the-8-bit-guy and iconic ZX-Spectrum (not zx80/81)

artik

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Jan 5, 2020
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When I start watching the 8-bit-guy as first I was surprised how little information was given on one of the most iconic microcomputers of 80th - the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

It was the machine I grew with. Watching this channel I discovered that apparently US public virtually oblivious to it. And frequently if mentioned it is referred as "cheap toy for poor Brits" who couldn't afford the real Commandore 64 with "real" keyboard.

In reality Spectrum sold 5 millions of official built machines, it is more than entire Atari 8-bit family of computers. And its clones (not counted in 5M stats) were hugely popular in eastern Europe giving it even larger audience. Even today tools for Spectrum (simulator, cross compiler) are vastly superior to that of C64

It wasn't cheap, it was affordable and was brilliantly designed to be so. It was actually better machine then famous c64 in many areas (loosing in some other areas)

I grew up on this machine, Looking this channel I actually tried some simulator of Commandore 64 to play with. It made me understood how good the design of the ZX Spectrum was. I had found some nice things about c64 (mostly it was easier to use in simulator because no need to remember shortcuts) but in general - in my (biased) opinion C64 felt inferior in many ways.

  • Zilog Z80 was (is) more powerful CPU than 6502 (and I'm not talking about clock)
  • ZX Spectrum BASIC was better out of the box:
  • (a) support of graphics (like drawing) - such that plotting y=six(x) graph is something trivial to do. Apparently it wasn't something simple to do using c64 at all.
  • (b)More powerful text/screen processing - like PRINT AT and others without peeks and pokes
  • (c)Better language 8 significant characters for variables instead of 2 and being able to call a variable "diff" without colliding with keyword "if" (that I found really annoying when I ported a small program to c64 basic)
  • (d)Better editing that included syntax checks upon adding a line, easier browsing over the code likes, longer lines of code.
Yes it had somewhat inferior graphics 256x192 instead of 320x200 with same color attributes collision and only a single mode without sprites but yet it was only marginally weaker. But on the other hand it was available together with text and make things simpler.
Yes it was used mostly with tapes and typical game took like 4min to load but it made it much more accessible to wider audience since everybody had tapes. I hadn't started using floppy disks till I started to work with IBM PC.

I would really love to see more videos on ZX Spectrum and I think US public can benefit from it greatly - since it was totally missed in USA.

EDIT: sorry wrong forum - meant to be on "Other Retro Computers"
 
May 22, 2019
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I don't know that I'd agree that the PC tools for Spectrum are better. I've found the few Spectrum emulators out there to be primitive and awkward, compared to VICE.

But the BASIC issues are fair points... BASIC 2 on the 64 was its worst feature, and there were lots of projects to make Commodore BASIC better. As to whether the Z80 is a better CPU than the 6502... them are fighting words. The Z80 has more registers, but the 6502 has some other features that the Z80 does not. In the end, both CPUs have strenghts and weaknesses, compared to the other.

I will point out that, at any given clock speed, the 6502 is at least 2x faster. In addition, Commodore's BASIC interpreter is more than 2x as fast as Spectrum BASIC. I've done some benchmarks on both (I have a Spectrum 128), and BASIC 2 blows Spectrum's BASIC out of the water in terms of sheer performance.

But don't get me started on that keyboard. That is the worst keyboard on any mass produced keyboard, ever. Seriously - who thought that was a good idea? Even the Spectrum 128's keyboard is pretty awful, compared to Commodore's keyboards. (Admittedly, none of Commodore's keyboards are great. You can buy a better PC keyboard today for $5 at WalMart.)

I think the Spectrum's biggest selling point was that it was cheap, and just about anyone could afford one. A Commodore 64 with a disk drive cost about $800 in the US in the early 80s, but a ZX could be had for $40. In fact, the Sinclair (the version we got in the US) was actually free, if you used the right combination of coupons and rebates.

And that's the other thing... the ZX Spectrum never actually saw a US release. So it was, literally, non-existent here.

