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back to article Loki, LC3 and Pandora: The great Sinclair might-have-beens

We all know about the ZX80, the ZX81, the ZX Spectrum and its successors, and the QL. But these weren’t the only microcomputers Sinclair Research worked on during its brief life between 1979, when it emerged as the renamed Science of Cambridge, and 1986, the year its brand and products were bought by Amstrad and it was shut down …

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Anonymous Coward

Mac Pro

Take a look at that Wafer Drive pic. Sinclair appear to have invented the new Mac Pro some 30 years ago!

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Stop

"Sinclair appear to have invented the new Mac Pro some 30 years ago!"

No, Sinclair stole the design for the new Mac Pro some 30 years ago. Don't you keep up with technological developments?

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Re: "Sinclair appear to have invented the new Mac Pro some 30 years ago!"

"Sinclair stole the design for the new Mac Pro some 30 years ago"

I was tempted to downvote you for beating me to the punch and saying what I immediately thought when I saw that picture - but instead went for an upvote because it's still amusing no matter who said it.

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jjk

Virtual image

So... the Pandora's screen would have operated on the same principle as the blow-up computer screens in "Brazil"?

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Anonymous Coward

CPC 472

Mention of the CPC 472 in the article which Amstrad sold in Spain to avoid the 64k tax.

The thing was that you couldn't actually use the 8k. It sat on a little daughterboard along with a ROM. While the ROM itself was connected, the connections to the 8k of memory went nowhere (a fact obscured by some white markings on the board).

Here's a piccy - http://www.cpcwiki.eu/imgs/thumb/3/37/Amstrad_472_motherboard.jpg/800px-Amstrad_472_motherboard.jpg

Managed to fool Spanish Customs until the tax was dropped.

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Blimey!

Seems to have got very confusing towards the end at Sinclair.

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When I saw Loki in the title my first thought was about a great company who ported games to Linux.

Many happy days playing Unreal Tournament on my RH Linux box.

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Anonymous Coward

Stop bashing the Microdrive, it wasn't that bad

It was not as reliable as disk drives, but was miles ahead of cassette tapes. Much faster and more reliable. And cheaper than the disk drives at the time.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Stop bashing the Microdrive, it wasn't that bad

A case of bash the early models which had all sorts of problems (including data recorded on one drive couldn't be read on another).

The later ones were great and there are still instances of people recovering data off of the tapes today.

Another instance of Sinclair buggering things up by rushing a product to market with inadequate testing and letting the punters test for them instead.

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Re: Stop bashing the Microdrive, it wasn't that bad

I remember buying an Interface 1 & MicroDrive for my Spectrum. It took about six months to get a combination of Spectrum, Interface 1 & MicroDrive that all worked together. At the time I was unaware of the hardware changes being made to the devices as Sinclair fixed problems. The changes I've read about in these Retro articles kinda make sense now.

Once it was working, it stayed working for a few years. (Although I do remember having to reformat MicroDrive cartridges periodically as the tape stretched.)

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Brennan

Whilst most readers of The Reg will be able to put together a more flexible solution for less money, the Brennan JB7 'Jukebox' is a nicely designed bit of kit for people who take longer to get to grips with technology. Basically, it's standalone jukebox, including an amplifier - compact discs are placed in the drive, it rips them raw to its HDD in a couple of minutes and compares them to a (updateable) database on its HDD for tracks and album titles, and then it compresses the WAVs to MP3s at its leisure. It does this all without a PC or plumbing it up to a network.

It is the thoughtful touches that make it civilised... if you skip to the next track, the music segues instead of jarringly skipping immediately.

Reg readers, by contrast, might enjoy upgrading the capacitors on an inexpensive Tripath amp and installing XBMC on a networked Raspberry Pi or somesuch.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Brennan

The JB7 does look like a nice bit of kit, but it's concept is nothing new - the Memory Corp/DigMedia MusicStore would rip and save your CDs for you back in 1999....

http://www.digitalwebcast.com/Htm/2000/october/news/digmedia.htm

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Re: Brennan

My dads got one of these things. The sound is pretty good, but it really should have had wifi, to stream from net or network. Without that function its a bit limited really.

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Re: Brennan

>The sound is pretty good, but it really should have had wifi, to stream from net or network. Without that function its a bit limited really.

For you or me, I agree. However, the whole point of the device was to be sold to people who aren't au fait with ripping music on a PC and transferring it to an audio player, let alone sorting out network shares.

