takes a look at the new Spectrum Plus.
LOOKING FOR ALL the world like a truncated
QL, the new Spectrum burst upon an unsuspecting Sinclair User
office on Monday 15th October. Well, not quite unsuspecting.
There had been rumours for several months that Sinclair was
going to put a real keyboard on a Spectrum, but the company
has steadfastly denied them. The news was leaked on the Friday
before the launch, and finally the tight-lipped men from Sinclair
admitted that 'something sexy' was in the post.
Sexy it ain't, although like all Sinclair
products there is something good and something less good about
it. The Spectrum+, a name which hardly rolls off tongue nor
typewriter, is exactly the same old Spectrum 48K with a solid
keyboard attached, the whole presented very much in the style
of the QL with sharp rather than rounded edges and similar
ribbed black plastic.
The Spectrum+ hardware
It is larger than the Spectrum, measuring
320mm x 140mm x 40mm, nearly four inches longer. The keyboard
itself is based directly on the QL keyboard, and utilises
a rubber mat below the plastic keys rather than the direct
contact between key and switching usually associated with
professional keyboards. It should, according to Sir Clive
Sinclair, be compatible with all available software, and any
peripherals which will fit.
The touch is not as good as the very best
keyboards already available for the Spectrum, although it
is preferable to some of those at the lower range of the market.
Because of the rubber mat, there is a certain amount of bounce
in the keys, which is a cunning way of obtaining a semi-professional
effect without paying professional prices for the parts. However,
the weight required is not as even as it should be and the
slight difference in give between different keys is mildly
irritating for fast typing.
Sinclair has taken the opportunity to include
a number of single function keys, which are a considerable
advantage. They are DELETE, EDIT, GRAPHICS, INVERSE and TRUE
VIDEO, CAPS LOCK, EXTENDED MODE and BREAK. The ENTER and CAPS
SHIFT keys are suitably large, and there is a proper SPACE
bar, although it is not as long as it would be on a real typewriter
Further improvements to keyboard layout
include giving a separate key each to " . , and ; and
bringing the cursor keys down to a position on both sides
of the SPACE bar. The other functions of those keys remain
on the top row, as before.
The net effect of the changes is to make
it much easier to write programs using graphics and colour
control codes, because the several key shifts required on
the ordinary Spectrum become easier to follow using single-key
entry. The punctuation marks are not such a good idea. It
was certainly an improvement to give them their own single-touch
keys, but the " and ; are tucked away in the bottom left
corner, where nobody who had ever learned to type would think
of looking for them.
The keywords and functions are all in white
on the keys. Each key has a raised moulding contoured for
fingers, and the legends within the moulding give the commands
and letters obtained in K, G and L mode. The words outside
the moulding are those features obtained in E mode. Unfortunately,
Sinclair has abandoned the use of different colours to indicate
the different modes.
"The keys are double-injection moulded,"
says Sir Clive, "which means they can never wear out.
The words are not printed but moulded within the keys."
Sir Clive says that if he had used that process with three
colours, the whole keyboard would have been much more expensive.
That makes the keyboard much more confusing
to read and undoubtedly will take away some of the speed advantage
gained by using hard plastic keys. Novice programmers in particular
will find it more frustrating to learn their way about the
keyboard than they do with the help of those colours as a
But the most extraordinary thing about the
keyboard is that it is actually smaller than the original
in one important sense. Although the keys are larger than
the original rubber pads, those pads were spaced out well,
making it easier to hit the correct one and also providing
more room for the printed key functions. On the new version
the distance between the centre of two keys is fractionally
less. The original keyboard was criticised for being small
and cluttered, and in that respect the new one is no improvement.
The only other hardware change to the machine
is the inclusion of a reset button on the left hand side of
the plastic casing. That is a feature which should have been
included on the original, and it is a relief to see Sinclair
recognising the problems of wear and tear on the power socket
at last. There is still no ON-OFF switch, however.
According to Sir Clive, the main target
is customers thinking of buying the Commodore 64. "We
did some market research last year," he says, "and
discovered that although people thought the Spectrum was a
superior machine they bought the 64 for the keyboard."
Once the QL keyboard was developed, it was decided to produce
a version for the Spectrum.
The Spectrum + package also includes
a new power pack to style, six commercial programs, the usual
cassette and television leads, and a completely new manual
and introductory cassette.
