RCN REVIEW: The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega

The Vega, fresh from its nostagically-styled box
The Vega, fresh from its nostagically-styled box

The ‘Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega’ is a crowd-funded ZX Spectrum computer compatible direct-to-television games console in a game pad, produced by Retro Computers Limited, a Luton-based start-up in which Sir Clive Sinclair’s company, Sinclair Research Ltd, is a shareholder.

Bearing in mind the convoluted history of the Sinclair brand, the ZX Spectrum and its associated intellectual property, which was sold to Amstrad in 1986 for just £5 million, it is a wonder that the new company was able to licence rights for development and marketing of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega from Sky In-Home Service Ltd, who inherited the intellectual property rights to the Spectrum computers from Amstrad. Anyway, it’s great to see the once-proud Sinclair brand back on the market (especially bearing in mind Sir Clive’s close involvement), as the Vega has been since 2015.

The Vega is manufactured for Retro Computers Limited by SMS Electronics Limited of Beeston, Nottinghamshire, at the instruction of Vega Team: Paul Andrews, David Levy, Sir Clive Sinclair & Chris Smith. Good to see this kind of electronics being made in the UK again, especially after the mammoth success of the also British-made Raspberry Pi computer (manufactured in Wales).

Development
Comparative size of Vega and ZX Spectrum 48k
Comparative size of Vega and ZX Spectrum 48k

The Vega was developed by Chris Smith, a former ZX Spectrum games developer who, the company say, is the world’s leading expert on Sinclair Spectrum technology. He is the author of the definitive technical book ‘The ZX Spectrum ULA: How to design a microcomputer’. Programming assistance was provided by Dylan Smith, and game licensing was organised by Managing Director Paul Andrews, David Levy and Gerard Sweeney. The games supplied with the Vega were configured and tested for the console by Joe Larkins. And music and fonts were contributed by Matthew Westcott and Andrew Owen.

The Vega received a huge amount of interest during its Indiegogo campaign, and the large amount of feedback received by Retro Computers during the campaign, which achieved all of its goals and was more than fully funded at £149,521 (50% above target), influenced the final design to some extent.

Form follows function
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega (pic Retro Computers Limited)
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega (pic Retro Computers Limited)

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega is, of course, not a Spectrum 48k ‘clone’ in the usual sense, despite being able to run a vast number of Spectrum games; it has a very different circuit design to the original, being based on a more advanced modern microcontroller rather than a large selection of discrete chips linked together by a dedicated rom and ULA.

But its shape and design cues to hark back to the original 48k ZX Spectrum, the good old ‘Speccy’, which has a nostalgia value for gamers ‘of a certain age’ and promises old-skool fun for them and their lucky children in what has proven to be a very marketable novelty product. To add to the nostalgia, the Vega comes boxed and sleeved in a fashion that is deliberately reminiscent of the style of the original Sinclair Spectrum retail boxes, though a lot smaller and using card instead of foam polystyrene packing.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega boxed with instructions
Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega boxed with instructions

Once out of the box, the Vega does in fact look like a somewhat plasticky miniature Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k of the early 1980’s which has had most of the keyboard removed and replaced with a directional red joypad – the ‘D-pad’ as the makers call it, four small representations of original Spectrum keyboard keys, and five buttons. It’s about one-third the size of the original computer.

Just under the front edge of the unit there’s a small green power LED which tells you when the unit is turned on and a microSD card slot. A bundle of cables snakes out of the back, and, reminiscent of the classic Speccy, there’s a small rainbow flash printed on the front right-hand corner, and a raised ‘sinclair’ logo with ZX Spectrum Vega in smaller text below the logo.

The Sinciar ZX Spectrum Vega showing the connecting cables
The Sinciar ZX Spectrum Vega showing the connecting cables

Replicating many of the functions of the original Spectrum using a micro-controller and software enables the manufacturers of the Vega to reduce costs while still running all of the games, 14,000 or more of them, which were developed during the years when some 5 million of the original Sinclair Spectrum were being sold. And there’s more than enough games to keep the kids (of all ages!) busy built-in – a thousand altogether!

The Vega also has sufficient on-board memory to allow the user to download many additional games, which Retro Computers have said that they will be making available from time to time free of charge. You can of course add more (copyright permitting!) by downloading files from the usual websites and popping them onto a micro SD card, which is then inserted into the base of the Vega – though you will then have to organised the key mapping yourself.

The Vega was additionally designed with the capacity for expansion via a hardware interface on its circuit board (in practice this has not been implemented on the Vega, but there are indications it may be on the recently-announced Vega+ console) and the makers also added the ability for the software to be upgraded in future. Continue reading RCN REVIEW: The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega

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