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      I think it’s hard to underestimate the impact the ZX Spectrum had in the UK (and its clones throughout the world). It wasn’t the best home computer but it was cheap. This put it in reach of a lot more people and, perhaps most importantly, their kids.

      Admittedly it did make a lot of compromises to hit that price point, maybe a few too many. Its keyboard in particular wasn’t great.

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        The same is probably more true of the BBC Micro. The article is almost content free, but these things didn’t exist in isolation. The BBC was backed by one of the few good things that the Thatcher government did. They identified computing as a key future technology and provided central-government funds that paid half the cost of computers in schools, but only if they met certain requirements. The most important requirement was a programming environment with support for structured programming. The BBC Micro was one of the few machines that qualified and it was accompanied by a huge amount of teaching material. The BBC ran programming courses that schools could record from the television and they broadcast sample code in the teletext area in the mornings so that schools could download the examples onto disk or tape.

        Without this, I probably wouldn’t have learned to program until at least a decade later in life.

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          My family couldn’t afford the BBC machines but my dad saved up for a spectrum. Mind you we also didn’t have a colour TV at that time so it was years before I actually saw the spectrum in colour. It was all black and white until then.

          Spectrum Basic was my introduction to programming. I don’t remember much about it now but I do remember drawing graphics by printing simple block characters.

          One thing I will always remember is the sound made by the tape player when loading programs from tape. It’s as iconic to me as a dial up modem.

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            We didn’t have one at home, but most schools had at least one. My school had four, one was a BBC Master. The school ones all had disk drives, probably because waiting 10-20 minutes to load at the start of a lesson would have been a problem.

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            You had a tape machine? LUXURY! I had to type the listing in every time by hand in my Spectrum…

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        This. The ZX Spectrum was a remarkable machine, and one of the ways that’s shown is that, after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, we Western Speccy owners found out about hundreds of hitherto unheard-of clones from behind the Iron Curtain.

        There were lots of interesting 8-bit machines: computing was vastly more diverse then. Weird ones, such as Forth machines like the Jupiter Ace, or BASICless machines like the Sharp models.

        Some of the big sellers had visible optimisations that favoured some aspects at the expense of others:

        • The C64 had good graphics, great sound, a good keyboard… but horribly slow, expensive disk drives and a terrible basic that, IMHO, tarnished the reputation of the entire BASIC language.
        • The BBC Micro was a brilliant machine, but memory-starved, and expensive. Acorn was much too slow to adopt bank-switching to give it more free RAM. This only really happened with the BBC+ and BBC Master, when the rest of the industry was going 16-bit.
        • Generally terribly compromised machines like the TI99/4A (OK, not strictly an 8-bit), or things like the Mattel Aquarius or Laser V200, cost-cut into uselessness.

        But the ZX Spectrum hit a sweet spot. Clever graphics layout that did full ~16 colour graphics in 256*192 in 6.75kB of memory. Sound, yes crap sound, but sound. A decent BASIC, nothing special but far more workable than MS BASIC 2.0 in the C64. Super cheap mass storage on Microdrives: an endless tape loop, like a postage-stamp-sized 8-track cassette, but ~100 kB of storage for under £100 with the interface. Awful keyboard but good enough for gaming, and easily replaced with better.

        For the money, I think it got a superb balance of optimisations.

        I am wondering if there is any way to recreate that sort of balance today. Some home-build computer that could be much simpler than a Raspberry Pi, with its fancy VideoCore GPU and ThreadX RTOS “firmware” plus 10M LOC Linux OS on top.

        A 32-bit RISC-V, coupled really closely to a 2D graphics chipset. 4GB of RAM, no expansion, maybe even no virtual memory. Something vaguely akin to the Amiga Hombre idea, but implemented with 21st century FPGA hardware. Something simple enough for beginners to explore, with some very small simple FOSS OS on it, such as A2.

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      I learned to code on an Amstrad CPC 464, and a few years ago started assembling one.


      (That was taken before I picked up a colour monitor for the system).

      AMA :)

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      While I learned to code on a PDP-11 at school my first personal computer was an Acorn Atom, arguably a very popular home PC back then, and I was curious not to see it in the list. Then I saw the discrepancy: the title of the article includes “7 key British PCs” whereas the intro has “the top seven most significant platforms”. Quite a difference. This kind of loose (I won’t say “lazy”) writing irks me more than it should.

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        I suppose that, as it was introduced in 1979, it doesn’t qualify as a “1980s PC”, and was in any case rapidly superceded in popularity by the Proton (BBC Micro). As it is, Acorn has 3 machines in this article already. Personally I don’t remember it as being particularly popular, having a “quirky” BASIC implementation - the only time I saw or used one was driving a physics lab experiment at university circa 1989.

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          Fair enough … I’d forgotten it and therefore me) was that old, too!