My trusty old Trinitron CRT finally croaked. It was a lovely screen, perfect for the old computers and consoles that I like to mess around with when I’m not working or wrangling children. But its time had come.
Frankly, now that I’m working at home, I can’t really spare the desk real estate that a CRT needs either.
So, a modern screen is needed. Trouble is, they really don’t work well with old machines. Old machines tend to output video at 240p, 480i, or 480p tops. Even if your TV has a SCART connector, it probably won’t handle those sorts of low resolutions well. It will try to upscale them, but TV upscalers are made for movies and so the result is a blurry, laggy mess.
This is where the “Open Source Scan Converter”, or OSSC, comes in. It’s a nifty little device that takes your old console or computer’s SD RGB output and “line doubles” it up to 720p or even 1080p.
The results are spectacular. The “modern” screen in my home office is an El Cheapo Phillips 24″ flat panel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine. But it can’t cope with anything that isn’t HDMI and high def.
With the OSSC hooked up, all my consoles look fabulous. Razor sharp images. No artefacting or noise. No blur. No “smoothing”. No lag whatsoever. It’s fabulous. I don’t have the ability to take screenshots of it, which is a shame because it really needs to be seen.
There are a few issues. My Amiga 1200 does some weird things in Workbench. My Atari ST produces a perfect image, but there’s no audio for some reason.
But those are teething troubles at best. The OSSC is incredibly configurable and I’m sure there’s a setting somewhere that will address these problems. Fundamentally, this is an amazing device which bridges the gap between retro console and new TVs beautifully. I’m very pleased with it.
One of the drawbacks of the Spectrum Next is that it can only load TZX files by using the Pi Zero accelerator. That actually works fine in itself, but you can’t directly control the Pi, and so it doesn’t work for multi-load games because you can’t stop and start the “tape”. That’s a bit of a bugger, because many of the old Speccy games that I have enough nostalgia for to want to revisit today are multi-load games.
I needed something that would act like a real tape player, but hopefully without the flakiness.
First things first, I needed the right cable. The Next uses the same pinout as the Spectrum+3 for its tape interface and so – as with so many things retro – the peerless Iain Priddey of Retro Computer Shack comes to the rescue with his +3 tape cable, which also works nicely with the Next.
Armed with that cable, I spent some time trying to get my phone (the extraordinary Fairphone 3, if you’re interested) to output something that the Next could ingest as a tape signal, using the PlayZX app. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get the Next to pick up the audio signal though. That was odd, given that I tried stereo to mono converters and all sorts.
Happily, I came across this marvellous little device:
It’s quite a simple device, at least in terms of what it does. You load up the SD card with TZX files, plug the 3.5mm jack into EAR on the Speccy, apply some power, start the tape loader on the Speccy and then select a TZX file with the back and forward buttons and hit play. You can pause and unpause it at will, and it also seems to be smart enough to pause itself automatically if it detects a long enough period of silence.
And to be honest, it just works. No muss, no fuss. It supports folders, and seems to read the SD card pretty swiftly. The manual stresses that some TZX files using certain custom loaders might not work unless patched, but so far I’ve not come across any problems.
For thirty quid, I’m absolutely delighted. Now, if only Fighter Bomber ran properly on the Next – I’ve been itching to try running that at 28 Mhz!
My Spectrum Next arrived a couple of Fridays ago and since then I have spent most of my time not devoted to work or child-wrangling fiddling with the thing. These are my initial thoughts on it.
The machine is surprisingly small, about the same size as the original Spectrum+, and surprisingly heavy. The case is very solid and has a premium feel to it.
The keyboard is, honestly, witchcraft; somehow the Next team have contrived to create a keyboard that feels like a Spectrum keyboard would feel if Spectrum keyboards weren’t dreadful. Which seems like an odd thing to say. What I mean is that it retains that “Speccy” feel, but is actually pleasant to type on.
A few nits – and they really are minor. The SD card slot doesn’t have a push-to-eject mechanism, and the cutaway which allows you to get your fingers onto the card to pull it out is too small, at least for my sausage fingers, to get a decent purchase on it. Half the time I end up pulling the microSD card out of the SD adapter, leaving the adapter in the Next. An SD reader with a push-to-eject mechanism would be a good improvement for a revision 2.
Secondly, I would have liked a power switch, although this is just personal preference and I do acknowledge that not having one is more authentically Sinclair. Again, perhaps for a revision 2 the team could include an in-line power switch in the box with the PSU, which people can use or not as they choose. For now, you can easily get one for a few quid here.
