Retro Computing News

RCN REVIEW: The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega

Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega may be small, but it's a big deal - it's all a matter of perspective

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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

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 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

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

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.

Display disaster?
Vega game selection menu (to the naked eye this looks much better)

One of the most important things about this kind of console is, do the games look good on-screen? We have been spoiled by more than thirty years of television and console development, and inevitably expectations are high, though they are often unrealistic – this is after all a vintage nostalgia box, not a PS4.  And incidentally, please don’t judge the picture quality too much by the screen shots shown here, in practice the picture is much better but the camera tends to overexpose due to the black background, and I was having problems with reflections.

Sabre Wulf (Ultimate Play The Game, 1984)

The Vega plugs into a TV with standard composite video and mono audio inputs, which most have, so no tuning or computer monitor is necessary. And if your TV doesn’t have convenient composite and sound inputs, you can also buy (from any good electronics store) a composite to Scart plug adaptor for very little money, maybe as little as £1 if you’re lucky. A long triple cable outputting stereo sound and video, terminated with standard red, white and yellow photo (RCA) plugs, is joined by an equally long USB power cable. The latter is intended to power the Vega from TV’s which have suitably powerful USB sockets – not all will work with this.

My test TV doesn’t have a USB socket so I used a USB charger, which worked very well, and it’s likely that most people will already have one of these from their many other digital devices. If you don’t have either facility, you’ll have to buy a USB charger/power supply. Mind you buy a good one though, there are some cheap fakes out there that can set on fire!

The screen display from the Vega on a LCD TV is about as good as you might expect with composite video; bright and colourful with good blacks and with a little smear but no wriggle, all of which makes the good old Speccy graphic colour clash, which is well-reproduced, all the more nostalgic. Bearing in mind the original Spectrum’s woefully low resolution by modern standards – just 256 x 192 pixels, compared to the HD standard of 1920 x 1080 – the demands from some for HDMI output on the Vega seem more a case of wishful thinking than any constructive complaint, and apparently the cost of licensing the HDMI standard would have been prohibitively expensive for a device with relatively modest production levels in the thousands rather than millions.

The Speccy was never a HD device, its display was never pin-sharp and neither is the Vega’s. Maybe that’s part of its charm, and at least you don’t have to fight the TV to try and get it tuned in, which is a massive problem with original TV RF-only output Spectrums which have not been modified for composite video. Good news for our friends across the pond is that it’s also possible to switch the Vega’s video output from PAL to NTSC by holding down a button while switching on or resetting the console.

So no, the Vega’s display is not a disaster, and I was certainly satisfied with the quality on my ‘test rig’ – a 19 inch Sony Bravia LCD TV. Your mileage may vary however, as they say – picture quality will inevitably depend on your individual TV and how it tries to upscale composite video. Plugging a Vega into a 50-inch plasma TV is probably setting yourself up for disappointment, especially bearing in mind the dear old original Speccy was intended to be tuned into the RF input of a small portable TV back in the day.

Sound as a pound

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the sound, either, as far as I can tell. It’s nice and loud (loud enough to annoy your parents, if they are still around!) through the TV and is a great relief from the sputtering and muttering of the classic Speccy beeper.

Lock and load
Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k and Vega bases compared

Loading software is a breeze on the Vega.

There are no cassettes, microdrives or disc drives involved in loading your games – they’re all pre-stored onboard in flash memory, or can be added to on micro SD card (which inserts into the recess on the base shown in the picture above), and accessed through a series of on-screen menus.

So there’s no more waiting ages and then having the game fail to load like the ‘good old days’.  Instant gratification is the order of the day with the Vega – though some might say they preferred the loading screens and the wailing in the background. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing.

20-20 Vision (Gadtek Games, 1986)

Using the control buttons on the console and the on-screen menu system, it’s also now possible to instantly pause the action and save or restore progress, which you couldn’t do without extra hardware on the original Spectrum. You can also leave the game and return to the main menu, saving the necessity to manually reset the unit using the tiny ‘R’ button set into the upper casing of the device. All very useful.

In control
Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega (foreground) shows off its controls

How are the games controlled? The Vega is equipped with a built-in 4-key red ‘D-pad’ on the top left, and a set of 4 ‘Speccy’ keys (F, S, 1 and 2, smaller than the original keys) on the top right, providing some of the nostalgia of the original Sinclair Spectrum 48k keyboard, albeit with a slightly firmer feel. There is also a row of small blue buttons below the keys, engraved A, B, C and M beneath them, plus the aforementioned reset button.

These small buttons come into play when operating the menus in conjunction with the other keys and the D-pad which are used to select the games to play and functions/options within the games as well as the ‘virtual keybard’ (see Adventuring we go, below). M, unsurprisingly, activates the on-screen menus for selecting and loading games; C switches to options; A and B are the two other auxiliary action buttons. Thankfully, with all these buttons to confound the new user, a simple, clear instruction leaflet is provided, and this is essential reading before getting started.

Adventuring we go
Alien Research Centre adventure game (Zenobi Software, 1990) showing the ‘virtual keyboard’

In practice, the drastically cut-down keyboard makes it somewhat tricky to play adventure games on a Vega, but all the controls available have been organised into a ‘virtual keyboard’, as shown in the picture above.

