The Spectrum Next claims to be the “Evolution of the Speccy”, which is a very bold statement. The Sinclair name and Spectrum brand evokes strong memories in a whole generation of adults who grew up in the mid-80s with one in their home, so any new machine with Sinclair stamped on it needs to walk the walk and talk the talk.
Speaking as one of those adults, an ex-games developer and long-term Spectrum fan, I personally consider the Next a worthy addition to the Sinclair range of computers.
I must admit being a little late to the party when it comes to the Next. There was another Spectrum related kickstarter project live at the time that was not doing so well, to say the least. Despite the fact it was unconnected to the Spectrum Next project, it put me off a little, so decided to pass.
The initial Kickstarter was a success; the team delivered a solid product, a little late, yet with much acclaim. Over 3000 units were shipped, at a reported personal cost to the team, and during the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Needless to say, I kicked myself afterwards for missing the boat.
Thankfully the team behind the Next started another Kickstarter for the Next. And to say the first was a success, this is a blinder, with over £1.3 million pounds pledged so far, a good chunk of that being raised in the first few days of the campaign. I’ve decided to back the project this time, as any concerns I had first time round have been largely mitigated.
So this will mean by this time next year, over 6,000 Spectrum Next’s in the wild, with a growing fanbase and community to support it.
But what is The Spectrum Next?
The Spectrum Next is not an emulated Spectrum, yet it doesn’t contain a Z80. So how does it work?
The main chip on the motherboard is a Xilinx Spartan-6 XC6SLX16 FPGA. The FPGA contains 14,579 programmable logic blocks that can be connected at run-time with a core loaded from the Next SD card. These connections can be combined at the hardware level to be the logic for the Z80, the Spectrum ULA, and any built-in peripheral logic for joysticks, mice, keyboards, etc.
The board is designed to fit inside a Spectrum 48K case, There is an SD card slot for loading the firmware and software, an RGB and HDMI cable to connect to the TV, and an internal auxiliary slot for connecting a Raspberry Pi Zero co-processor. In addition, there is a Spectrum edge connector, making the board hardware compatible with Spectrum peripherals.
The stunning Next enclosure was designed by the late Rick Dickinson, and is reminiscent of the Spectrum+/128K/QL, with a sleek profile, improved keyboard, and those stripes curving off to the right-hand side.
The Next out of the box runs as a stock Spectrum 48K or 128K, with full software and peripheral compatibility. The FPGA also supports running other cores, including the ZX81, BBC Micro, Amstrad CPC, MSX, QL, and even a number of arcade game boards. However, there are limits due to the size of the FPGA, so do not expect to be able to run an Amiga or ST clone.
It is relatively straightforward installing new cores on the SD card, and there is a special anti-brick core, so there is little danger of bricking the Next by mistake.
The specs have been sympathetically upgraded with many new features:
- Turbo modes for the Z80 (7Mhz, 14Mhz and 28Mhz)
- 1Mb RAM internally upgradable to 2Mb (2Mb included as standard with the second Kickstarter)
- Improved video modes with 256 colours per pixel, tilemaps, and hardware scrolling
- Hardware sprites
- 3 x AY-38912 sound chips
- Built in support for Kempston joystick and mouse, and PS/2 keyboard
- A DMA for offloading memory copies and fills, and block I/O writes
- Optional Wi-Fi module and real-time-clock (included as standard with the second Kickstarter)
- Optional Raspberry Pi Zero co-processor with SID support, MIDI, TZX tape support, and planned floating point acceleration
- An enhanced BASIC with support for the new features
Integrated peripherals, such as the Kempston interface, are generally mapped to legacy ports, so existing software will work with no modification. The Z80 has been tweaked to include a handful of extra opcodes to help optimise software, including instructions to write to Next I/O registers, calculate the address of a coordinate on the standard Spectrum (ULA) screen, and a quick 8-bit multiply.
It is clearly a machine that has been developed for developers by developers, and with the turbo modes and hardware features, it is now possible to write slick-looking games in BASIC.
And as it is based on FPGA technology, the team can continue to offer new features and bug fixes, FPGA capacity permitting.
If you want to get a feel for what the Next is capable of, you can fire up an emulator on your PC. There are a couple of options:
Neither emulator currently provides perfect emulation of the Next hardware; they are both great emulators with respective strengths and weaknesses. However, they are actively maintained, so expect incremental improvements over time.
I personally use ZEsarUX as my daily runner due to its support of other machines, but occasionally cross-reference with CSpect if there is an aspect of my code seemingly not working to specification.
If you consider the cost to be too great, or have missed out on the Kickstarter, then you may be in luck. There is talk on the grapevine of third-party boards that are Next compatible, and a small demand for a compatible core on the MiSTer, another FPGA board.
One such compatible board is the ZXDOS+, an FPGA board based upon the ZX-Uno. Like the Next it comes with support for a number of retro-cores including the 2MB Spectrum Next. It too has have a Spectrum edge connector which claims to be compatible with most Spectrum peripherals. However it does not have a slot for the Raspberry Pi Accelerator. If you are looking for a cheaper alternative, they are currently available on back-order for €130.
And if you’re not that bothered about the hardware, and just want to play classic Spectrum games, then there are a plethora of emulators, including ZEsarUX, that will run on devices such as the Raspberry Pi.
Finally, you can purchase a second-hand Spectrum. This is probably akin to purchasing and maintaining a classic car, with similar risks, albeit with a smaller outlay.
I’ve started porting some of my Spectrum library code across to the Next and so far have been impressed, albeit written and tested under emulation.
The hardware is akin to a 16-bit console like the Megadrive in terms of features and complexity. There are plenty of features to play around with, and so far I’ve barely scratched the surface.
If you want to go into a little more detail on the Next, I suggest heading over to the official portal specnext.com, which has detailed specs and resources.
In addition to the thousands of Spectrum games that will run fine on the Next, there are also some new games which take advantage of the Next hardware over at spectrumnextgames.uk.
I’m quite looking forward to getting the actual hardware now, hopefully sometime before August 2021!