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Spectrum Next: The Evolution of the Speccy  

We love the ZX Spectrum. Why wouldn’t we? It was much more than just a computer: it was a machine that sparked a gaming revolution, neatly housed within its iconic design powered by sheer simplicity. The Speccy was, and still is, on a league of its own.

Decades have come and gone and the Speccy is still alive and kicking. New games are being launched all the time, the demoscene carries on pushing the hardware limits to the unimaginable, artists keep on creating great 8-bit eyecandy and music with it. Alongside this there are thousands of awesome games in the back catalogue to play.

Meanwhile hardware hackers around the world have expanded the ZX Spectrum to support SD card storage, feature new and better video modes, pack more memory, faster processor… Problem is, these expansions can be difficult to get hold of, and without a standardised Spectrum, no one knows what to support or develop for.

Here is our answer: The Spectrum Next – an updated and enhanced version of the ZX Spectrum totally compatible with the original, featuring the major hardware developments of the past many years packed inside a simple (and beautiful) design by the original designer, Rick Dickinson, inspired by his seminal work at Sinclair Research.

The Spectrum Next, designed by Rick Dickinson, in all its glory.

The Spectrum Next, designed by Rick Dickinson, in all its glory.

 

What’s inside the box

Spectrum Next is an expanded and updated version of the ZX Spectrum, fully compatible (software and hardware) with the original. You can play any games, demos, use original hardware, you name it. And it also runs new software created more recently to make use of expanded hardware, including new graphics modes and faster processor speeds.

The latest pre-production fully working prototype board

The latest pre-production fully working prototype board

The Spectrum Next is fully implemented with FPGA technology, ensuring it can be upgraded and enhanced while remaining truly compatible with the original hardware by using special memory chips and clever design. Here’s what under the hood of the machine:

  • Processor: Z80 3.5Mhz and 7Mhz modes
  • Memory: 512Kb RAM (expandable to 1.5Mb internally and 2.5Mb externally)
  • Video: Hardware sprites, 256 colours mode, Timex 8×1 mode etc.
  • Video Output: RGB, VGA, HDMI
  • Storage: SD Card slot, with DivMMC-compatible protocol
  • Audio: 3x AY-3-8912 audio chips with stereo output + FM sound
  • Joystick: DB9 compatible with Cursor, Kempston and Interface 2 protocols (selectable)
  • PS/2 port: Mouse with Kempston mode emulation and an external keyboard
  • Special: Multiface functionality for memory access, savegames, cheats etc.
  • Tape support: Mic and Ear ports for tape loading and saving
  • Expansion: Original external bus expansion port and accelerator expansion port
  • Accelerator board (optional): GPU / 1Ghz CPU / 512Mb RAM
  • Network (optional): Wi Fi module
  • Extras: Real Time Clock (optional), internal speaker (optional)

 

It’s gorgeous!

Yes, we know. We got to thank Rick Dickinson, the designer of all things Sinclair, for dedicating his time and amazing team to come up with a spiritual successor to one of the best and most loved industrial designs ever. We think the job is done! Rick also took great care to create a keyboard that’s more responsive and features higher bandwidth input than the original, using a butterfly mechanism to power a tactile response to any fingertip touching its keys. No more stuck keys while you type!

The Next features a butterfly-mechanism keyboard, similar to the what’s used in high-end laptops.


Who is it for

The Spectrum Next is aimed at any Retrogamer out there and Speccy enthusiast who prefers their games, demos and apps running on hardware rather than software emulators, but wants a seamless and simple experience contained within an amazing design.

The Spectrum Next is much more than just a renewed trip down the memory lane: there’s a world of new software out there that requires upgraded hardware to run — from games to music and video players, from operational systems to ultra demos — stuff that has been made for specific expanded hardware that most ZX Spectrum lovers never tried before, and can be quite difficult to find or install.

Demos and games captured as they run on the Next.

Demos and games captured as they run on the Next.

It can also become the new standard for the ZX Spectrum development, enabling developers to create content knowing where it will be experienced. And this makes all the difference: it’s a brand new future for the Speccy!

And while we’re looking at the future with the Next, by no means it forgets its roots: it has full support to tape loading and saving (fancy hearing that game loading?), it works with old CRT and VGA monitors (while also supporting modern HDMI output) and it’s compatible with original hardware expansions.

The Spectrum Next is ideal for anyone who loves the original Speccy but also wants to experience a new level of hardware, including faster processor, more memory, storage, network access and more.

Lateral view of the case design showing SD card, disk and extra function buttons.

Lateral view of the case design showing SD card, disk and extra function buttons.


Future-proof for another few decades

We did a good job with the Spectrum Next, but it wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t made it to last. While you can use the Next with old CRT RGB monitors, it also support VGA and modern HDMI monitors and TVs, future-proofing the computer for decades to come.

The Next's many ports: VGA + RGB, HDMI, PS2, Audio in/out, Tape connectors.

The Next’s many ports: VGA + RGB, HDMI, PS2, Audio in/out, Tape connectors.