After a bit of practice, flipping through pre-mapped keywords using the keypad and pressing the four wobbly rubber keys to select individual words, combined with the five additional small buttons below the ‘Speccy’ keys for menu operations, becomes second nature, albeit still not as good and involving an experience as a full keyboard. This may be a bit long-winded and frustrating for die-hard Speccy adventurers, of course. But it does work.  Again, if you add extra games, you have to sort out the key-mapping.

Down the arcade
Atic Atac (Ultimate Play The Game, 1983)

It is much easier, unsurprisingly, to play the huge number of built-in arcade-type games, with re-mapped keys to match the more limited control set of the Vega. Despite this, the combination of D-pad and Speccy keys has attracted some criticism, as well as the inability to plug in a joystick. Of course, to accommodate a traditional 9-pin joystick connector, the console would have to be much bigger.

The D-pad, which on the surface looks like four separate red buttons, is in fact one piece of plastic underneath. It’s not in the same league as a separate joystick, but it does the job. Just as well Daley Thompson’s Decathlon isn’t loaded on the Vega, however…

In practice I found the combination of D-pad and blue buttons easy enough to get used to, and soon found myself having fun. In fact, I had to drag myself away from Knight Lore, Sabre Wulf and Atic Atac to get back to writing this review!

Retail success

Amazingly (or perhaps not, considering its much-loved predecessor) the Vega received so much mainstream publicity, and was so popular with prospective buyers, that Retro Computers Limited were able to not only continue a good level of sales after the campaign, from their own website, but have also been able to get the console into retail chains including selected High Street stores such as Argos, which is an impressive achievement for what is, by modern standards, a relatively primitive novelty device. Clearly the goodwill and affection felt towards the original Spectrum has rubbed off on its junior relative!

Every Vega sold also contributes to a children’s charity. Retro Computers Ltd has arranged with the owners of the software rights to Spectrum games to donate a combined software royalty to the famous Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. The company’s Chairman, Dr David Levy, had his life saved by the hospital when he was diagnosed with meningitis as a 3-year-old.

CONCLUSION

So, what can I say to round up?

I’ve really enjoyed using the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega in the time I’ve had it for review. While I’m not a die-hard Spectrum fan by any means (Amstrad, Atari and Amiga for me back in the day) I can see the attraction of such a massive nostalgia-fest in a tiny box full of instant gratification. And as it’s much smaller than its illustrious predecessor, its easy to store.

The Vega is fast and simple to use, and works well. Plug it in and off you go, quick, no hassle, no loading issues, no fuzzy or untuneable TV, no problemo. Seems a simple and clear choice, doesn’t it?

And you also have the advantage that this is a genuine Sinclair-branded project backed by Sir Clive Sinclair himself, which makes it collectable. But what are the alternatives?

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega is a big deal – it’s all a matter of perspective

This is where things get tricky. If you really want to replicate your childhood gaming experience to the max and that experience is the original Sinclair ZX Spectrum, then in essence you’re only going to get all of that from a real Spectrum, and they haven’t been made since the 1980’s, so you’re dependent on the second-hand market, with all the potential frustrations, complications and expense that may entail, especially if you’re not sure what you’re doing – or getting.

Yes, it’s possible to pick up an original Speccy, working, and a cassette recorder and a bunch of games, or even a later model with built-in datacorder, if you’re lucky for a similar price to the Vega or even less, and get the whole full-on Sinclair experience, with wobbly rubber keyboard, loading screens and loading failures alike. There’s a cottage industry to fix most hardware problems you may encounter (and you will), so you have some backup, for a price. If you’re a budding retro computing enthusiast or a die-hard adventure gamer, this is probably the way to go. You could even add on a modern SD card adaptor, plugged onto the Speccy’s edge connector, giving most of the loading advantages of the Vega. But that would be cheating. Wouldn’t it?

You could even use your massively powerful modern gaming PC or tablet with a Spectrum emulator program to play all those old Speccy games floating about the world wide web, and there’s certainly something to be said for that. While that’s a cheap (or free!) and simple option (after all, we all have PC’s or Macs these days, else how are you reading this review?), it’s not exactly the full-on nostalgia experience that the purists are always on about, though.

And then there’s the ‘Recreated ZX Spectrum’ from Elite, but of course that isn’t really a Spectrum at all, though it does ‘recreate’ the look and feel of the old full-size 48k Speccy quite nicely in what is basically a bluetooth keyboard with a paired app, for a similar price to the Vega. But that another concept entirely, and another story.

When it comes down to it, though, if all you want is an easy, hassle-free blast from the past with a shed-load of built-in games to remind you of your own childhood, or want to buy a frustration-free gift for the next generation gamer in your family to show them how dad or mom did it back in the day, there’s definitely much to be said for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega from Sir Clive Sinclair and Retro Computers Limited.

At the end of the day, the choice is yours. But we like the Vega a lot, for what it is, even though it isn’t perfect. Though we like the look of the new Vega+ even more…

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega is available direct from Retro Computers Limited for £89.99 plus shipping (dependent on destination) or from selected retailers for £99.99 plus shipping.

See: http://retro-computers.co.uk/vega/ for a list of retailers and of the 1,000 pre-loaded games.

Find out more about the Vega range on the Retro Computers Limited website.

Stuart Williams

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega shown here was kindly provided for review by Retro Computers Limited.
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