For many British coders of a certain age bracket, the Sinclair Spectrum is a piece of nostalgia from their past. Released in the 1980s, the Sinclair Spectrum series popularized home computing in the United Kingdom and marked the start for many individuals in a boom of at-home coders.
Retro Sinclair ZX Spectrums generally go for anywhere from £10 all the way up to £249.99 on eBay. The exact value of a given ZX Spectrum model will depend on the condition it is in and whether it’s still in working order.
The Retro Sinclair Spectrum is truly a piece of home computing history and can make for a nice addition to any collection.
What is the Sinclair Spectrum?
While many who are familiar with at-home computing and its history will scoff at this question, it’s worth going into the history of the Sinclair Spectrum for those who may already be familiar.
In simple terms, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum is an 8-bit personal computer released in 1982. Released in the United Kingdom by Sinclair Research, the machine was named the ZX Spectrum to mark its main improvement over its predecessor – a new, color display.
Sinclair Research released eight different models of the Spectrum from 1982 to 1987, ranging from the initial model with 16 KB RAM to the ZX Spectrum +3 with 128 KB RAM and a built-in floppy disk drive.
The ZX Spectrum was one of the first mainstream computers in the United Kingdom, and it helped to spawn an entire industry of software developers that made programs compatible with the system.
Many consider the ZX Spectrum to be the machine that launched the United Kingdom’s IT industry, and the machine earned the founder of Sinclair Research, Clive Sinclair, an official knighthood for his “services to British industry.”
At its launch, the ZX Spectrum was more or less a black box with a soft rubber keyboard and computing hardware inside. Initially, it was released in two models, one with 16 KB of RAM at £125 and one with 48 KB of RAM at £175.
The low price point in comparison to its competitors helped launch its popularity. Additionally, the Spectrum was one of the first at-home systems to offer color graphics, capable of a 256 x 192-pixel display when connected to a television set.
Data and programs were stored on audio cassette tapes, adding to its adaptability. With this, the Spectrum accumulated a sizable library of programs, numbering over 23,000 titles.
The Spectrum continued to be released in new models throughout the 80s, adding new features and computing capabilities with each model. Eventually, the machine was discontinued in 1992.
How Did the Sinclair Spectrum Work?
To those with a more technical understanding of how at-home computing works, the ZX Spectrum was truly a marvel for its time.
From a hardware perspective, the ZX Spectrum was based on a Zilog Z80 A CPU running at 3.5 MHz. The original model contained 16 KB of ROM and either 16 or 48 KB of RAM.
The display was designed to be used on a contemporary television set, in color, with a 256 x 192-pixel display. The sound was produced by a beeper system within the machine, capable of one channel in 10 octaves.
The technical features of the ZX Spectrum were what made it so remarkable and accessible to so many. The computing power, for the size of the machine, was uncommon for the time, and the price point made it available to far more consumers than was otherwise offered by competitors.
The ability to be used with a contemporary television set added to its adaptability. Add to that the boom in programs that were made for it after release, and the ZX Spectrum took off in the United Kingdom.
The ZX Spectrum was truly the first mainstream at home computer in the United Kingdom. With this, it sparked an entire community of at-home programmers. For many computer programmers in the UK, the ZX Spectrum marked their initial exposure to writing code and building software.
For many UK programmers and coders, the ZX Spectrum holds a special place in their hearts.
How Many Different Models Did Sinclair Release?
From the initial release in 1982 to its discontinuation in 1992, Sinclair released a total of 8 models of the Spectrum.
- ZX Spectrum 16K/48K
- ZX Spectrum +
- ZX Spectrum 128
- ZX Spectrum +2
- ZX Spectrum +
- ZX Spectrum +3
- ZX Spectrum +2B
- ZX Spectrum +3B
Each of these models built upon the previous model. Notably, the final five models were released after Amstrad acquired Sinclair Research and the Spectrum brand in 1986.
- ZX Spectrum 16K/48K
The original, this model came in two memory configurations. In addition to the 16K and 48K formats, an external 32K RAM could be mounted to the machine, those these drives were made by third party manufacturers.
An interesting feature of the initial release 16K model is that customers could mail their machine back to the manufacturer with a check to get it upgraded to a 48K model.
