.
I have seen the future of Spectrum home computing and its name is the 128K +2.
It looks good and it feels right. The Spectrum 128K +2 is everything it was hoped the Spectrum 128 would be and more.
Although it is Amstrad's declared intention to push it as a home entertainment (= games) machine the 128K +2 actually looks serious and businesslike. There has never been a Spectrum machine more suitable for serious uses, but equally there has never been a Spectrum machine more suitable for games.
It costs £149 and that's very cheap. Grey is a new colour for Sinclair. Pre-Amstrad machines could be any colour as long as it was black. The new machine is smart battleship grey. The expected tape recorder resides in approximately the same position as on the CPC464 - on the right-hand side of the unit. There are, obviously, no volume or tone controls, theoretically at least you need never fiddle with the levels because every load will be at optimum. We'll see.
The machine feels surprisingly light although, apparently, a thicker plastic has been used than in previous Spectrum designs. This causes a few minor interfacing problems but makes the casing sturdier. (See the section on compatibility for more details.)
The keyboard is different from any previous Spectrum. It's neither funny rubber key or funny pushbutton. Instead, at last we have a real typewriter keyboard. Full-travel keys that click and an incline to make touch-typing possible. Another aspect of the keyboard strikes you instantly - each key has only one or two legends on it. Almost all of the single keyword entry command words have been removed, those that remain are the most significant ones - Run, Code, Load etc. There are specific keys for functions like Delete, Break, and Extended Mode as with the Spectrum Plus, but each is chunky and substantial. As I say, this is a real keyboard.
The display is almost exactly the same as on the 128K Spectrum. There is the same option to switch between Roms, the same calculator option. just one category is missing on the menu - no tape test - you don't need it.
There is only one other difference you might notice, a changed copyright notice. ©1986, ©1982 Amstrad Consumer Electronics Pic.
Here is a summary of the key points for those who already have Spectrum equipment:
Nearly all hardware add-ons should work. The only problem is a physical one of shape. For example, Microdrives have to be prised on carefully with a screwdriver or similar instrument - not too difficult but worth noting. The same problem (caused by the thickness of the plastic) will be true of other peripherals.
Software should be completely compatible in the sense that if it works on the 128K it'll work on the 128K +2. One possible exception is that if programs use a check sum to the Rom they will have a problem - the value has changed because of the different copyright notice!
Your old joysticks won't work and you'll need an Amstrad one until the independent manufacturers get themselves geared up (although you can of course use them in the old way, ie, via any of the standard joystick interfaces plugged into the expansion port). The software standard for joysticks is Interface 2.
With a grey cover to match the machine the manual combines the best of the original Spectrum programming manual with extensively rewritten features to cover the sound facilities and the extended 128K Basic in some detail.
It seems to cover the ground well, doing for the new machine a similar job to that done by the original manual for the good old pregnant calculator itself. I was particularly pleased to see that despite the redesign, the tape, the Joysticks and everything else, the programs to throw the I Ching and play Pangolins remain in residence and unchanged - almost brings a tear to the eye.
Will it load all my games? Can it deal with hyperloads? The answer is yes, mostly. The tape deck should be no more or less reliable than loading with any other properly aligned, correctly set up datarecorder. It should load just about everything the professional software houses put out, but where a game previously needed odd volume or treble settings to compensate for Saving deficiencies you might have problems. There is a small hole through which you can adjust the alignment of the tape but no other controls.
INSIDE THE CASE
It's easy enough to open up the 128K + 2. Undo six screws, unhook the ribbon cables connecting the keyboard and the lead that connects the tape recorder (held in the upper shell) and with a bit of judicious sliding it comes apart.
Amstrad claims the + 2 should be more reliable than previous Spectrums, partly because of heat-sink changes. The external heat-sink on the Spectrum 128 (there partly to distinguish the machine) is now tucked inside and the ULA chip has been given a heat sink all of its own. Time will tell if this machine is more reliable, but with Amstrad's track record it certainly ought to be.
Curiously enough, the only physical evidence that this is a machine manufactured by Amstrad (the Sinclair label is the only one used on the outside) is a large chip in the middle of the new circuit board - the 'new' Rom (with changed © line!) which has the Amstrad name stamped on to it. The circuit layout is neat and orderly, the only dramatic differences having to do with the joystick ports.
The upper shell contains the tape recorder and some circuitry to interface it with the machine. Despite a highly visible and possibly vulnerable band connecting the motor to the tape drive. It looks sturdy, better than the tape machine found on the CPC464 in fact.
The back of the machine has all of the ports found on the old 128 including, surprisingly enough, the BT-style sockets for MIDI RS232 and, more bizarre still, the numeric keypad. The MIDI is still OUT only, which means it is only 50 per cent useful, but it's welcome nonetheless. Next to these is the RGB Din-type socket, a TV connection and a new sound output port.
The reason for the new sound port is simple. Because of the built-in cassette deck there are no Ear and Mic sockets and if the computer is used with a monitor, sound output has to be taken from somewhere. The standard Spectrum edge connector I/O port is placed centrally on the back of the machine. It is absolutely as normal so the only problems will be to do with the shape and layout of the back of the +2 (see compatibility).
On the left-hand side of the machine is a proper reset switch, ie, it doesn't stab your finger when you use it and, behold, twin joystick ports bearing the curious warning 'Use only Sinclair SJS1 joysticks'. You won't be surprised to hear that Amstrad is marketing the said joystick. Unfortunately, that warning means what it says - your existing joysticks will not work on the new machine because whilst the connection is the standard Atari-style D-shaped plug, the pins are wired up differently from normal. So for the moment you are stuck with Amstrad's SJS1 joystick which has an expected retail price of £14.95 and doesn't look all that substantial - although to be fair I haven't tested it to destruction.
Expect better, cheaper +2 compatible joysticks within a month or two of the machine's release from other companies.
Another slight blow is that from the program end of things, the configuration of the new joysticks is Interface 2 standard not Kempston. Games therefore need Interface 2 or 'define keys' options before you can use them with joysticks on the128K +2.
Exactly the same as the Spectrum 128. You can switch between the 48K single-keyword entry mode or the extended 128K editor where commands are typed in letter by letter. Since the keyboard no longer contains the mass of commands assigned to each key. If you want to program in 48K mode you'll need the manual open in front of you at the same time to remember where everything is.
Clearly Amstrad intends everyone to start using 128K Basic and didn't want to mess up the look of the slick new keyboard.
Amstrad is keen to stress that it is not they who are organising package deals but the chain stores themselves. Nevertheless, the following is a package option some shops will be stocking: Sinclair Spectrum 128K +2 with joystick and six-pack of software, all for £159.
The software pack is being assembled by Amstrad and consists of the following titles: Crazy Golf, Punchy, Disco Dan, Alien Destroyer, Treasure island and Oh Mummy. Major titles they are not.
An excellent machine. Very attractively styled and for £149 you get effectively a Spectrum 128, plus tape drive, plus twin joystick ports.
On that simple equation alone it has to be terrific value. But more than that, somehow it 'feels' like a winner. I think the software houses will support it because I think it'll sell in huge numbers.
Those who bought the Spectrum 128 can take heart. If this machine is a success it means much, much more exciting and innovative software that really uses the greater memory.
If the machine does half as well as it deserves to. It means a longer future for everyone who has one edition or other - from rubber key to 128K - of Sir Clive's little miracle.
There isn't a machine on the market to match it on price and performance. Not from Atari. Not from Commodore. Not from anyone else - even Amstrad! The 128K +2 is a new beginning.