PC Pro, Issue 309

PC Pro Issue 309This month’s PC Pro includes my hands-on review of the TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next, a crowdfunded reimagining of what home computers could have become if the market hadn’t crashed in the mid-80s.

Powered by a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), giving it the ability to transform into anything from a BBC Micro to a Galaxians arcade cabinet, the ZX Spectrum Next is around two years past its original launch schedule. The delay has been attributed to getting everything right, in particular the Rick Dickinson-designed chassis and keyboard – and, in TBBlue’s defence, the entire package is undeniably impressive.

For PC Pro’s testing I went hands-on with a production model of the top-end variant, the ZX Spectrum Next Accelerated. This features 1MB of memory upgradeable to 2MB, which is a lot if you’re thinking in 1980s terms, with a pre-fitted real-time clock and Wi-Fi module to match the mid-range Plus model. The stand-out feature of the Accelerated version, though, is a Raspberry Pi Zero fitted internally to act as a coprocessor – a concept gently borrowed from the BBC Micro and its Tube socket, to which the world’s first Arm processors were connected.

It wasn’t my first experience with the ZX Spectrum Next: I reviewed an early revision of the motherboard, minus case and keyboard, two years ago. In that time, though, the company and the community behind the project have worked to really polish things up: there’s a wire-bound printed manual, though sadly lacking an index; the operating system is swish and the bundled games impressive; the lost 28MHz ultra-fast accelerated operation mode is back, after being dropped in favour of a 14MHz mode following timing issues with the RAM; and while some features aren’t quite ready, in particular the ability to load multiple FPGA cores into a menu and choose from them at boot-up, it’s already a device that will appeal to vintage computing enthusiasts.

The full review is available now in PC Pro Issue 309, available at your nearest stockists or online in print or digital formats.

Custom PC, Issue 202

Custom PC Issue 202This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at the long-delayed but worth-the-wait TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next, moves on to the unique Sega Arcade Pop-Up History from Read Only Memory, and closes on a look at the Raspberry Pi Imager utility.

Issue 202 is not the first time the ZX Spectrum Next, a crowdfunded effort to not only recreate the classic Sinclair machine using modern hardware but to answer the question of what could have been if it weren’t for the microcomputer crash and subsequent sale to Amstrad: the internal hardware was reviewed way back in Issue 176 in the form of the board-only backer reward.

The ZX Spectrum Next is more than just a motherboard, however: its design includes a “toastrack”-inspired chassis and keyboard straight from the drafting board of sadly since-departed former Sinclair industrial designer Rick Dickinson – his last project, it would turn out. The fully-finished hardware, chassis and all, was due to arrive in backers’ hands in January 2018 – but only now, more than two years late, is the hardware finally being delivered.

Thankfully, it’s been worth the wait. Issues with the keyboard’s reliability have been ironed out, errors in the original hardware design resolved, and the firmware which drives the on-board field-programmable gate array (FPGA) updated and tweaked. The 28MHz accelerated mode, missing from the original review, is back, and the custom operating system works smoothly and without issue.

Sega Arcade Pop-Up History is another nostalgia-driven walk down memory lane, but rather than looking at home computers of the 1980s it covers Sega’s “taiken,” or “body sensation,” arcade cabinets – machines which moved to match the on-screen action. The written material is, however, limited: the bulk of the book is given over to card pop-up models of six cabinets, which is a definite first for Hobby Tech.

Finally, the Raspberry Pi Imager. Borrowing shamelessly from Balena’s Etcher, Imager is a tool from the Raspberry Pi Foundation which offers a cross-platform simplified graphical user interface for not only writing disk images to microSD cards but for downloading them too. The flow is just seven or eight clicks long: open Imager, bring up the list of supported operating systems, choose one and confirm, bring up the list of target storage devices and confirm, and flash. There’s even a verification stage, to confirm the image is correctly written – and you can point it at manually-downloaded disk images if your favoured operating system isn’t in the default selection.

All this, and a lot more beside, can be found in Custom PC Issue 202 at all the usual stockists and online from the official website with global delivery.

Custom PC, Issue 180

This month’s Custom PC Magazine sees my Hobby Tech column take a look at TheC64 Mini, a rather annoyingly-stylised recreation of the classic Commodore 64, experiment with Raspberry Pi-powered cluster computing via GNU Parallel, and drink a toast to the memory of the late and lamented Rick Dickinson.

First, Rick. Best known for having been Sinclair Radionics’ – later Research, still later Computers – in-house industrial designer, Rick is the man responsible for the iconic look of the ZX80, ZX81, Sinclair Spectrum, and Sinclair QL, among other devices. While blame for their keyboards lies further up the chain, Rick did the best with his instructions to the point where his designs are still immediately recognisable today. Sadly, Rick had been in ill health of late, and recently passed; my article in this month’s magazine serves as a ode to his memory.

TheC64 Mini, then, feels like a bit of an insult, being as it is the modern incarnation of a device from US Sinclair rival Commodore. Created by Retro Games Limited – not to be confused with Retro Computers Limited, creators of the two-years-late-and-counting ZX Vega+ handheld console, but rather a separate company formed by a split between RCL’s directors present and former – TheC64 Mini appears, at first glance, to be a breadbin-style Commodore 64 that’s been shrunk in the wash.

