Launch of the Spectrum 128 in Spain
Chris Bourne, in Barcelona, reports on Sinclair's new computer
THE 128K Spectrum, code name Derby, has finally been launched. You will have to wait a while to see it in the UK, though, because Sinclair Research, after denying the existence of the machine for ages, chose to launch the beast in Barcelona, at the Sonimag Fair at the end of September.
Essentially, the machine is two computers squeezed into a single box. On powerup, you choose which mode you want to use - the 128K version is implemented automatically, but if you type SPECTRUM in capital letters then the machine reconfigures itself to give you a 48K Spectrum Plus completely compatible, so it is claimed, with all existing Spectrum software.
The 128K is being manufactured in Madrid by Investronica, Sinclair's agent. According to a representative of Investronica, that is all to do with Spanish tax laws concerning foreign imports. It will sell in Spain for about £220; given the general difference between Spanish and UK prices, a UK model should go for roughly £170.
The 128 looks very like a Spectrum Plus. That's not surprising - it's got the same case. Obvious differences are a variety of extra sockets, a big heat sink bolted onto the right-hand side, and a separate keypad attached to the machine by a springy cable. It is all powered by the same transformer as the Spectrum - but it does an awful lot more.
The keypad works only in 128K mode. It acts as a calculator, so you can perform arithmetical operations with the results printed on the screen without disturbing the program you are writing. It also incorporates a set of editing commands. Those allow you to move a cursor around the screen and swiftly delete or edit errors in your program. It plugs into the front of the Spectrum via a telephone-style jack plug. It is simple to use, and an excellent idea for taking the sweat out of programming in Basic.
A full range of ports has been included on the machine. There is an RS232 socket, which can be linked directly to a printer. For the show, Investronica hooked it up to a synthesiser via a MIDI interface and blasted on of the Bach Brandenburg concertos at us - very impressive, for Sinclair sound. Also included is a reset switch, an RGB socket for monitors, a television aerial socket, the usual holes for tape leads and the standard wide port for other peripherals.
The sound chip is also completely new, giving three voices and channelling the sound through the television speaker. If in 48K mode, the old BEEP command is automatically interpreted for the new chip. In 128K mode a new form of command is used. Data for the music is stored in strings in the form of a letter for pitch and a number for duration of the note.
Other changes to the Basic in 128K mode include the abolition of the keyword system - commands are entered one letter at a time. You can, however, switch down to 48K mode halfway through writing a program, but you cannot switch up. The 128 also has the capacity to act as a RAM disc. That's a facility whereby areas of the RAM can be set aside to store a suite of programs, or sets of data, in much the same way as on microdrives or disc drives. Access to files on RAM disc is, naturally, almost instantaneous. We were unable to examine the full set of commands which go with the facility, but as an example CAT! produces an instant catalogue of RAM files.
Sinclair Research won't comment on the new machine beyond admitting the existence of the Barcelona launch, but the Spanish press releases say a UK launch is planned for next spring.
One possible explanation for the Spanish launch would be some sort of no competition deal signed with UK retailers in order to unload QLs and Spectrums. Investronica says that is Sinclair's problem and is clearly delighted to be launching the product.
Without having a machine to study in detail, we can't assess the reliability of the 128K. But one of the machines on show had a set of notes written on the base which appeared to list modifications to that unit, and we did see what looked like a spectacular crash occurring with another. It would be unfair to criticize the Derby on the basis of such preproduction models, except to note the fact that they were not for sale and not running perfectly.
Will the 128K save Sinclair? Since it is completely compatible with all 48K software there's no reason why the public should prefer the smaller machine to its big brother except on grounds of cost. It looks very posh with its keypad and coiled cables attached.
Charles Cotton, director of sales and marketing at Sinclair Research, says, "The impetus to introduce a Spectrum 128 in Spain comes from the peculiar market forces operating there. It is a very important market for us, as we account for over half of the home computers sold in Spain."
He doesn't deny the possible introduction of a UK version in the spring, but adds: "We're confident we have the products the public wants this Christmas, at the right price. A Spectrum 128 doesn't fit into the UK picture just now."
THE RUN UP to Christmas has started. Special offers are appearing in the shops and prices are being slashed to increase sales.
The Alphacom 32 from Dean Electronics is one example. The new price is £29.95 a drop from £59.99. "We are hoping to stimulate volume sales," says Sean Tredinnick. That offer will continue while stocks last.
The large number and variety of Spectrum pack deals may also be a contributing factor to the Alphacom's price drop. It might seem pointless to buy a Spectrum and several peripherals for around the £130 mark and an Alphacom printer for almost £60.00.
Boots is offering at £139.95 a Spectrum Plus, autofire joystick and joystick interface, a data recorder and six pieces of software.
Terry Blood, the distributors, has put together a package which consists of a Spectrum Plus, data recorder, Quickshot I joystick and interface, four US Gold games and 14 days free accommodation for two in a three star hotel in the UK, subject to certain conditions. The cost will be between £140 and £150.
The Spectrum Group has a slightly more expensive package costing £149.95 which includes a Spectrum Plus, data recorder, Currah Speech Synthesiser, Quickshot II joystick and a Stack Light Rifle. Another package from the same group costs £109.95 and includes a Spectrum 48K, data recorder, Quickshot II joystick and interface and three pieces of software.
