Category Archives: Reviews

Cracking new fanzine for Amstrad computer fans

CPC issue 1

Amstrad and other home computing hobby fanzines were a big thing back in the good old days of 8 bit – and we should know, our chief pen-pusher Stuart Williams started his editing career publishing one using a screeching Citizen 120D printer and a photocopier for the West Midlands Amstrad User Group here in England!

Decades on, though, surely fanzines are more of a thing with the terminally-obsessed followers of footie, fantasy fan-fiction or TV sci-fi? Aren’t websites, forums, Facebook and blogs the true, deep-burrowed homes and hangouts of geekish ‘amsters these days? Maybe not entirely – because a cracking little real-world, honest-to-goodness paper-based fanzine dedicated to our favourite Arnold has now come to the attention of RCN direct from the pen, or should that be the virtual dot-matrix printer, of James Ford from cpcfanzine.com.

Colour Personal Computing 1 contents
Colour Personal Computing 1 contents

The first issue of COLOUR PERSONAL COMPUTING (catchy title, eh?) was released to general acclaim back before Christmas, tagged as the Winter 2016/17 issue (arriving in January) and costing just three quid in the UK.  It was packed chock-full of enough goodies, cheeky fun and useful info to fill the Oh, Mummy-obsessed bonce of any CPC-trufan.  And we couldn’t wait to take a closer look ourselves (thanks, James!). Continue reading Cracking new fanzine for Amstrad computer fans

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Viva Amiga – the Review

The Amiga Won't Die

ANDY WARHOL,  BUZZ ALDRIN, R.J. MICAL AND DAVE HAYNIE ALL IN ONE HOUR . WHAT MORE COULD YOU ASK?

What can you say about a one hour (and 3 minutes!) documentary  film about a series of computers? One that takes you rushing down a wormhole into the days of your youth and then back to the future through a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows that in turns exhilarate, sadden and maybe, just maybe inspire hope for the future?

Viva Amiga: The Story of a Beautiful Machine is a brand-new production from Director/Producer Zach Weddington and the FilmBuff/Rocksteady team in the USA. It was funded via a Kickstarter campaign and has now gone on to take the iTunes download charts by storm (other sources are available, see our news item here.)

Skilfully rendered, Amiga Bill meets Amiga designer Jay Miner.
Skilfully rendered, Amiga Bill meets Amiga designer Jay Miner.

If you’ve never heard of the Commodore Amiga (or, dare I say it, were an Atari ST enthusiast back in the day), you might wonder what all the fuss is about.  Hold on a moment, and rewind back to our feature celebrating the 30th birthday of the computer that ‘came from the future’, and in 1985 started today’s multimedia revolution: https://retrocomputingnews.com/2015/07/23/happy-30th-birthday-amiga/

Suffice to say that the Amiga range did things that no other computer could do for a decade. Things that we take for granted today, but which all started there with the Amiga 1000, and its successors, which revolutionised computer art, music, photography and video production. Until those glittering dreams shattered and came tumbling down, through no fault of the Amiga’s creators. But something wonderful had happened. The world had changed.

The film

Viva Amiga

Through insightful pieces to camera with many people who, it has to be said, are still legends in the Amiga community and surprisingly accessible thanks to Facebook (in fact, they’re part of that community) seamlessly wrapped up in slick graphics and nostalgic archive footage from past promo videos and adverts, location pictures plus more recent retro computing community-based events and music footage from around the world, Viva Amiga opens up a wormhole back to a time when what we now take for granted in computers was new, and fresh, and when the little guys with the brains, the big ideas and  the soaring imagination really could break through into the future.

The film, backed with a powerful electro soundtrack by Ben Warfield and Josh Culler takes us from the early 1980s inception of the Amiga (later bought out by Commodore) as the astonishing concept of a small band of inspired technologists who thought they could leapfrog the functional but not very inspiring computer technology of the day (and how!), via the initially remarkable worldwide success of the affordable but powerful Amiga as the post 8-bit next step for Commodore, to the years of corporate greed and management incompetence that caused Commodore’s collapse in the USA and the domino effect that collapsed their subsidiaries around the globe.

R. J. Mical, Amiga software engineer, is one of many powerful voices presented from among the Amiga creators.
R. J. Mical, Amiga software engineer, is one of many powerful voices presented from among the Amiga creators.

Then, on a rocky road from the post-Commodore phase of ever-shifting sands where the Amiga technology was sold off and was eventually broken up amongst a number of different European and American companies whose reach in some cases largely exceeded their grasp, to the present time when new concepts of Amiga in hardware and software are being revived for what is presently a niche hobby market. Finally, it also looks at something of the inspired global community of retro Amiga fans or ‘Amigans’ who still love to work and play with the machine that, to hijack a phrase from one-time competitors Apple, really was designed ‘for the rest of us’.

