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Plus 3, Minus Tape
Popular Computer Weekly, 1987

Chris Jenkins 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 software.

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 switch.

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 2 owners.

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 neophytes.