The manual has been written by one Neil
Ardley and is published by Dorling Kindersley, publishers
of the colourful Screen Shot series. It is much shorter than
the old manual, having only 80 pages instead of 190.
It is written in four sections with colour-coded
margins. The first is Get Going, and provides a coherent guide
to plugging the machine in without blowing it, yourself, or
the Christmas turkey up. There are diagrams of pink fingers
pushing the correct buttons, photographs of what the screen
should look like, and a flow chart for discovering the source
of the problem. Following that there are some examples of
short programs which produce pretty patterns to impress admiring
friends and relations.
The second section deals with programming,
and is much less comprehensive than the original manual. The
section concentrates almost exclusively on graphics, with
a short section at the end on sound. Concepts such as LET,
FOR . . . NEXT loops and logical operations such as IF . .
. THEN structures are mentioned almost in passing as the budding
programmer is whisked through to the heady heights of assembling
a program in which a spider descends to some pyramids while
being shot at by a laser gun. Topics such as animation, attributes
and user-defined graphics are explained, but it is not so
much a guide to programming as an example of how to put a
The third section is a brief explanation
of the mechanics of the machine and the familiar diagrams
of CPU, RAM chips and the like all connected by neat lines
along which the information flows smoothly and in perfect
discipline. It includes a memory map but no details of the
The final section gives a list of all the
Basic commands and an explanation of how each one works. Brief
examples are given, but even in combination with Section Two
it falls way short of the uninspired but comprehensive guide
provided by the original manual.
While the User Guide is a beautifully produced
book with plenty of photographs and illustrations, its limitations
are confusing. It seems aimed rather more towards a younger,
games-orientated market, and does not, lamentably, provide
a sufficiently organised course in programming to encourage
newcomers to write anything very satisying for themselves.
Dorling Kindersley intends to market the
Guide separately for £4.95, which seems a bit steep
considering that Spectrum owners will already have a copy
of the old manual. If you are still puzzled by the Spectrum
graphics instructions, you might be enlightened by the Guide,
but there are plenty of other books available in the same
price range on the subject which contains much more information
besides those simple points covered in both manual and guide.
It is thus unclear as to who would really
want the Spectrum + . Those who are only interested in playing
games will find the rubber keyboard as easy to use as the
plastic one, and a joystick easier than both. Indeed, many
of the standard interfaces, including the Kempston joystick
and Centronics interfaces, will not fit the new machine, because
their ports are obscured by the new casing.
On the other hand, those with serious applications,
be they professional or home uses, will probably obtain better
value for money buying a 48K rubber key Spectrum and one of
the commercially available keyboards. For the £50.00
price difference you can choose from a wide range of keyboards,
many of which are much more professional than the Sinclair
one. If they can obtain a Spectrum with the Six-pack offer
they will get almost the same software as is offered with
the Spectrum + as well. Once the Six-Pack offer is discontinued
it becomes a much more attractive proposition.
It is therefore worth considering the Spectrum+
not as a £180 computer but as a £50.00 keyboard.
Single-key entry commands are not available on any commercial
keyboard for the price, but for £10.00 more you could
have a Stonechip, which also includes a BEEP amplifier and
Load/Save switch. Further up the scale, at about £70.00,
the Transform keyboard will give you a more professional feel
as well as a numeric keypad and an on/off switch.
On a more comparable price level the Lo
>> Profile and Saga keyboards offer well spaced keys
with good touch but no single-entry keys. They make up for
that deficiency by including several duplicate keys so that
one or other of the SHIFT keys is always close at hand.
Sir Clive is convinced that the Spectrum+
will increase his lead over the Commodore 64 in Britain, and
make inroads on Commodore domination of the world market.
"We feel that there are more serious users about, and
that is reflected in the current software available,"
he says. "It could cut into sales of the QL, but then
we are offering people a choice."
First time buyers should consider whether
one of the other commercial keyboards would not be more suitable
for their use. If you are looking for a word-processor you
would probably put ease of typing at a premium and might prefer
a keyboard such as the Transform, Saga or Lo > > Profile.
But for programmers the Sinclair keyboard offers much greater
flexibility of single entry commands which will cut out some
of the drudgery of programming, particularly where graphics
Certainly no-one in their right mind
is going to buy the Spectrum+ if they already own a Spectrum.
Sir Clive may have done the decent thing by typists' fingers
at long last but there are limits.