takes an advance look at the new Spectrum Plus 3 - this time
with a built-in disc drive.
Five years on, and at last the Spectrum
gets what it really needed in the first place; an efficient,
standard, built-in mass storage unit. The Spectrum Plus 3
has been unveiled, offering (yet another) new lease of life
to a perennial favourite.
Sir Clive Sinclair's alternative to cassette,
the notorious Microdrive, was never really in the running
as a serious storage option. Based on unreliable floppy-tape
cartridges, incompatible with any other operating system known
to mankind, it failed to establish the Spectrum in any real
sense as a "serious" machine.
While excellent alternatives like the Opus
Discovery made some headway, without an official manufacturers'
standard for disc storage, the software revolution required
could never happen.
It took an Alan Sugar to make the obvious
step of bolting Amstrad's disc system to Sinclair's computer,
creating a machine which - if the price was right - might
revitalise the UK's 8-bit market.
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Plus 3 128K, to
give it its full title, contains a few surprises. But it's
enough that the final step has been taken, and the built-in
disc drive can now prompt a change in attitude toward Spectrum
Completely redesigned internally, externally
the machine looks very much as one might have imagined, the
keyboard remains the same, a 58-key full-travel unit with
only the major Sinclair Basic functions - LOAD, RUN, CODE
- marked in addition to the querty symbols.
To the right, replacing the Plus 2's cassette
deck, is an Amstrad-type 3 inch disc drive. The case is finished
in matt black, and is slightly deeper and chunkier than that
of the Plus 2. The power-on light remains between the keyboard
and the drive, while the drive itself features an operating
light and disc eject button.
Some major changes are found in the line-up
of ports at the rear of the machine. A Centronics compatible
parallel printer port has been added, fully supported from
the new Plus 3 Basic. For the first time the Spectrum can
be connected directly to quality printers without special
interfaces or non-standard cables.
In addition, the rear of the machine boasts
a UHF output for TVs; RS-232 / "Midi" port; external
power supply socket; auxiliary disc interface; RGB output;
audio out/cassette in port; and the standard expansion I/O
connector. The two Amstrad SJS-1 joystick ports and the reset
switch are to the left of the machine; there's still no on/off
The Plus 3, then, offers the convenience
of a built-in disc drive; can be connected to extra disc drives
and a wide range of printers; has a proper keyboard, 128K
memory and the improved Basic and sound facilities of the
Plus 2, and can still be used with tape software. It begins
to sound suspiciously like a good machine.
Most important for the potential buyer,
of course, are the capabililties of the disc drive. It's a
single-sided 3 inch device using the 40 track, nine sector,
512 bytes per sector standard Amstrad discs; total storage,
then, to save you the calculation, is around 350K per disc.
Although the disc operating system is CP/M
compatible, it doesn't appear likely that CP/M programs can
be run on the Plus 3. It's more the case that it is possible
to read data files generated with other CP/M machines, such
as the Amstrad PCW; useful enough in itself.
Obviously, Sinclair Basic (now Plus 3 Basic)
and the Plus 3's operating system have had to be revised to
take account of the disc system. Most old Basic programs should
run without modification.
On powering up, the screen now displays
the copyright notice "© 1982, 1986, 1987 Amstrad
PLC, Drives A and M, available" and four options; LOADER,
Plus 3 Basic, Calculator and 48 Basic.
Default, then, is disc loading, which can
be performed from the built-in drive, auxiliary drive, or
the volatile Ram disc area. Loading from tape can now only
be performed by going into Basic.
The question remains, what will be offered
in the way of software? The initial package consists of six
expanded Ocean games: Supertest 1, Supertest 2,
Cosmic Wartoad, N.O.M.A.D., Gift of the Gods
and Mailstrom. Each takes advantage of the 128K available
in the Plus 3, and benefits from the faster loading times
- up to 50 times quicker than tape - of the disc drive.
None, though, use the continuous disc access
principle which could allow Plus 3 programmers to create powerful
utilities or adventure-type games of enormous depth and complexity.
Alan Sugar's intention is to create a market
where blank discs cost around £1, and games software
is released mainly in the form of compilation discs at less
than £10. Software houses have mixed feelings about
this; some are willing to follow the great man's lead, while
others speak of reduced profit margins and increased development
time. Doubttess the quality of serious Spectrum software can
only improve with the advent of the standard disc drive.
At £249, including the joystick, manual
and six-game disc, the Plus 3 is priced highly enough to make
the £149 Plus 2 still a viable proposition.
One problem is that while owners of the
Plus 3 can use Amstrad FD-1 additional disc drives - £110
with the connecting cable - this option is not open to Plus
The differences between the machines are
so major that it's impossible to connect the Plus 2 to the
Amstrad disc drive. Existing Plus 2 owners are blocked from
upgrading to disc without selling their existing machine and
starting from scratch with the Plus 3, and a cassette deck
to load their tape software. Many Plus 2 owners will be furious;
but, in the words of Alan Sugar, "Pan Am takes good care
of you, Marks and Spencer loves you, Securicor cares . . .
at Amstrad we just want your money."
Undoubtedly a well-conceived machine,
it remains to be seen whether the Plus 3's pricing makes it
an attractive purchase for existing Spectrum owners or computer