For Amiga users past and present, if you lived through those times then this is a powerful nostalgia piece which will take you back with a bang, courtesy of the often emotional voices of many of those behind the power of Amiga.  With remarkable music and powerful visuals, Viva Amiga will in turns exhilarate you and sadden you. It will make you laugh and it may even make you cry for what was lost. But that’s the essence of the story of the computer that wouldn’t die, that still lives on in hundreds, maybe thousand of homes around the world, and lurks in lofts and attics waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation. It serves to remind you, and most definitely me, that the Amiga was never only about the hardware and the software, it was, and remains, as much about the people who created it and who used it. In a strange way, the Amiga is a part of us and we are part of it, and while that may have faded somewhat with the years, this film brings that reality back into bright, colourful focus.

Conclusion
The late, great, much-missed Amiga engineer Dave Needle (in the hat), to whom the film is dedicated, with part of the Amiga team.
The late, great, much-missed Amiga engineer Dave Needle (in the hat), to whom the film is dedicated, with part of the Amiga team.

This is a film with heart. If you’re looking for the dry detail of a Discovery Channel epic in Zach Weddington’s rawly-emotional but nonetheless highly-polished Amigan opus, you’re not exactly going to find that here. That would take a whole series of films, there’s only so much you can do in an hour and I’m not entirely sure there’s quite the material or the market out there for it. I’d love to see a two hour version of Viva Amiga; although I didn’t feel the film was exactly too short (and it’s not bad value to buy as a download) I was left wanting more. The film made me want more. Maybe there could be follow-ups exploring more of the post-Commodore phase and taking a wider look at what people are doing with the Amiga today. Who knows. Zach is working on another exciting retro project at the moment.

What you do get in spades from Viva Amiga: The Story of A Beautiful Machine (and it WAS beautiful, in form and concept) is the essence of the spirit of the machine and its makers, and if you look carefully you will also see your own reflection in the TV screen, which seems entirely appropriate.

In conclusion, if you’re an Amiga fan, apart from the chance to see more of the story than has been widely shown before, and much more of the people who still inspire the community today, what you will really get from this fascinating film is a desperate yearning to be back in those heady days when the future was being re-written by a crazy, inspired gang of people who, let’s face it, you’d just love to party with like it’s 1985.

Stuart Williams

More info

For further information and ways of buying Viva Amiga, check out the filmmakers’ website: https://amigafilm.com/

And their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/vivaamiga/

Images courtesy FilmBuff/Rocksteady

RCN Review: Electronic Dreams by Tom Lean

Electronic Dreams by Dr Tom Lean
Electronic Dreams by Dr Tom Lean

As someone who was first introduced to ‘real’ computers, as opposed to sinister science-fictional devices, during the British home computing revolution of the 1980s-90s, when I was in my twenties, I have always been fascinated by both the technical and the social history of computers, as well as the people who designed, created, built and marketed them. After all, in many cases, we owe our modern, computer-saturated, hyper-integrated world to them.

So, I was particularly intrigued to hear of a new book which focuses on a number of these aspects, since while there have been many excellent coffee-table type ‘nostalgia’ books about video/computer games and gaming published in the last few years, there’s not so much out there about the more serious side of things.

Do androids dream of electric nostalgia?

The new book I’m referring to is Electronic Dreams by Dr Tom Lean, which was issued by mainstream publishers Bloomsbury in February, and a very interesting volume it is too, particularly bearing in mind its rather Kubrickian subtitle ‘How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer’.

The publishers are clearly targeting both the well-established popular science market and the boom in ‘cyber nostalgia’ and ‘retro computing’ which has already seen the rise and rise of the retro gaming book in recent years, but in a very different way which also makes the work of interest to historians, amateur or professional, of social and technological history.

Surprisingly in this sector of the market, the author is in fact an historian of science, currently based at the British Library, where he is working on Oral History of British Science, a major project concerned with the collecting and archiving of life-story interviews with 200 figures from the recent history of science and technology.

From the author’s mouth
Tom Lean (pic courtesy of the author)
Tom Lean (pic courtesy of the author)

Retro Computing News spoke to Tom Lean, who told us a little about himself and how he came to write the book, which offers an insight into the thinking that lies behind the words and pictures:

“I was born in Port Talbot, South Wales, best known (or perhaps not) as the home of the Dragon 32 home computer. I only actually saw a Dragon 32 once as a child, but both my parents were teachers so every summer they’d borrow a BBC Micro. I guess that, and the Commodore 64 they eventually got me, was my introduction to home computing, but by then it was the later 1980s and I think I probably missed microcomputing’s glory days at the start of the decade. How I became a historian of home computing is a long story, but the short version is: I sort of fell into doing a masters on the history of computing after studying history and computing as a joint degree at the university of Kent, because it seemed like a fairly logical choice at the time – what else are you going to with a degree in history and computing?

