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back to article Infinite loop: the Sinclair ZX Microdrive story

They would, Clive Sinclair claimed on 23 April 1982, revolutionise home computer storage. Significantly cheaper than the established 5.25-inch and emerging 3.5-inch floppy drives of the time - though not as capacious or as fast to serve up files - ‘Uncle’ Clive’s new toy would “change the face of personal computing”, Sinclair …

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Today

Amazingly people are still recovering data from Microdrives today, proving that they were indeed reliable for archiving data.

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Gimp

3 inch disc

The 3 inch disc was actually adopted by Amstrad for the CPC. long before the PCW was launched. By all accounts they looked at 3.5 inch drives but they were too expensive and 5 inch wouldn't have been very elegant to build into the case (Sugar insisted the drive must be integrated). Sugar managed to source a supply of 3 inch drives and the rest is history.

As for me spelling it "disc" rather than "disk", well that's the spelling Amstrad always used with reference to the format.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: 3 inch disc

I liked Acorn's approach:

*disk

*disc

Both work.

The issue with the mounting of the 3" disk in the PCW was that it was next to a CRT monitor and this by all accounts wasn't very good for magnetic media.

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Re: Sugar insisted the drive must be integrated

My FD-1 wasn't integrated, and I'm fairly sure I got that quite sometime before the 664 came out - from WH Smiths of all places.

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Re: Sugar insisted the drive must be integrated

The 664 was already in mind when they bought the FD-1 out. It's just it was quicker to get a peripheral to market than a whole machine.

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Re: 3 inch disc

Amusing, possibly apocryphal story. The reason Amstrad used "disc" was because this is what was written on the back of the 464. It was actually supposed to be "disk". However creating new casing moulds would cost money so Sugar vetoed it and kept it as the "British" spelling.

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Stop

Re: 3 inch disc

Of course it's "disc". The word "disk" is a contraction of "diskette" (an IBM invention). There is nothing particularly British about "disc".

I'd always thought that the Microdrive had a continuous loop that was sort of folded inside the case. (Not with creases, but taking a sinuous path). What was that kind of tape drive called?

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Re: 3 inch disc

You might be thinking of a drive type that was released during the same timeframe - the BBC Micro had the Phloopy.

http://www.stardot.org.uk/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=2913

I remember Ian Macnaught-Davis reviewing these on Making The most of the Micro back in the day..

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Headmaster

Re: 3 inch disc

Of course it's "disc". The word "disk" is a contraction of "diskette" (an IBM invention).

The derivation of "disc" is from the Latin discus so a 'c' seems a natural spelling, but US English and IT usage have always preferred 'k'. The 'k' spelling is earlier than the first use of "diskette", though, so you're wrong that "disk" is a contraction of that.

I first came across the 'k' spelling in Patrick Moore's writing on astronomy -- before I ever used a computer -- in phrases such as "with even a small telescope you will be able to make out the disk of Jupiter". It struck me as strange then and I stuck resolutely to the 'c' spelling for many years.

You're right, though, that "diskette"is the problem. If you write "disc" with a 'c' switching to 'k' for "diskette" just looks silly. What option does that leave? "Discettte"? Yuk. "Disquette" is better, but barely.

No: Best to adopt the spelling "disk", which is already current in much of the world, and be consistent with "diskette".

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Paris Hilton

Re: 3 inch disc

I always think of it as: K is kind of a "square" letter and so it fits with the things that are square in appearance, i.e. hard disks and floppy disks (even though there is still a circular thing inside them, the bit you see is square/rectangular). Conversely, C is a "round" letter and so it fits with the things that are round in appearance, i.e. compact discs, digital versatile discs, blu-ray discs, etc.

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Happy

Ah, the Microdrive...

My ICL OPD had not one, but two, of these wondrous beasts - that and ROM slots for canned programs. Those were the days!

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Re: Ah, the OPD...

My Secretary Is On My Extension.

And other such hilarious manipulations of the text-to-speech facility.

What a great machine the OPD was. Integrating phone and PC for office workers is still something that needs doing properly.

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Re: Ah, the Microdrive...

Remember, your OPD was basically a Sinclair QL, hence the microdrive technology. And you are tight, those were the days.

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Re: Ah, the OPD...

> hilarious manipulations of the text-to-speech facility.

May I refer my learned friend to an ancient Reg competition?

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Re: Ah, the Microdrive...

My first proper job in the late 80s was on OPDs - they were used in bingo halls to run a national synced bingo game

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Unfortunately it wasnt a lot better than a cassette tape store

I've even got the tapes for pascal and c for the spectrum somewhere!

You might say it was ahead of its time (offered features no one wanted) but to most home users it didn’t really offer a cost-effective advantage over a, probably already owned, £12 cassette deck and a note book for marking the counter readings for various bits and pieces. And from experience at a friends was more reliable.

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Terminator

Hip?