An “Issue 1” of this model is the most highly valued model of the Spectrum. With only 26,000 released in total, the number that is still in good, working condition is low.
The way to tell an Issue 1 from late issues is the keyboard color. For Issue 1, the keyboard came in a light grey. Later issues came with a blue-grey keyboard.
- ZX Spectrum +
Released in October of 1984, this model only came in the 48K size. The main upgrade on this model from the original was a new case with an injection-molded keyboard. Additionally, the system came with a reset button that could short across the CPU reset capacitor.
Otherwise, the model was electronically identical to the original Spectrum, and initially retailed at £179.95.
The model initially outsold the original, by some estimates at a rate of 2:1, but because the meat of the systems was the same this initial pace slowed. Some retailers also reported a failure rate of up to 30%, far exceeding the normal rate of 5-6% that the original experience.
- ZX Spectrum 128
In 1985, Sinclair released the Spectrum 128 in conjunction with their Spanish distributor Investronica. Thanks to new requirements and taxes placed on all computers 64KB of RAM and smaller, Sinclair made the necessary adjustments to comply with the Spanish market.
The 128 showcased several new features, including 128KB of RAM, three-channel audio, 32KB of ROM, and an RGB monitor port.
Additionally, the 128 featured a different design than previous models. With the extra computing power, the 128 needed a larger heatsink than the internal one used in the previous releases. This external heatsink was added to the right end of the case, the appearance of which inspired the machine’s nickname, “The Toast Rack.”
While the 128 models featured a number of upgrades on the Spectrum+, Sinclair held back on the release to the UK market. With a large number of ZX Spectrum+’s still in stock across the UK, Sinclair decided to wait until January 1986, to release the Spectrum 128 to the UK market.
- ZX Spectrum +2
The Spectrum +2 marked the first model released after Amstrad had acquired Sinclair and the Spectrum brand.
This model featured a new all-grey case, a spring-loaded keyboard, dual joystick output, and an internal cassette recorder. Outside of these changes, the +2 was virtually identical to the 128.
Production costs had fallen significantly, and the Spectrum +2 was released at the lowest price point to date at £139 – £149.
- ZX Spectrum +2A
Released in 1987, the Spectrum +2A was a precursor to the Spectrum +3, released later that year.
Initially designed with an internal cassette recorder like the Spectrum +2, the +2A was also provided the option to install a floppy disk drive instead.
While the Spectrum +2A was a new release, changing technology led Amstrad to move quickly to release the next model they were working on, the Spectrum +3.
- ZX Spectrum +3
Released later in 1987, the Spectrum +3 was largely the same machine as the +2A, except instead of a cassette recorder, the Spectrum +3 featured a built-in 3-inch floppy disk drive.
The machine came in an all-black case and was initially retailed at £249, though that eventually dropped to £199.
The Spectrum +3 featured a number of hardware improvements, the most prominent of which is the addition of two more 16KB ROMs. The addition of this computing power was largely geared towards making the machine compatible with the CP/M operating system without needing additional external hardware.
These changes in hardware caused some issues, however. Many of these issues were highly technical but caused incompatibilities nonetheless. There was also a reduction in sound quality, as the resistor placement within the machine caused distortion.
The Spectrum +3 was discontinued in 1990, as Amstrad decided to relaunch its CPC line, and preferred to not have it compete directly with the Spectrum +3. At the time of discontinuation, it was estimated that the +3 accounted for 15% of all Spectrum units sold.
- ZX Spectrum +2B
- ZX Spectrum +3B
Both the Spectrum +2B and the Spectrum +3B were functionally similar to their earlier counterparts, and each model was largely built to address problems of audio in the previous models.
Both of these models were also only compatible with whatever drive they came with. For the Spectrum +2B that meant no floppy disk drive compatibility, while for the +3B that meant not compatibility with an internal cassette recorder.
At the time that Amstrad discontinued the Spectrum +3 in 1990, the Spectrum +2B was the only model still in production.
Why Was It Discontinued?
The year 1992 marked the official end of the Sinclair Spectrum line. Amstrad officially ended production of the ZX Spectrum +2B, the final model of the Spectrum still in production at that point in time.
