Custom PC, Issue 206

Custom PC, Issue 206This month’s Hobby Tech feature takes a look at the recently-unearthed Nine Tiles prototype ROM for the ZX Spectrum by installing it on a ZX Spectrum Next, dramatically improves the flexibility of the FLIR ETS320 thermal inspection camera, and pores classic computer commercials courtesy of coffee-table tome Do You Compute?.

First, the prototype ROM. In my review of the ZX Spectrum Next in Custom PC Issue 202, I mentioned that it’s possible to create new “machine personalities” – both by replacing the read-only memory (ROM) files used in Spectrum mode and by loading new cores onto the FPGA at the machine’s heart. Shortly prior to the ZX Spectrum Next’s launch, the Centre for Computing History received a trove of artefacts from Nine Tiles – including a prototype ZX Spectrum which was used to develop a ROM which never actually made it onto the publicly-launched machines.

The Centre had negotiated to make the ROM image available for free download for educational and academic purposes, which gave me an opportunity to load the ROM onto the ZX Spectrum Next and create the Nine Tiles Prototype as a usable machine personality. What followed was a process of debugging and reverse-engineering in order to make the ROM functional on the Next – a process which, I’m pleased to say, was wholly successful.

The FLIR ETS320, meanwhile, was reviewed back in Issue 201 – and one of my biggest complaints was its incredibly short focal length, meaning that it is only possible to analyse a very small part of a given circuit board under the thermal sensor. While the camera platform is capable of rising up, anything above 70mm away from the device on test is too blurry to be of use – unless, that is, you take advantage of a 3D-printed tool to manually adjust focus. The improvement is stark, as thermal images published in the piece demonstrate.

Finally, Do You Compute? is a book which looks not at the history of computing but at the history of selling computing – specifically, as the subtitle makes clear, “from the Atomic Age to the Y2K bug.” Put together by Ryan Mungia and Steven Heller, the book is a fantastic chronological walk through the shift in computers being for governments and big businesses to any businesses and eventually the home user.

It also has a major flaw, and it’s not one caused by the authors: Apple, for reasons unspecified, declined to provide permission for its adverts to be reproduced in the book. With Apple having been at the very forefront of the personal computing revolution, and well-known for iconic adverts from its 1984 Superbowl commercial to “Think Different” and “Rip Mix Burn,” it leaves a real hole in the book.

Custom PC Issue 206 is available now in supermarkets, newsagents, and online with global delivery via the official website.

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.

The MagPi, Issue 93

The MagPi Issue 93In this month’s The MagPi Magazine you’ll find my cover feature on working from home using a Raspberry Pi as a fully-functional desktop computer – and, as an added bonus, my photography of the TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next.

First, the cover feature. With a massive explosion in the number of people working remotely worldwide, and the corresponding shortages in hardware and accessories, now is a great time to look towards the Raspberry Pi as a functional alternative to traditional PCs. The six-page feature is split into three sections. The first of these sections looks at installing a Raspberry Pi Camera Module – or the newly-launched Raspberry Pi High Quality Camera Module – or USB webcam and using it for video conferencing via Google Hangouts.

The second section looks at online collaboration platforms, from Google Docs and Google Drive to Slack, Discord, and Firefox Send. The last section takes a look at LibreOffice, the open-source equivalent to Microsoft Office which is pre-installed in Raspbian Linux and fully compatible with the Raspberry Pi. Finally, a sprinkling of tips and tricks complete the feature.

The ZX Spectrum Next review, meanwhile, was written by The MagPi’s editor Lucy Hattersly, but illustrated by me: My hero shot of the ZX Spectrum Next, plus a close-up of the Rick Dickinson-designed keyboard which proved responsible for a two-year delay on the device as it was tweaked for maximum quality and performance, grace the two-page feature alongside a pair of images taken from the ZX Spectrum Next promotional materials.

All this, and more, is available in both the print edition and the free Creative Commons-licensed PDF download from the official magazine website.

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 176

Custom PC Issue 176This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the fascinating ZX Spectrum Next, the impressive RetroFlag NesPi case for the Raspberry Pi, and the book Britsoft.