"and he worked at Argonaut Software to create the Super FX graphics hip used in SNES games"

Hip? Should that be Chip? Or was this an early prototype replacable Hip for serious gamers developed in conjunction with the NHS.

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Re: Hip?

Don't you remember the big walker robots in StarFox? They had hips....

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Hip?

Are you thinking of Starglider, not StarFox?

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Re: Hip?

Nah, definitely StarFox (StarWing here in the UK). Carried big pylons and obelisks around Corneria for some unknown reason.

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These were great

I must have had a good one, it was a joy to use and far faster at loading games than from tape (thanks to the interface 1 I had).

Thanks for the trip down memory lane, reg =)

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FAIL

Re: These were great

Except that if you forgot and left a cartridge in the drive when you powered the damn thing on, it would wipe the tape.

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Re: These were great

Downvoting me after losing my copy of Ant Attack is just adding insult to injury!

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Re: These were great

I got a microdrive with half a dozen cartridges and the necessary interface. After ten reads or writes each and every cartridge failed. I threw the lot away.

And on that basis I never touched a QL .

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Re: These were great

LOAD * "m";1;"<program name>"

I set up little menus to be able to load one of two or three games off each cartridge.

The trick of repeatedly formatting the cartridge to get the maximum capacity out of them - I'm sure I had some which had a capacity of 99KB.

Now I need to dig into boxes and find them...

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@Crisp: Re: These were great

awwwwww, how about this? http://www.encho.me/antattack/

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Re: @Crisp: These were great

Jamie Jones, you are a gentleman and a scholar. Have an upvote on me.

Paralysed an ant! :D

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ql
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Happy

Good article

Those days, of creativity and innovation, really were interesting. The microdrives as part of the affordability of the QL, for what it brought to market, meant that I was able to undertake commercial work turning statistical information into graphical reports (wow factor at the time) at a fraction of the cost of other options available at the time, at a time when the cost of alternatives was so high s to be unavailable. So my "ql" sig pays tribute to the system that started my time making a crust from IT.

The microdrives on the QL could be used as a swap file for large documents. A couple of years ago, I fired up a QL and found documents from the mid 80s on microdrive could still be read.

S

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anyone else remember the Plus D system on the spectrums?

3.5" floppy interface and a centronics printer port, 4 seconds to load a full game from disk seemed amazing

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Anonymous Coward

Owned both one of the these and Microdrive.

+D was a great little device from the company that went on to create the amazing SAM Coupe - the last UK home computer until the Raspberry Pi. The PlusD is still being built in emulated hardware on the world of spectrum forums :)

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Anonymous Coward

Yes - PlusD - thanks for that....

.... I couldn't remember the name of it! But I'm sure there was another one which did a similar job for floppies...?

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I had a +D!

Was a better deal at the time the Microdrive as I got it half price in Boots cos the box was damaged.

Moved on from that to a +3 and then to a QL.

We still have some microdrive cartridges in a data safe at work. Keep meaning to rescue them in case anyone has a mad idea to tidy it. It still has 1/2" reels and manuals for an ICL series 39 that we decommissioned in 1991!

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Windows

Re: Yes - PlusD - thanks for that....

The one previous to the +D was the Disciple, from memory it looked much more like the Interface 1 and I think it could also take 5.25" floppy drives. Miles Gordon Technology manufactured the +D, I believe the same designers were also behind the Disciple but maybe in the guise of another company.

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Anonymous Coward

There was a video recorder that used a similar spool mechanism to the microdrives. I have a QL and a selection of microdrives.

The reason for the C64's disk drive costing so much was nothing to do with the cost of floppies. It was down to two things.

1. Massive demand, the 1541 was impossible to get hold of. Many people (including myself) bought a 3rd party unit instead.

2. The lack of disk drive functionality in the VIC20 and C64 ROMs. This meant that the disk drive couldn't be a dumb unit controlled by the host computer. The 1541 is a file serving computer with its own 6502 processor. This is obviously a very expensive way of making a disk drive.

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I never bothered with the 1541 for my C64.

Picked up a CBM8250 dual floppy drive and an Interpod instead.

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Boffin

Actually the reason that the 1541 drive is a computer rather than just a dumb bit of hardware is that it is basically a cut-down version of the PET 4040 disk drive which was an IEEE 488 (aka GPIB) devices. The concept is very much like IDE drives, which are what all modern hard drives are at heart.

The disk interface on the C64 is a serialized version of the parallel IEEE 488 bus and this meant that I was able to build a small interface board for my PET and convert the driver code in the ROM to use this rather than the native interface so I could run a 1541 from my PET.

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Boffin

>I never bothered with the 1541 for my C64.

>Picked up a CBM8250 dual floppy drive and an Interpod instead.

Yay - my solution in reverse!