The main reason for discontinuing the Spectrum line was the move away from 8-bit systems in the computing world. By the early 90s, computing power was rapidly improving, and the 8-bit systems gave way to their more powerful 16-bit successors.
As with many previous forms of technology, the natural process of technology constantly changing and improving often means that as quickly as one piece of technology comes into wide circulation, it can just as quickly become near obsolete. This is the case with the Sinclair Spectrum.
In the span of just 10 years, the Spectrum was introduced, became a mainstream personal computer in the UK market, and was then made obsolete by the move to 16-bit systems.
Have There Been Any Clones or Remakes?
The popularity of the ZX Spectrum series in the UK market led to a number of contemporary licensed remakes and unofficial knock-offs, as well as a few modern attempts at remakes.
Soon after the UK release, Sinclair licensed the Spectrum design to Timex Corporation in the United States. After a few minor modifications, Timex released the Timex Sinclair 2068 in November 1983.
In 1984, Timex of Portugal begun development and production on several Timex computers, including the Timex Computer 2048. These models were all highly compatible with the Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K, adding to their popularity.
These models went on to be rather successful in the Portuguese and Polish markets.
Decibells Electronics of India also got in on the action. In 1986, they introduced a licensed version of the ZX Spectrum +. The model sold reasonably well but was discontinued in 1990, as the market dried up.
A number of unofficial clones were also produced in the less developed markets of Eastern Europe, South America, and the Soviet Union. Each of these markets produced a number of models, all with varying capacities.
Specifically, in the Soviet Union, these knock-offs were mostly produced by small start-ups, none of which were able to produce them at any mass volume, creating a vibrant assortment of the various models.
More recently, there have been two notable attempts at remakes of the original Sinclair machines. Both were launched via Kickstarter campaigns in 2014, and both have experienced some success.
- ZX Spectrum Vega
The Vega was released in 2015 by Retro Computers. The machine is a pared-down version of the originals, designed specifically for gaming and lacking a full keyboard.
The system hooks up to your television, just the same as the originals, and comes with 1,000 licensed games. Many of the games are originals from the old systems, but many are new creations from at-home hobbyists.
Notably, the ZX Spectrum Vega was funded in some part by Sir Clive Sinclair himself.
- The Recreated ZX Spectrum
True to its name, the Recreated ZX Spectrum, released by Elite Systems in 2015, is exactly that, a true to form recreation of the original release.
This includes the same rubber-made full keyboard, and if not for the Tippex mark on the logo you’d be forgiven for thinking these were simply refurbished original issues.
While the look is almost an exact copy of the original, Elite Systems made sure to upgrade the interior of the system. This starts first and foremost by making the machine a Bluetooth keyboard.
Used in either regular keyboard mode or in gaming mode, the device can be paired with any Bluetooth capable screen, be it a laptop, tablet, or television, increasing the versatility of the system.
Additionally, the Recreated ZX Spectrum has exclusive rights to a number of classic games, including Chuckie Egg, Manic Miner, and Jet Set Willy.
For the more serious retro enthusiast, this machine is also Sinclair BASIC compatible. Both the 48K and the 128K versions are available, allowing the user to write code and build their own programs in either language.
With the numerous licensed adaptations, unlicensed knock-offs, and modern remakes, retro Sinclair enthusiasts of all stripes can find what they’re looking for. The vast array of contemporary remakes provides for a vibrant potential collector’s market, while the 2015 remakes provide true to nature options to experience the joys of the originals.
Is it Possible to Restore an Old Model?
In short, yes, a retro Sinclair ZX Spectrum can be restored to working condition. Because these machines aren’t super old, they often don’t require a huge amount of work to get them back up and running.
Many times, if the machine was stored in a safe and secure manner, the main work required is simply replacing some parts that might have corroded and dry-rotted over time.
The most frequent repair that is need is a replacement of the keyboard. Being made out of rubber, over time the keyboard will lose its pliability and will become brittle or cracked. Qualities that aren’t ideal in a keyboard. Replacement keyboards are easy to find, and can generally be purchased for around £9.
Another update that will help make the machine more compatible with modern televisions is an upgrade of the video output from RF to composite video. Though a little is more involved in a repair than keyboard replacement, the necessary parts are also easily found.
For a more detailed breakdown of what the restoration process might look like, this Medium article can be a helpful read.