Interview The last units of the second batch of the ZX Spectrum Next are heading off to their owners. If you missed out, we have good news.

The ZX Spectrum Next is a modern recreation – and, crucially, improved version – of the classic British home computer, Sinclair Research’s ZX Spectrum. Forty-two years ago, The Reg FOSS desk cut its computing teeth on a ZX Spectrum 48. In August 2020, chafing under Czech lockdown, we got a second chance to get the modernized version. Now, finally, the machines are shipping and many delighted middle-aged Brits got one just before the holidays. We talked to the project’s founder, Henrique Olifiers, about how it went – and where it might go, er, Next.

The Reg: First things first … if I may be selfish, over here in the Isle of Man, I am still waiting for my Spectrum Next! When will the machines ship to the Rest of the World?

HO: While there are some inquiries on customer support, the majority of them are from “RotW regions” for which the Next is yet to ship – hopefully this week. The rest is mostly shipping issues (lost parcels, wrong addresses and so forth). In terms of things that actually went wrong, we have less than 30 tickets so far, which is fairly good going on a 5,500 run of machines. It isn’t perfect, but not too bad either.

The Reg: I know you have had horrible problems with the global chip shortage.

HO: We had a lot of issues with chip and parts shortages during the pandemic lockdowns. The majority of the trouble we managed to navigate by switching to similar or equivalent parts, adjusting the design as necessary. The big one was AMD/Xilinx stopping the shipment of Spartan 6 FPGAs without proper notice and no end in sight for the resuming of production, forcing us to redesign the entire board to operate with the Artix-7 FPGA instead. It also meant recreating the entire firmware, as even its IDE is a different one from the Spartan series. This was a serious undertaking which could only be met by utterly dedicated and capable people like Allen Albrecht, who quickly familiarized himself with the new platform and managed to successfully redevelop and test the firmware in time for shipping.

ZX Spectrum Next

ZX Spectrum Next

The Reg: You had to switch to a higher-capacity – and therefore more expensive – FPGA, is that right?

HO: The Artix-7 is a more expensive and capable chip compared to the Spartan-6, thus there was an extra cost incurred – which we managed to thankfully absorb without passing on to the backers. The silver lining is that, with the extra capabilities of the Artix-7, we managed to expand the ZX Spectrum Next functionalities a bit more while maintaining retrocompatibility throughout.

The Reg: How are you feeling as you approach the end of KS2? Exhausted, I am sure.

HO: It’s fair to say the entire team is on the exhausted side of things. We still need to ship the Spectrum Next to Asia, Americas, Africa and Oceania, an unforeseen delay thanks to couriers classifying the watch coin-cell (running the real time clock) as a dangerous battery, presenting a fire risk. They see the word “lithium” and freak out.

The Reg: I’ve seen a lot of people online asking where they can buy a Next, not realizing that it was crowdfunded and built-to-order, rather than some retail product. Do you think there will be a “KS3” – a third issue of the machine?

HO: Other than this last challenge, we should be getting ready for some downtime before entertaining a third crowdfunding campaign for a new batch – as the demand is certainly present: there are more people asking for it today than there were between the first and the second campaign. It certainly bodes well for the future of the platform!

The Reg: The core design is open source? As I understand it, that is how there are third-party Spectrum compatibles computers for people to build themselves.

HO: Until we do an Issue 3 model, we hope other people pick up the slack with their wonderful projects such as N-GO and XBerry Pi, compatible boards made thanks to the open nature of the project. The goal of the ZX Spectrum Next is to keep the Speccy alive, and there’s no better way to accomplish this with an open source approach driven by the community.

There are a lot of wonderful projects and ideas coming from the team and collaborators on a daily basis. As long as we are making people happy, we’ll keep on making the Spectrum Next and driving its future into the horizon. It’s challenging, yes, but also fun and rewarding in equal measures. Watching people putting their computers under Christmas trees, creating new games, getting kids to learn about coding on it … It makes it all worth it.

The Reg: The Spectrum Next boots off an SD card which contains the software that programs the FPGA chip to tell it how to run Spectrum software. Does that mean that the Issue 1 and Issue 2 Spectrum Next need different boot media?

HO: It’s the same boot images, files, SD cards etc. for all machines. Only the firmware changes, which you can, and do, update seldom. In this case, yes, it’s a different firmware file for the Issue 1 and Issue 2 Spectrum Nexts.

The Reg: There is a slot in the Spectrum Next to connect a Raspberry Pi Zero, and machines with this pre-installed are called “Accelerated” models. What does the Pi actually do?

HO: The RasPi accelerator does the same in the KS2 model as it does in the KS1: things like TZX file playback etc. There’s potential to do a lot, lot more. There are now co-processors being tested and developed by the community. It’s really the start of the journey for the accelerator at this stage, mostly because the Next itself is capable of doing quite a lot without it so far.

The Reg: What benefit is there in having a Pi Zero? Is it worth fitting your own, if your machine doesn’t have one?

HO: Right now, only if you want to load TZX tape images. Otherwise the uses are limited.

The Reg: But for those who missed out, and want to get a real Next, with its case designed by the late great Rick Dickinson rather than one of the compatibles – there is going to be a third production run?

HO: Yep! We are already planning it, but not quite confirmed just yet. ®

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