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Anonymous Coward

Which is essentially the same reason. They reused old technology for the software on the Vic20/C64 and therefore it had no disk controller or software to handle it. So formatting a disk is something like this:

OPEN 15,8,15,"N0:NAME,01":CLOSE 15

Instead of something more friendly like:

FORMAT "NAME", 8

They were criticised for sticking with an old version of BASIC in the C64, hence why you had to use pokes to do anything remotely interesting with the sound and graphics instead of high level calls like Sinclair BASIC.

Still, having bad BASIC must have pushed a lot of people into learning machine code and doing proper programming.

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you had to use pokes to do anything remotely interesting with the sound and graphics instead of high level calls like Sinclair BASIC

But on the other hand, the manual that came with the C64 was pretty good and included lists of addresses to peek/poke for changing colours, using sprites and making music/sounds with the SID chip. There really wasn't a need for extraneous syntactic sugar within the BASIC interpreter when the peek/poke addresses were documented. The more complete "Commodore 64 Programmer's Reference Guide" even included schematics for the C64 itself along with a wealth of other technical info such as for accessing bank-switched RAM, a full memory map and even tables listing the frequencies in Hertz of standard musical notes and trig identities. It also had a pretty decent introduction to writing assembly on the 6510.

That document probably ranks as being the best technical manual for any computer I've ever used, even to this day. They just don't write manuals like that any more, unfortunately. I've still got two copies of it floating around :)

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Happy

1541 > 8250

Yeah but you could make the head on a 1540/1541 play "Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer, do" on a 1541, couldn't do that on a 8250

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gnMgmlKi_o

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TRT
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I used one a few times...

but never had one of my own, but I'm not getting all dewy eyed over the memory of picking up a new game on a cassette from Mr Micro and rushing home with it, the trepidation and impatience of watching the loading screen... glory days,

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Meh

File? What file? I don't remember saving any files!

I owned a Sinclair QL and its Microdrives were a real let down. The QL was very late in delivery and had a "dongle" attached to fix the issues that made it so late.

For me, saving files to a Microdrive was a fingers-crossed affair and I would always verify that the file had been saved and then save it again to a second cartridge... or even a third.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: File? What file? I don't remember saving any files!

With such tiny tapes I can only imagine that alignment was a real pain.

Cleaning the heads would help too.

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Re: File? What file? I don't remember saving any files!

The QL didn't have a dongle, it had a KLUDGE.

I can't remember if that was the official name for it or just what all the magazines called it at the time.

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Re: File? What file? I don't remember saving any files!

With such tiny tapes I can only imagine that alignment was a real pain.

At least they had the good sense to only store one track on the tape rather than go with the idea of basing it on 8-track (or similar) recording format. If alignment with just one head is a problem, imagine how bad it would have been with multiple tracks/heads.

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Anonymous Coward

I had one of those

And the Logan book, which I studied quite carefully.

The memories... the first thing I did when I bought a game on cassette was to dump it on a microdrive. That meant I had the tape as a backup and could enjoy the faster load times. One of the things where I burned a lot of time back then was with multi load games that came on cassette. With some work you could make them load the parts from the cartridge. Games that were unplayable because of the long pauses for loading stages became a different, way better, experience.

I later repeated that trick with the diskette based Spectrum Plus made by Amstrad. Karnov was a fun game when the parts were quickly loaded from disk instead of from cassette, and I always wondered why they did not released a disk version in the first place. Games then were cheap enough to be affordable for a kid using pocket money, and at that point the challenge of breaking apart multi load games had lost its attractive. At the same time, my income increased enough to be willing to pay a bit more for a disk based game and save the hassle of disassembling and circumventing copy protections.

On reliability, I perhaps was lucky, I think I lost two or three cartridges during the entire lifetime of the system.

And I never had a chance to use the networking or RS232 interfaces, neither I know of anyone that did. Same with chaining more drive units, they were expensive enough to have just one, much less to even think of getting more.

Oh, the fond memories. Thanks, Reg.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I had one of those

I played with the networking a couple of times.

Worked quite well really.

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Anonymous Coward

there is no such thing as a novel idea / invention ,!

this story say it all :

There is no such thing as a novel /independent ideal or invention,

- there are 7 billion people in this world - the possibility that some one else also have the *same* idea is more probable than one thinks/imagines !

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Re: there is no such thing as a novel idea / invention ,!

That's not realy true, someone , somewhere definately had an orignal thought/idea that ran through his brain. Whether or not the idea was made publically available or patented is another problem.

For example : I was considering the idea of capturing some pheasants ( Syrmaticus reevesii), attaching electrodes to their legs and trying to power up a smartphone for which an application has been written which helps the user to find new pheasants. A kind of reciprocal animal hunting application.

"Similar" ideas might exist but the chances of someone having the exact same idea are probably far smaller that 1 in 7 Billion...... there might be some attaching of electrodes to "fruit" alternatives but that is not my intended goal or idea.

I would definately consider this as being a novel idea and I am happy to take the credit for being the first person on this planet to think about it.....

Unlesss of course your ideas are very generic . ie - "I want to invent a computing device" which today would not be an original idea.

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