Whats wrong with a normal Speccy anyway?
As anyone who ever owned a ZX Spectrum will testify, loading from tape could sometimes be a frustrating affair, what with misaligned heads, dropouts and all manner of other things causing the dreaded ‘R Tape loading error, 0:1‘. Loading times were another bugbear – being able to make yourself a cuppa whilst waiting for your favourite game to load sounds useful, but I didn’t drink that much tea when I was 11 to be honest. Yes, there were various disk drives, microdrives and wafadrives available but those of us that were bought ZX Spectrums because of financial constraints (and I’m guessing that was a lot of us) were never going have those expensive peripherals hooked up to our humble micros. Sound was another issue, with early rubber key Spectrums only having a beeper – the brunt of many a Commodore 64 owner’s joke. We had to wait until the 128 hit the shelves to get AY chip sound effects in our games. If we wanted to use a joystick with our 16/48K, a joystick interface had to be added, the list of compromises goes on…
In truth, that was what the rubber keyed Spectrum was. A compromise machine made to a low price point. We knew that and embraced its many flaws.
So what is the Just Speccy 128?
Fast forward 34 years and the ZX Spectrum scene is very much alive and well. In fact growing. Some very clever people are developing new hardware, enabling those compromised machines we once knew to do all the things we always wanted them to do and often exceed it. The list of new peripherals is almost endless but some have gone further still, producing Spectrum clones that fill the gaps in functionality that Sir Clive left in the originals.
I chose to purchase one such ZX Spectrum clone made by Zaxon (Piotr Bugaj), going by the name of ‘Just Speccy 128’ after seing his posts regarding it in various Sinclair Facebook groups. I hate the whole idea of the ZX Spectrum computer being reduced down to a plugin TV game (see ZX Spectrum Vega in its diminutive little ‘controller’ size case) and one of the main reasons I was drawn to this particular board, apart from it’s enhanced functionality, was because it had been designed to fit in an original 16/48K case or 48K+ (with some modification). I never minded the otherwise much-maligned rubber keyboard on my original Spectrum and had a spare unworking 48K as a case donor so this seemed ideal for me. At least this way it would still look and function like an original ZX Spectrum. The specs of the new board were exciting – SD Card slot, RGB output, AY sound with stereo output and Kempston compatible joystick port. (See below for specifications). I also had the choice of purchasing a cheaper unpopulated board from Piotr – that is, one without components, therefore leaving me to solder them all on. I can solder, but rather badly and I take way too much time over the smallest of things so I thought it best to plump for a fully populated board (minus ULA).
Just Speccy 128 Specifications
Clone of Spectrum +128K
Designed to fit into a 16/48K or 48K+ Spectrum
DIVSD integrated on the board working with ESXDOS
RGB video output with MiniDIN 8pin connector
Integrated Kempston joystick interface
AY Stereo output
I did however want it to differ from the original aesthetically so decided it needed to be white, which as it turns out ended up being all the vogue amongst Just Speccy owners with many others doing exactly the same. The board itself came without a ULA, so I was able to choose a Spectrum ROM of my choice. I didn’t want to render any of my existing 128K Spectrums useless so I purchased a ROM from Dataserve Retro finally choosing a ULA from a Spectrum + 128K.
I managed to source a self adhesive print in white, complete with key legends to cover the metal face plate, got to enlarging the RF port to take the new RGB cable, cutting a hole for the new joystick port and cutting a slot for the SD card access. After adding a hole for the NMI/reset button (thanks to Graham Axten for the components) and spraying the case in satin white Plastikote, I was ready to marry case with board. I made that sound all very easy but in truth I’m a procrastinator (with sloth-like tendencies) and it took over 6 months from receiving my board to getting the computer back together and running how I wanted.
Using the Just Speccy 128
My JS128 was supplied with a pre-formatted SD card and an RGB SCART cable made by Cool Novelties (www.coolnovelties.co.uk) which has a seperate stereo audio jack for playing sound through your TV. All that is needed apart from that, is a power supply, which Piotr simplified by enabling you to plug any ZX Spectrum power supply (or equivalent) into the power port. I use a grey +2 PSU with mine and once powered up, using the JS128 is a breeze.
The screen you see when powered on will be dependant upon the ULA you chose to add. Mine being a +128 ROM boots to the usual 128 screen with a choice of 128/48K modes. The Spectrum can now be used just as any 128K Spectrum albeit in a rubber key 48K case. You can now load cassettes the usual way, even add yourself a peripheral or two. This however would be missing the JS128’s greatest trick.
A click of the NMI button will bring up the ESXDOS menu enabling you to access the contents of your SD card, which potentially could hold the entire Spectrum software library – if you could ever assemble such a thing! Image quality on my 42 inch LED TV using the custom RGB cable is simply amazing, pin sharp and as colourful as Uncle Clive intended. Sound has an amazing clarity too bringing this close to being the perfect ZX Spectrum clone and a must-have for any serious Spectrum enthusiast.
Q and A with Piotr Bugaj – designer of the Just Speccy 128
(many thanks to Piotr for taking the time to answer my questions, English is not his native language but his English is most certainly better than my Polish!)
When did you get your first ZX Spectrum and how old were you?
Piotr: I’m 41, my first ZX I get when I was 14-15, but my ‘fisrt contact’ was when I was 9 years old.
What was the first Spectrum game you ever played?
Piotr: First game was ‘Lazy Jones’.
What got you into designing and producing new hardware for old computers?
Piotr: Hmm, because I can?
How long does it take you to produce one Just Speccy 128?
Piotr: Is hand made assembly, first board I assembly 5 hours, now this take approx 2 hours.
Was there anything you wanted to include on the JS128 but couldn’t?
Piotr: Yes, was plan to put Turbosound FM and SAA 1099 on board but I keep 48 rubber key board dimensions and was no space.
What else (if anything) are you planning on making for the ZX Spectrum?
Piotr: At the moment, nothing new but it is still January, who knows what will be in rest of the year?