The History of Video Games #5: The ZX Spectrum - the First Home Computer for the Masses - Part One

Updated: Feb 24

ZX Spectrum +3 128K
Top of the ZX Spectrum hierarchy, the 128K +3

In the last article, we covered 'the great video game crash of 1983', which led to the demise of the Atari 2600. This led some to believe that video games were simply a passing fad. At least in America.

In other parts of the world, the situation was quite different. Here, on my side of the pond, the video game crash went largely unnoticed. In the UK the demise of the Atari 2600 coincided with the rise of the 8-bit home computer. British gamers simply ‘traded up’ to a newer system and carried on gaming.

Enter the Speccy

For many, this newer system was the Sinclair ZX Spectrum or one of its descendants.

Designed by Sir Clive Sinclair - of the Sinclair C5 fame, the spectrum family of computers was intended as the first home computer for the masses. It became extremely popular, and many affectionately referred to it as "The Speccy."

The first iteration was released in 1982 and was made famous by its rubber keys. Two versions of this were released to suit different budgets. The entry-level version offered 16 kilobytes of memory, whilst the high-end model boasted a full 48 kilobytes.

This may sound minuscule compared to the multi Gigabyte systems of today, but it was a significant increase over what had been available before.

The rubber keyboard ZX Spectrum 16K/48K
The rubber keyboard ZX Spectrum 16K/48K

The ZX Spectrum was soon followed by the ZX Spectrum +, which featured a more conventional keyboard layout with plastic keys.

ZX Spectrum +
The later plastic keyed ZX Spectrum +

Later iterations such as the ZX Spectrum 128 would increase the memory to 128 kilobytes. This increased memory allowed for significantly more complex games, and for whole genres of games that would not have been possible on earlier systems.

The more advanced Sinclair ZX Spectrum + 128K
The more advanced Sinclair ZX Spectrum + 128K

Physical Media

The physical media formats used by the Spectrum possessed far greater storage capacity than the carts used by the Atari 2600. These formats were audio cassettes and 3-inch floppy discs.

Discs had the advantages of greater durability, loading near-instantaneously and loading silently. However, gamers would have to pay a premium for these perks, as discs were considerably more expensive than tapes.

If memory serves, most disc-based games retailed at around £14.99, whilst the more affordable cassettes sold for £9.99.

Note this was 1980s money. If adjusted for inflation, this would equate to around £45 and £27 respectively.

Spectrum floppy disc
The ‘premium’ option – the ‘floppy’ disc

Spectrum Horizons audio cassette
The 'budget' option – 'audio' cassette tapes

The first three variants of the Spectrum lacked either a built-in cassette deck or disc drive. Thankfully it was a simple enough matter to plug in an external one.

Later variants of the Spectrum 128 such as the +2 came with a built-in cassette deck, while the more expensive +3 came with a built-in disc drive. Both could still accept external tape decks and disc drives, which provided users with the flexibility of using either media.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2 128K with integral tape deck
Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2 128K with integral tape deck
Sinclair ZX Spectrum +3 128K with integral disc drive
Sinclair ZX Spectrum +3 128K with integral disc drive

The Spectrum 128K+3, pictured above, was my first home computer, which I got my grubby little mitts on at the tender age of eight.

"Wow!" I thought, "128K, that’s huge!" I also felt quite smug, as it was the +3, the ‘high-end’ variant with the internal disk drive. It was also my first ever experience of modding a computer. My grandfather, always the tinkerer, figured out how to connect the computer to an old cassette player. At the time I was very impressed, not realising that this was actually easy to do and that they were all designed with this in mind.

My ‘add-on’ tape deck was something very much like this.

Generic 3rd party tape deck – could be hooked up to ZX Spectrum computers
Generic 3rd party tape deck – could be hooked up to ZX Spectrum computers

Although cassettes were less expensive, they came with several significant drawbacks compared to floppy discs.

Firstly, cassettes could take a long time to load, easily ten minutes or more. Whilst this was going on you would be subjected to the audio-visual ‘treats’ that were the Spectrum's loading screens. If you would like to see and hear what I’m talking about, watch the video below, with the volume turned up. But don’t say I didn’t warn you...

Dan Dare ZX Spectrum.

My eyes! My ears! My... what a big forehead you have...