The Timex Sinclair is based on the ZX80, as far as I can tell, and it was awful, even compared to the rubber-keyed Speccy you probably knew and loved. (I don't have an original Spectrum, but I do have the Recreated - and while it's still a horrible example of a keyboard, it's still less awful than than the ZX80.)
 

artik

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Jan 5, 2020
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I don't know that I'd agree that the PC tools for Spectrum are better. I've found the few Spectrum emulators out there to be primitive and awkward, compared to VICE.
Actually fuse with GTK front-end is very nice in comparison to vice (I don't know how it is on Windows)


Commodore's BASIC interpreter is more than 2x as fast as Spectrum BASIC.
I agree I saw the same behavior also it depends on the case, it many cases it was less than x2. On the other hand ZX Spectrum basic is way more feature rich. In both cases BASIC is just plain slow in comparison to code you can write in assembly/C/Pascal etc.

------

I tested my sample machine learning program both on C64 and spectrum and got following results:

BASIC/Spectrum/float: 291m /float ~x2 slower
BASIC/c64/float: 151m /float
z88dk C/Spectrum/fixed: 121s ~x4 faster
cc65 C/C64/fixed: 460s

See: http://blog.cppcms.com/post/125

C: https://github.com/artyom-beilis/zx_spectrum_deep_learning/blob/16_bit/train_commandore.c
Basic: https://github.com/artyom-beilis/zx_spectrum_deep_learning/blob/16_bit/train_no_buffer.bas
(with converted to c64 basic by https://github.com/artyom-beilis/zx_spectrum_deep_learning/blob/16_bit/sin2com.sh)

In any case I think that it is very interesting machine that is good to review moreb
 
May 22, 2019
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Actually fuse with GTK front-end is very nice in comparison to vice (I don't know how it is on Windows)
If you've only used VICE on Linux or through an emulator front end... you haven't used VICE. You've used SDL VICE, which is a whole different world (visually speaking.) VICE, C64 PRG Studio (despite its bugs), and DirMaster (for making disk images) make for a complete ecosystem with a graphical IDE, debugger, and (of course) emulator that's just about as easy to use as it gets.

In any case I think that it is very interesting machine that is good to review moreb
Well, the problem is getting and using one in the US. They're difficult to obtain here, as you have to import one from the EU. Then, when you finally get one, you also have to import a television that does PAL video. Or you have to do a composite mod to the computer and use a video converter.

Not that these are insurmountable challenges for David, as he's done a composite mod on his Atari console, but the point is that the Spectrum is extremely unfriendly to North American users and basically impossible to use here as it was intended to be used.

I believe the only Spectrum that can be effectively used in the US without a PAL TV is the Spectrum 128 with the built-in cassette drive (the one I have), because it's the only one with composite video output on the DIN jack. In fact, you can use a Commodore 64 video cable with it. You still need a monitor or video converter capable of displaying PAL video, but the video converters are easy to come by - all of the HDMI converters I've tried can handle PAL just fine.

I think it would be wroth the time to do a video covering the way the Spectrum works, compared to a more conventional computer, since it was a huge thing in the UK and other parts of Europe, but most US viewers have ever used or even seen one.
 

artik

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Jan 5, 2020
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Then, when you finally get one, you also have to import a television that does PAL video.
I'm curios, because virtually every TV set even from late 90th I encountered supported both PAL and NTSC. Like today virtually all power suppliers work with both 110/220/230V, 50/60Hz.

Is it US thing that PAL isn't supported out of the box on modern TV Set?
 
May 22, 2019
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No, TVs sold in the US do not support PAL. Many TVs in the US won't even support 50Hz digital video, as David found out when he tried to use his TheC64 Mini on his HDMI TV. There's probably also a financial motive, as this provides a natural sort of region locking, meaning movie companies can charge US customers more or video content, if they want.

The 50/60Hz power supply thing is a bit of a red herring: a switching regulator turns the power on and off rapidly, filling a capacitor with energy until it's just above the target voltage and then letting it drain until it's just below the target voltage. Since the input voltage doesn't really affect this process, it doesn't actually matter whether the input is 120 or 240 volts. The power supply just steps the voltage down to an intermediate voltage of around 20-40 volts, then rectifies that and feeds it to the regulator.

The difference between PAL and NTSC video is much more interesting. While PAL and NTSC use similar brightness and sync signals, PAL has more lines of resolution, and the color portion of the signal is completely different. So the video decoders need to be completely different to make the system work.

Obviously, including both decoders increases the cost of a television, and so TV manufacturers only include PAL decode and SCART inputs on sets going to Europe, where they are actually necessary. And since much more video content is exported from the US to the EU than the other way around, there's very little benefit to selling PAL TVs to US customers.
 
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