Magazine: Electronics & Computing Monthly
Date: December 1982
"We have thought seriously about calling this machine NOT THE BBC COMPUTER", said Clive Sinclair when he announced the Spectrum. It was generally taken as an example of Clive Sinclair's dry wit at the time; but I think he meant it. GUY KEWNEY E&CM JULY '82
The first thing which a prospective buyer would notice about the Sinclair (any Sinclair) if they took one home for a week, is that there is only one thing to learn. On all other computers, you have to learn the language, and if you are not already familiar with typewriters, you have to learn the keyboard. On this machine, the language is the keyboard.
In other words, instead of typing PRINT, you press the P key, and the machine types PRINT for you.
It sounds wonderful, until you realise that there are around 90 different words in the Basic language. There are 40 keys on the Sinclair keyboard, and they also have to carry the number 0 to 9, the letters A to Z, all the punctuation, calculation, and editing functions, plus colour codes. At that point, only the fact that you have spent all your money on the machine persuades you to stick at it, and learn the way round the keyboard.
But the advantages go deep, for all their apparent elusiveness. On a Sinclair, you are never suddenly stuck for a command, and have to page through the manual to find it and how to spell it (and how many brackets (not forgetting how many layers of bracket (assuming you only use one form of bracket))) because it's there in front of you. Nine times out of ten, if you do use the command incorrectly, the machine will show you exactly where you have gone wrong.
To illustrate this point: on the Acorn BBC micro, it is possible to put spaces into Basic statements where spaces should not be. PRINT TAB 20 should move you 20 spaces along the line on the screen. But it must not have a space between TAB and 20, or the machine thinks TAB is the label of some specified number (a variable) and hunts through the list of variables before stopping the program with a terse message to say that there is no such variable.
It can take a very long time before you realise that a space is causing your problem. And this is exactly the sort of frustrating thing which the Sinclair design prevents.
The drawback of the system can be seen from a glance at the keys with numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 on them. Each key has six different possible meanings, and you can search for the one you need for minutes at a time before you find it.
Fortunately for Sinclair, he doesn't have to argue about the fact that users find this acceptable. His ZX81 sales have proved it.
Features of the new Spectrum can be placed into 7 categories:-
The first, unfortunately, is one we have to take on trust. Unfortunately, because it is undoubtedly the most important - a direct access storage device for £50 - the thing called the Microdrive.
The second is an enhanced Basic language. It still omits the one thing which I think essential in such a machine, and that is easy access to machine code, but for all its faults, Basic is useable, and widely known. "Better", here, risks becoming the enemy of "good" (as Adam Osborne always tells me when I suggest possible improvements to something) and obviously Basic is good enough to use. Especially with new features.
The third is colour and programmable graphics.
Fourth, a respectable keyboard. Not a good keyboard, and with its faults, but at least you can use it without wondering if your finger has slipped off the key.
Fifth, sound generation. There is a silly design fault here, and it is one which I can't forgive - the sound is inaudibly soft, and it takes a tedious performance of plugging and unplugging to amplify it.
Sixth, an operating system. We never had one on the ZX81, and sadly we missed it too. We get screen handling, tape handling, terminals handling, and network handling where previously we only had program save and load.
Seventh, we have auto-repeat on keys. Perhaps I should have put this first - it's something I'd pay extra £25 for, on the ZX81, without asking any more questions beyond "who do I make the cheque out to?"
And of course, there are a bag-full of other little things. Words Can have small (lower-case) letters as well as capitals. You can time things. You can write your own Basic commands. You don't have to plug the add-on memory pack on. There is a network. And a lot more.
Here are some of the new keywords, first the functions, then the statements.
It's a noticeable improvement on ZX81 Basic. That was pretty good. I don't think the speed of Basic matters too much to most people, which is just as well for the Spectrum. The only thing slower is a Casio pocket Basic calculator, or the ZX81 in SLOW mode. In FAST mode, the ZX81 beats it comfortably. And any model BBC micro is between four and ten times faster, judged on the standard benchmarks originally published in Kilobaud. I wouldn't mention this, but Clive did say his machine was "more powerful" than the BBC.
The BBC micro has a built-in assembler. It runs slowly, but it runs. This machine has no assembler.
Better than average despite some excruciating puns by Steven Vickers, which escaped the censor. Some were quite nice - comparing strings, for example, Vickers asks "Which of these is the lesser? EVIL or evil?"
The new keyboard is made of rubber, and it squishes. Whatever colour the keys eventually are, I think you will need good light and good eyesight to read the characters in red on the keys themselves. They are little, fiddly characters like the equals sign, the commas, colons, multiplier, minus, <> and so on. The layout is logical enough. Start a command like PRINT, and you will find the quote makes on the same key as the PRINT command. The often needed semicolon is right next to it. Similarly LET and = are on the same key, THEN and GOTO are on the G key, FOR and TO on the F key with STEP next to them on the D key.
To say that the keyboard is "typewriter pitch" is to mislead. Yes, it is, but the space bar is missing, the ENTER key is where you expect a semicolon, comma and full stop are SHIFT characters on N and M, and anyway, you have to press the keys in the middle to be sure that they register. It's a great improvement on the ZX81, but that's all I can really say for it.