We added the option to add a Raspberry Pi Zero as a slave co-accelerator board, taking the Spectrum Next to a whole new level. In other words, with a Raspberry Pi Zero slotted into its place, the Spectrum Next can use the RPi memory, CPU and GPU to do its bidding. Imagine what demosceners can do with this… An OpenGL ZX Spectrum? Who knows!

It also (probably) sets the world-record of cheapest accelerator in the world, as the incredible Raspberry Pi can be bought by £5 or less. It doesn’t get any better than this…

The back of the Next, showing the connection ports and the reset button (red).

The back of the Next, showing the connection ports and the reset button (red).


I love it… but I want to stick it inside my original Speccy

Well, aren’t you a true retro spirit? Yes, you actually can do that! We made it so that the Spectrum Next board is compatible with the old cases. We won’t sugar coat it: There will be some drilling, cutting, hacking and gluing involved, but if you’re a hobbyist up for the challenge (at your own risk!) it can be done for those who want it.

Here’s the Next housed within an original Speccy. Not for the faint of heart!

Here’s the Next housed within an original Speccy. Not for the faint of heart!


The brains behind the project

The Spectrum Next was born out of the incredible (and hacky) minds of Victor Trucco and Fabio Belavenuto, Speccy enthusiasts who have been keeping all sorts of retro hardware alive for the past 20 years. Once they created the hardware and software to make it run (the project was then called TBBlue), Rick Dickinson joined the group to wrap all that goodness into one heck of a design that any true Sinclair fan should fall in love with.

Rick Dickinson
An industrial designer of unparalleled talent, Rick’s seminal works include the ZX80, ZX81, ZX Spectrum, Plus and QL. Over the decades his creations have stood out of the crowd and survived the test of time, remaining icons of design to this day. If you think the Spectrum Next looks gorgeous, it’s all his doing.

Victor Trucco
One of the most gifted retro hackers on the planet, Victor is responsible for an endless string of open source hardware aimed at keeping our beloved oldies alive. Perhaps his mostly recognised project is the multisystem cartridge emulator, enabling many consoles to use a single device to load games from SD cards.

Fabio Belavenuto
Recognised as a key figure in the MSX hardware scene in Brazil, Fabio is a computer scientist with a not-so-hidden passion for the Speccy (the MSX vs Speccy in Brazil was analogous to the C64 vs Speccy in the UK). He’s the co-creator of the TBBlue Spectrum board, the starting point of the Next hardware.

Jim Bagley
One of the most celebrated ZX Spectrum developers, Jim is the coder behind classics such as Cabal and Midnight Resistance among many others. He also holds a Guinness World Record for cramming Dragons Lair into a ZX81. Jim is responsible for several functions of the Next (such as new video modes and sprites), and drives the development requirements for the platform.

Henrique Olifiers
A game designer and the co-founder of Bossa Studios, makers of Surgeon Simulator, I Am Bread and Worlds Adrift, Henrique is a retro gamer whose very first title was created in a ZX Spectrum clone (TK-90X). His passion for games and demoscene powers the developer relations of the Next project.

Check out Victor and Fabio’s hardware work at www.victortrucco.com and OldPlayers (tip: in Brazil, where they live, the ZX Spectrum is represented by clones called ‘TK90X’ and ‘TK95’). For all things design, head over here for Rick Dickinson’s company. And for a super trip down the memory lane of you favourite games, check Jim’s website here.

3D printed test mockups of the Next case, top one full scale, bottom one 1:2 scale

3D printed test mockups of the Next case, top one full scale, bottom one 1:2 scale

 

Does it work? Does it actually exist?

Glad you asked! Yes, the Spectrum Next has been in development for some time now, mainly because the team wanted to bring it to Kickstarter only when all the details have been ironed out and the machine already worked. We did this in order to reduce risks and surprises along the line, and to show the community the Next hardware working before asking for backing. And here it is:

Another advantage to the approach of developing the hardware before crowdfunding the production, is that some great developers have been working with the prototype boards and creating new software for the Next, even before its launch. They have also been suggesting new features, such as 256 colours sprite modes and hardware scrolling for instance. Check out an example:

Here’s the Next running some Speccy games and demos:

We hope the ZX Next will lead to a new generation of games made specifically for it, on top of amazing ports of old classics taking advantage of more speed, memory, colours… Our imagination is the limit!

 

Features on the move

When we first conceived the Spectrum Next, it was a very different, much more humble machine. During the past 12 months we’ve been collecting feedback from the community and expanding the machine’s features based on suggestions and requests.

This process will continue during production even after the Next’s launch, as its firmware will be constantly upgraded to improve the machine and include more things it’s able to do — such as the Jupiter Ace and ZX81 modes already available.

It’s also important to note that some aspects of its board layout have been changed (such as the joystick port moving to the front of the computer for easier access), and might still be improved before final production. For us all that matters is that we make the best possible version of the Spectrum Next within the price point of the original Speccy.

Most importantly, once launched, the Spectrum Next will be fully open source, including its firmware and schematics, meaning the community will be able to take it further into the future by improving both its software and hardware!

The accelerator board port, and the original Speccy expansion (fully compatible).

The accelerator board port, and the original Speccy expansion (fully compatible).