Including networking would have been wasted on the target market, and IMHO Brennan was right to leave it out. (He avoided mission creep).

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Re: Brennan

Networking isn't just for computer interactivity - you could also use it for house-wide music.

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Re: Brennan

Wifi, in the 80's?? Didn't exist.

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Sinclair Research still around, sort of...

"The year its brand and products were bought by Amstrad and it was shut down for good."

This is closer to the truth than many sources which simply claim Amstrad bought Sinclair Research (and which, to be fair, I had previously thought to be the case).

However, Sinclair Research still existed after 1986- albeit (according to Wikipedia) mainly as an R&D and holding company for the likes of Cambridge Computer, the brand under which the aforementioned Z88 was sold.

FWIW, it's still technically in existence today, though with Clive Sinclair as its only employee and (from what I can tell) operating sporadically whenever Sinclair has a new invention to release.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Sinclair Research still around, sort of...

Amstrad purchased the all the rights and IP to the computing products and the Sinclair name for use with computing products. They also purchased all the stock in the supply chain.

They had no interest in the company although it appears Clive had been hoping Sugar would bung him a few million to carry on. However Sugar was only interested in the areas that had a natural fit into Amstrads product line.

The banks initially wanted Dixons to buy it, and it was Dixons (who who didn't want the Spectrum cash cow to end) who got Sugar involved.

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Anonymous Coward

Amiga competitor for £200?

Back then, that would have been a wildly optimistic goal. In fact, all these Sinclair projects, that went nowhere, seem wildly optimistic.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Amiga competitor for £200?

Wild optimism seems to be a hallmark of '80s PC design concepts in general, though the ideas in this article are definitely on the far end of the, err, spectrum... Sinclair seems to have done an awful lot of industrial design for products they had no idea how to build!

Anybody know how many people were working on this stuff? Are we talking about a few guys in an office, or multiple big teams at that point?

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Re: Amiga competitor for £200?

I'd be surprised if it was more than half a dozen working on the core designs.

How much 'computer design' experience was out there back then?

Not like today when everyone is a web designer, IT consultant...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Amiga competitor for £200?

"Anybody know how many people were working on this stuff? Are we talking about a few guys in an office, or multiple big teams at that point?"

Conrad Longmoore has a link to Rick Dickinson's Flickr page, and he seems to have been the main designer behind almost everything at Sinclair Research. Some very nice-looking stuff there.

Possibly other people may have been involved in the realisation of those prototypes(?), but it's his name that seems to appear next to almost everything Sinclair-related. Please freel free to correct me if I'm wrong, though.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Amiga competitor for £200?

The CPC article from last week gives a good indication of how many people it needs to design a computer.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Amiga competitor for £200?

@Mr C Hill; Assuming you were replying to me- sorry, I should have been clearer. When I said Rick Dickinson seemed to do most- if not all- of the design, I was replying to David W specifically regarding the *industrial design* (*) of the mockups (and finished cases)... not the entire computer design process!

(*) i.e. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_design

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Rick Dickinson's Flickr

There's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it link to Rick Dickinson's work on Flickr in the article, worth reposting because it's so awesome.. http://www.flickr.com/photos/9574086@N02/collections/72157608812198325/

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Anonymous Coward

>"fake up a bitmapped screen by making use of a character-based display"

An idea they undoubtedly got from the VIC-20, where it had been SOP for a couple of years.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: >"fake up a bitmapped screen by making use of a character-based display"

Interestingly, despite the fact that both had full high-resolution graphics modes, a lot of games on the Atari 800 and the C64 did the same thing, i.e. using redefined-character-based displays, as this was a lot more efficient to manipulate- and hence faster.

(Mind you, on the Atari 800, this usually involved multicoloured characters with overlaid sprites, mixed screen modes and DLI palette changes, so it wasn't often obvious).

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Vic
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Re: >"fake up a bitmapped screen by making use of a character-based display"

> An idea they undoubtedly got from the VIC-20, where it had been SOP for a couple of years.

It predates that; I had it on a UK101...

Vic.

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It's to my eternal dismay

That the 128K Speccy never got a new graphics mode. Two bits per pixel with associated extra colour attributes would have been a real treat, but just pairing a unique byte of colour data with each byte of pixel data (to give 8x1 attributes) as the Timex clone and the MSX did, would have been a huge improvement for the cost of a few extra gates in the ULA (and here I plug my game Buzzsaw+, which achieves this through a software hack. as example of what could be done).