Dixons has two packages. The first at £139.99 includes a Spectrum Plus, data recorder, Quickshot II joystick and Kempston compatible interface and 10 pieces of software. The second at £199.99 includes a Spectrum Plus, ZX printer and a Sinclair flat screen TV. Dixons is also selling the QL at £199.99 with five games on microdrive.
FOLLOWING THE recent shake up at Sinclair and a creditors' meeting held in early September, a number of changes have been announced - perhaps the most serious being those at board level.
The changes instigated by Bill Jeffrey, the company's chief executive appointed in July, has seen a reduction in the board from 14 to five directors. Those remaining are Sir Clive as non-executive director; Bill Jeffrey; John Lee, finance director; Bill Matthews, corporate services director and company secretary; and Kenneth Dicks, non-executive, who is also a director of N M Rothschild & Sons.
The reduction in board levels is due to a review carried out by Bill Jeffrey to 'improve operational efficiency'. At present there is no answer to the question of why the review was instigated in the first place. Staffing levels have also come under review. Twenty jobs will be lost, reducing staffing levels to 120.
SOFTWARE houses begin to stir themselves from the Spectrum swamp and look at the possibilities of the QL, spurred on by the £200 price cut. Firebird, the BT offshoot, has already released QL Booty.
The game, set on a pirate ship, was a tremendous success on the Spectrum in Firebird's budget range. Essentially a jump'n'dodge production, it involves searching through the holds of the ship and collecting bags of treasure. Although it's not exactly original, at £9.95 it represents excellent value for money, especially as it includes another game, Grin Wars.
Other companies appear to be gearing up to follow suit. Adventure International, which produces conversions of the original Scott Adams games is already converting its adventure development system to the QL.
Ocean has also expressed an interest in the QL. "A programmer approached us at the recent PCW show," says Ocean's Paul Finnegan. "We gave him a selection of our games to look at, and we hope to be releasing a conversion soon".
While companies such as Ocean are cautious about the QL market, Finnegan feels that the price cuts may make QL games more viable. "We have no definites on the go as yet" he says, "but if we were approached by any programmers, I think we could give them some work."
THE QL seems to be on the move again, thanks to the recent drastic price cut' which puts the black beast, at £200, into the home market along with the C64 and Amstrad. "Orders have increased 134 fold," says Joe Woods of Terry Blood Distribution, the sole UK distributor of Sinclair hardware. "We've had to reorder twice and have another 2,500 on order now. Sinclair can't supply us quickly enough."
Sinclair Research is slightly more reticent about the success of the strategy. "At this stage it's too early to give any exact indication," temporises a spokesperson. "We don't want to blow our own trumpet too loudly.
One minor addition to the QL is the inclusion of a set of five 'games' with the machine on a single cartridge. Those are not intended as serious entertainment, but as simple examples of SuperBasic programs.
The price cut does however bring the QL into play as a possible games machine, and the number of software companies writing games for it is beginning to grow.
Meanwhile it seems Digital Research, which produces the GEM operating system used on the Atari ST68000-based computers, has been discussing the possibility of putting GEM on the QL. The most logical way of doing that would be as a ROM-based system held onboard, refuelling speculation that a new QL, or QL-based 16-bit micro, is in the pipeline.
Now that the QL is down to £200, the possibility of a more sophisticated machine to compete with the Atari at around the £500 mark seems much more reasonable.
COMPILATION cassettes have become the rage in recent months, especially since the successful Softaid package released last summer. No need to write a new game, just bung a few best sellers together and Bob's your uncle.
They Sold a Million is no exception and will be launched on the Hit Squad label created by Ocean for this venture. The compilation comprises four top selling games - Ocean's Daley Thompson's Decathlon, Ultimate's Sabre Wulf, US Gold's Beach-Head and Software Projects' Jet Set Willy.
The unlikely title refers to the fact that, in their heyday, the combined sales of those four games were around a million - at some point they each occupied the coveted number one slot in the charts. "If we sell another million, we will be only too pleased," says Ocean's David Ward.
"We took a leaf out of the record industry's book," continues Ward. "The best selling compilation records are those with top tracks on them - they really sell."
You probably own at least one of the four games, but the package represents excellent value, retailing at £9.95 and is due to be released in the first week of November. It will be presented in a twin cassette box.
SOFTAID, the charity compilation for Ethiopia, may be followed by a successor in the New Year.
"Softaid 2 is a consideration," says Rod Cousens, one of the leading lights behind the original package. "An awful lot of work would have to be done before it would be feasible."
If a new compilation is put together, it would have to be in the new year as the distributors, who gave their time and services free to the Ethiopia appeal, will not have much spare time during the busy Christmas period.
TALENT is about to release an astronomy program for the QL.
Called Cosmos, the program will provide a display of the sky for any latitude,. time, date and year. A cursor can be positioned over objects and information is then provided on the star or planet; Halley's comet is also featured.
You can also get displays of the phases of the planets, the positions of the four largest moons of Jupiter, and the alignment of the rings of Saturn, thus enabling you to plan your next extraterrestrial holiday with precision.
According to Talent's John Tweedie, Cosmos should be available, mail order only, from the end of October, at a price of £14.95.
Meanwhile Talent has also cut the price of Cartridge Doctor to £14.95.
Talent is also planning to branch out with programs for the Atari ST, with a database and adventure twin-pack as the first two releases. But there are no plans to reduce the level of support given to the QL, and Tweedie says the idea is to give roughly equal attention to both machines. "In terms of sheer value for money," he says, "the QL is unrivalled."