“After that, I was hooked, and ended up doing a PhD on the subject at university in Manchester, home also to the world’s first stored program computer, the 1948 ‘Manchester Baby‘ and Ocean Software, who probably wrote about half the 8-bit games I played as a child. So by background I’m an historian of science and technology, and I’m really into understanding the various ways that society interacts with technology and how people use it in ways that designers often didn’t foresee. I’ve been interested by the history of home computing for about a decade. I’m just old enough to have some nostalgia for it, but there’s something about technologies at that messy, formative stage when people haven’t quite figured out what they are for or what they should be like that fascinates me.”

On the subject of Electronic Dreams itself, Tom went on to say:

“The book was an idea I was playing around with for sometime. My day job is an oral historian of science and technology at National Life Stories at the British Library. Interviewing old scientists and engineers about their lives and work for Voices of Science (http://www.bl.uk/voices-of-science) is fascinating but it’s kept me pretty busy over the last few years. It was only a couple of years ago when Electronic Dreams was picked up for the splendid new popular science series from Bloomsbury-Sigma that I got the chance to write the book at last.”

So, this was going to be an historically-relevant work, not just a childhood nostalgia-fest for the modern age, and all the more interesting for it.  No page after page of glossy gaming graphics in this chunky tome; the illustrations, which are gathered together in a few pages in the centre of the book are a small but thoughtfully-chosen selection of pictures of historic, mostly British, home computers, with an early mainframe, a couple of magazine covers, a few period adverts and, inevitably, a handful of classic games, including two of my favourites, 3D Monster Maze on the Sinclair ZX81 and Elite on the BBC Micro, both classic achievements of their time and platforms.

The bulk of the book, which is of a slightly more academic style but very readable and by no means dry and dusty, seeks to interest the reader, and succeeds admirably, by presenting the fascinating story of how computers invaded British homes for the first time, as people set aside their science fiction-derived worries about ‘electronic brains’ and ‘Big Brother’ and embraced the newly-affordable wonder technology of the 1980s.  Little did we know, back then, that those somewhat paranoid concepts of the 1950s-80s would come back to bite us in this closely-networked 21st century, but that is another story…

Continue reading RCN Review: Electronic Dreams by Tom Lean

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

RCN REVIEW: DivMMC EnJOY! for Sinclair ZX Spectrum

The DivMMC EnJOY! mates well with Retro Computing News editor Stuart Williams' Sinclair ZX Spectrum +3
The DivMMC EnJOY! mates well with Retro Computing News editor Stuart Williams’ Sinclair ZX Spectrum +3

One of the most useful developments in retro computing and retro gaming in recent years has been the introduction of ‘digital hard drives’, created by means of interfacing digital camera memory cards via custom IDE interfaces, to speed up the use and enable the expansion of many aging but still serviceable computers. This is a great convenience – especially for those machines which were never intended to have such drives!

Of course, ‘back in the day’ – the 1980s-90s – for typical home computers, many programs were available only on slow and not always reliable audio tape cassette, and typically the most advanced storage system for such machines as, for example, the British Sinclair ZX Spectrum range, was nothing better than a microdrive tape loop system or a floppy disk with a few hundred kilobytes of capacity at most.

So it was that the most enthusiastic of home computer owners inevitably ended up with a large collection of tape cassettes or floppy disks, and it was only in the late 1980s, when the 16-bit and PC era began to get underway, that the average user could even think of owning, for example, a whopping great ten or twenty megabyte hard drive!

FLASH – A-HAA!

In recent years, then, a great boon to the growing numbers of retro computing enthusiasts, especially gamers, has been the invention of such very clever, and affordable, compact IDE interfaces. They offer the capability of clipping in a CompactFlash or, more often of late, SD card, with a few electronic components and some clever firmware to provide, in effect, a disc operating system or DOS – thus forming an affordable and high capacity solid state drive system with capabilities which would have been a mere pipe dream in the 1980s.

The enormous advantage of such a system is, of course, that it enables the mass storage of the hundreds, thousands, or – in the case of the Sinclair range, tens of thousands – of games and other programs which, having in many cases been abandoned by their past publishers, many of whom are no longer in business, are readily available online as digital files, in various formats, for use with emulators.

DivMMC EnJOY!
Top and bottom views of the DivMMC EnJOY! in its 3D-printed case
Top and bottom views of the DivMMC EnJOY! in its 3D-printed case

One such system was launched for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum range of computers last year by Ben Versteeg of ByteDelight.com in the Netherlands, who is well-known in the world-wide retro computing community.  It is called the DivMMC EnJOY!

Continue reading RCN REVIEW: DivMMC EnJOY! for Sinclair ZX Spectrum