Unfortunately, the 128K design was entirely dictated by Investronica in Spain, who weren't aware of the Timex clones in the US and no-one volunteered any such thing; instead the designers were instructed to provide the bare minimum to meet the requirements, so they could get back to all these other projects, that of course went on to fail.

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Meh

Re: It's to my eternal dismay

Yes I had a 128k +2 (still got it actually) and I have to say it was pretty much abandoned after a year.

The only novelty value it had were the extra ports (mostly useless by that point) and the sound chip. It was kind of a disappointment and was a learning lesson that what looks cool can just be warmed over leftovers.

IIRC we only had two games that ever took any advantage, one was with better music effects and the other was the 128k version of Starglider which had some extra stuff and audio effects.

Starglider got some play but at a cost. It took nearly 15 minutes to load and then not always successfully, restting after 14 minutes loading time.

By then I just found other interests plus O levels were looming.

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Re: It's to my eternal dismay

What Timex clones? The 2048 and 2068? They were built in Portugal, just next door to Spain, no way Investronica or Sinclair did not know about them...

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Re: It's to my eternal dismay

Bear in mind that the original US Timex Sinclair 2068 is /not/ the same as the Portuguese Timex Computer 2068. But you're right, they /must/ have known and it's a criminal oversight.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timex_Sinclair_2068

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One would have been enough

What strikes me is that there was no lack of brilliant design and innovation at Sinclair in the 80s, but they seem to have stumbled because of the inability to bring just one of these designs to market - it may have been a very different story than the Amtrash slow decline we got.

Some of that seems to have been down to trying to over innovate, never sticking to a single plan, and some of it seems to have been Sinclair's dogged insistance on marketising failed technological experiments - the flat tube, the micro drive, wafer scale. While the FTV-1 is a thing of beauty, not just industrial design, but in terms of technical design, you only have to use it to see it as a technological dead end.

And just looking at that picture of the Microdrive takes me back. I would have (and still would) totally buy a games console that looked like that!

That said, the Z88 was a true marvel, I used mine to death. A real shame it never lead to commercial success.

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Re: One would have been enough

The software behind the Z88 - Pipedream - went on to have modest success in the RISC OS world and (believe it or not) is still available. Colton Software, which produced the RO version of Pipedream (not sure about the Z88 version) and the slightly less confusing Fireworkz, now has the software available for free download on their website: http://croftnuisk.co.uk/coltsoft/ in both RISCOS and (for Fireworkz) Windows form.

I briefly coveted a Z88 but ended up buying a Psion Series 3 and then a 5mx. The 5mx (of course Psion were also a company which owed a lot to Sinclair) is still unmatched. If someone would release a machine with that form factor, that software, that power consumption (*) and update it with a modern touchscreen, WiFi and USB, I'd buy it in a flash. My 5mx currently needs yet another screen cable replacement...

M.

(*) I used mine heavily during 1999 / 2000 while I was undertaking a PGCE. I wrote all my planning, reports and essays on that device (the keyboard was actually very good) and even did some website editing. It connected to an HP colour inkjet for printing and a USR modem (once the phoneline was installed) for internet access. It acted as my alarm clock every morning. If memory serves me correctly I used to get at least a week from a pair of Alkaline AAs, which does seem kind of incredible these days.

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Loki

If you take a close look at the Loki specification it's basically an MSX2 with a Spectrum compatibility mode. Perhaps Sinclair could have condensed some of the design onto a ULA and cut production costs to deliver a sub £200 machine, if they hadn't already been in deep financial trouble.

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Impression

I'm not sure if it's correct, but I get the impression of a company which flittered prettily hither and dither, but rarely followed through. There doesn't really seem to have been any clear focus to the development, and frankly not all that much realism either.

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eh ?

"Basically, we thought if we could do an Amiga for under £200 with decent graphics there’d be a big market"

So... the defining characteristic of the Amiga was its amazing graphics.... so what is being said here ? The only way I can translate it to make sense is:

"Basically, we thought if we could do a piece of crap for under £200 with amiga like graphics but none of the rest of the good stuff, there’d be a big market"

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More History of UK missed opportunities.

Made me both happy to reminisce and sad to think that another UK opportunity missed. If the government had a little bit more faith and a bit more fore-sight it should have given Sinclair money to get more engineers in and made the products of our dreams. It could have been the UK Apple type industry and brought the country billions worth of revenue.

But because it isn't a bank and the country only thinks in the short-term, all was boomed.

Really sad IMO.

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