First, the ZX Spectrum Next. The product of a highly successful crowdfunding campaign that drew in around three quarters of a million pounds from backers across the world, the ZX Spectrum Next is exactly what it sounds like: the next entry in the long-running Sinclair Spectrum family, long after even its most ardent fans had given up hope. Although based around ‘soft’ cores running on a central FPGA, the Next isn’t an emulator: the open design is entirely compatible with every piece of software or hardware you can throw at it, complete with accessories designed for the original Spectrum. It’ll even fit in a 16K/48K chassis, if you don’t mind drilling a few extra holes.

Those holes, you see, are needed for just some of the Next’s shiny new features: a pair of joystick ports, HDMI and VGA video outputs, and even the ability to insert a Raspberry Pi Zero into a special header for use – once the software has been written – as a co-processor, or as it was known at the time a “copper.” There’s room for up to 2MB of RAM, triple-chip FM synthesis, even Wi-Fi network support – though a design flaw discovered shortly after the review went to print means that anyone with the early-release Model 2A will need to solder a small capacitor onto the voltage regulator for full reliability, an issue fixed with Model 2B onward.

The NesPi, by contrast, is a lot simpler. At its heart, it’s a plastic case into which you can install a Raspberry Pi B+, 2, or 3. Its designers, though, have decided to create something a little different, and the Nintendo Entertainment System ‘inspired’ housing also includes daughterboards which offer four front-facing USB ports – two where the controllers would connect and another two under the ‘cartridge’ flap – along with working power and reset buttons. The Ethernet port is also brought to the front, for no readily apparent reason, while the dedicated power board includes a header for an optional cooling fan.

Finally, Britsoft is a book that has been on my shelves awaiting review for a little while now. A Read Only Memories publication, this impressive hardback tome gathers interview content originally created for the 2014 documentary From Bedrooms to Billions charting the rise of the British computer games industry. You’d be hard pushed, off the top of your head, to think of a luminary of the era not included in the title’s impressive 420 pages, and I had but one real complaint: the layout of the book is easier on the eye than the brain, often making it difficult to follow which speaker is talking and which topic you’re reading.

All this, and the usual collection of stuff by other people, is available now at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 174

Custom PC Issue 174This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at a very special eight-byte – not a typo – microcomputer, walks through turning a spare Raspberry Pi into a Nav Coin-mining cryptocurrency machine, and looks forward to the launch of the ZX Spectrum Next with a look at a deep-dive book detailing the original Spectrum’s neat Ferranti Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip.

First, the Mini C88. Designed by the multi-talented Daniel Bailey as a more affordable version of his C88, swapping the field-programmable gate array (FPGA) on which he implemented his own processor core design for an Arduino Zero and the extremely clever Dynamic Binary Translation (DBT) technique, the C88 is designed to be about as simple as a computer can get. Based on a custom instruction set, the C88 has just eight memory locations of eight bits apiece and is programmed by toggling each bit using a series of pleasingly tactile switches while monitoring the process on the 8×8 LED matrix that serves as its display.

For regular readers, this will all sound familiar: the original FPGA-based C88 and its 32-byte bigger brother the C3232 were the subject of an interview back in Issue 155. While Daniel has still not turned the C88 into a kit you can head out and buy, the Mini C88 is definite progress in that direction – and, as always, anyone interested in the project should hassle him about it on Twitter.

For those with a Raspberry Pi and a desire to play with cryptocurrency, meanwhile, this month’s tutorial will be of definite interest: a guide to turning a Pi into a ‘Stake Box’ for the Nav Coin cryptocurrency. Designed as an alternative to Bitcoin, Nav Coin offers those who run network nodes rewards in the form of a five percent return on their coin holdings when locked up in this manner. Taking less than an hour to set up and requiring nothing more than a low-powered computer, it’s a great way to get involved – and the Nav Coin project itself definitely one to follow.

Finally, while waiting impatiently for my ZX Spectrum Next microcomputer to land – which, I’m pleased to say, has since happened – I enjoyed a re-read of Chris Smith’s excellent The ZX Spectrum ULA: How to Design a Microcomputer. Based on interviews and deep-dive analysis, the book investigates the tricks and techniques which allowed Sinclair Computers to build the ZX Spectrum micro at such a bare-bones cost – which, in turn, was thanks to clever use of an Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip from Scottish electronics giant Ferranti. Effectively a write-once version of the modern FPGA, Ferranti’s ULA saw the number of components in the ZX81 drop to a quarter compared to the ZX80 and is key to how the ZX Spectrum does what it does.

For all this, and a bunch of other interesting things by people who aren’t me, pick up a copy of Custom PC Issue 174 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.