While deserving plaudits for actually existing, unlike the ZX Vega+, TheC64 Mini isn’t exactly a stellar success: inside its casing, which is dominated by a completely fake keyboard, is a tiny Arm-based single-board computer running Linux and a hacked-around version of the Vice emulator. Its emulation suffers from input lag, something RGL originally attempted to blame on people’s TVs before releasing an update which reduced the problem without completely fixing it, and the bundled Competition Pro-style joystick compounds the problem by being absolutely awful to use courtesy of a rubber membrane design that should have been left on the drawing board.

Finally, the cluster computing tutorial walks the reader through creating a multi-node cluster – of Raspberry Pis, in this instance, though the tutorial is equally applicable to anything that’ll run SSH and GNU Parallel – and pushing otherwise-serial workloads to it in order to vastly accelerate their performance. In the sample workload, which passes multiple images through Google’s Guetzli processor, run-time went from 1,755 seconds in single-threaded serial mode to 125 seconds running on the eight-node cluster – housed in a Ground Electronics Circumference C25 chassis, because if you’re going to do something you should do it in style.

All this, and the usual selection of other interesting articles, can be found in your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 5

HackSpace Magazine Issue 5My contribution to the latest issue of HackSpace Magazine is a detailed look at the ZX Spectrum Next, an open-hardware reimplementation of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum microcomputer with a wealth of improvements and enhancements.

Officially licensed from the current owner of the Spectrum rights – Sky In-Home Services, oddly enough, which requires only that a portion of any proceeds are donated to charity – the ZX Spectrum Next builds on the original with a Z80 implementation on a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) which can be run in accelerated mode at up to 14MHz, up to 2MB of memory, SD card storage, built-in joystick ports, crystal-clear HDMI video output, four-channel AY sound, support for original Spectrum keyboards or modern PS/2 keyboards, and even optional real-time clock, ESP8266 Wi-Fi, and Raspberry Pi Zero-based co-processor add-ons.

Despite these upgrades – and more I haven’t mentioned, including a brand-new operating system dubbed NextOS, 256-colour display modes, and hardware sprite support – the ZX Spectrum Next also boasts full backwards compatibility with software and hardware designed for the original Spectrum family, which is something of an impressive achievement given the relatively modest resources available to its creators following a successful crowdfunding campaign for its production.

The ZX Spectrum Next reviewed here, though, isn’t quite the finished article. Provided to backers eager to get their hands on the device as early as possible, the board-only ZX Spectrum Next Issue 2A is aimed primarily at developers. It also comes with an annoying design flaw, which was discovered post-review: a missing capacitor which can cause stability issues when coupled with low-quality power supplies. The finalised Issue 2B, its creators promise, will include the missing capacitor along with a keyboard and chassis housing designed by Sinclair’s long-term industrial designer Rick Dickinson.

For a full look at the ZX Spectrum Next, you can pick up Hackspace Magazine Issue 5 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or as a free download under the Creative Commons licence at the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 137

Custom PC Issue 137My Hobby Tech column continues in this month’s Custom PC magazine with a tutorial for building a gesture-recognition media controller, a review of the clever Adapteva Parallella single-board computer, and an interview with a personal hero of mine: designer Rick Dickinson.

Looking at the tutorial first, I was recently sent a Hover Board from Hover Labs. Rather than my planned review, I decided the hands-on nature of the gadget – which tracks the user’s finger movements in mid-air – was better suited to a tutorial-style write-up. The result: a simple build using an Arduino Leonardo and the Hover Board to control the playback of media in VLC using gestures. Wave your hand upwards to increase the volume, downwards to decrease it; left skips forwards, right skips backwards; tapping in the centre of the board pauses and resumes.

I was extremely impressed with how easy the Hover Board was to work with, although somewhat disappointed that it would only track gestures rather than absolute positioning. The latter, I have been told by its creators, is coming in a future software upgrade – at which point I’ll be revisiting the board with a more complex project.

This month’s review is a device I’ve been covering from the sidelines for some time: Adapteva’s Parallella. Created as a Kickstarter project to encourage adoption of the company’s many-core Epiphany co-processor architecture, this dinky little single-board computer packs everything a tinkerer could want: a dual-core ARM processor, 16-core Epiphany-III chip and even a user-accessible field-programmable gate array (FPGA) for custom chip design work. If your target application can be made to run on the Epiphany, you can expect impressive compute performance – but before buying one, there are a few points in the review you should read carefully, in particular the GPIO accessibility and ARM core performance.

Finally, my interview. I said Rick Dickinson was a personal hero of mine, and I wasn’t lying: a designer by trade, Rick was hired by Sinclair Research and designed the ZX80 and ZX81 systems, worked on the team that designed the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and designed the ill-fated business-oriented Sinclair QL. He’s done plenty since, of course – having won awards for work on devices as different as a field microscope and the Gizmondo hand-held console – but the interview focused on a new design project he’s taken on to imagine what a modern computer might look like if Sinclair hadn’t gone bust – starting with a 21st century update to the Sinclair QL.

All this, plus a bunch of interesting stuff I didn’t write, can be yours with a quick visit to your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.