Yes, it comes with a full ring-bound printed manual running to hundreds of pages and explaining in complete detail pretty much everything about the machine, from how to turn it on through to memory maps, interrupts, system calls … you name it.
The manual is largely the work of one man, Phoebus Dokos, and its creation must have been a Herculean task. Actually using the paper version is rather difficult because there is no index, but there is also a PDF which is of course fully searchable, and so the paper manual is really more of a nice artefact to have rather than a day-to-day reference.
Speaking of paper, I did notice that the manual is printed on very thin paper, which together with the ring binding makes it feel fragile. This isn’t a massive issue for me as I use the PDF for looking things up, and anyway I understand that there will be an option at some point to buy a premium, full-colour manual.
Finally, Sinclair manuals have a fine tradition of gorgeous sci-fi cover art and the Next manual carries on that tradition. For those who haven’t yet seen it I won’t spoil it, but it is beautiful and very much in keeping.
Pulling it all together is the software side of things. NextZXOS feels snappy and lets you get to what you want quickly and without fuss.
The distribution comes with an absolute ton of demos, example programs and even a few full games, both classic Speccy titles and new titles taking advantage of all the extra things the Next can do. There is already a small software library for the Next, including games from the likes of Rusty Pixels (this site is a useful index of what’s out there and what’s coming) and even a full music production suite. Obviously the user base is still fairly small, but it’s growing as the Next team get more machines out the door, will grow more with the planned second Kickstarter, and there is very much a small but vibrant scene growing up around the machine.
I for one can’t wait to see what’s, er, next for the Next.
When I get drunk, I have a habit of doing very silly or ill-advised things. So it was that I came home from my office party half-cut, and decided to get my own email server.
Now, I’m not starting from zero here. Before I was a lawyer I was an IT guy. I know how email works. But I’ve not actually run a mail server for the thick end of 15 years. I suspected things might have changed a bit.
Boy, have they changed. In my day, you pretty much set up the MX and PTR records, spun up your MTA, opened up port 25 and went about your day.
These days? It’s all about getting receiving servers to trust your domain and your box. I’ve had to learn about SPF, DKIM and DMARC. I’ve had to set special DNS records so that GMail will accept my messages. I’ve had to carefully and deliberately get my IP and domains off blacklists, and keep them that way. It’s been a real adventure.
Fortunately, the actual business of installing a mail server has got wildly easier over the intervening decades, thanks to the miracle of docker and a wonderful project called Mailcow. Once I had my DNS set up right, installing Mailcow was literally about 4 commands. For that, I get mail, calendar, contacts, easy domain routing, activesync, rspamd, clamav … the works.
I’m not using a residential IP, of course. I’ve spun up a Digital Ocean droplet to run all this. And slowly, I’m getting trusted by other servers.
Having acquired not one but two MiniDisc players (the first one I bought turned out not to be a recorder – probably why it was so cheap) and a bunch of MiniDiscs, the next job was to work out how to actually get some music onto the ruddy things.
I had assumed that my HiFi would have a S/PDIF optical out, and that I would be able to record MiniDiscs from there like one did back in the day. I assumed wrong. They’re both optical ins; it can’t output digitally.
I could record from an analogue signal, but I really wanted to keep it digital rather than lose quality by going through multiple conversions.
So I turned to my PC. Now, normally I get audio out of my PC using this glorious little USB DAC, which sounds wonderful and which I highly recommend for a real upgrade over built-in PC audio, but – by its very nature – it outputs analogue audio. No dice.
After a bit of research, I happened upon the Behringer UCA222 USB audio interface, which (amongst quite a few other things) can output direct to S/PDIF via toslink.
I’ve had to muck about with the recording levels on my MiniDisc recorder a fair bit (digital distortion is not a nice sound) but this seems to be a good solution: I can play a CD or a FLAC playlist on my PC, tell the playback software to output to the Behringer, and then hook the Behringer up to the optical in on my MiniDisc recorder. Hit record, hit play, wait a while. The Behringer allows you to use headphones to monitor, and you can switch between monitoring input and output so you can check levels etc.
So, yeah. I can now listen to music on a thoroughly obsolete technology. Because reasons.
I have a thing about old/obsolete media formats, especially ones that were a) good and b) never really took off as they ought to have. Witness for example my mild obsession with Iomega Rev drives. What need do I have, really, for 70GB removeable cartridges in an age where you can pick up a 1TB USB3 drive for less than 40 quid? None at all; and yet, I still use them for some non-core backups. For no reason other than that I find them pleasing.
So it is that I’ve finally turned my attention to the grandaddy of all the also-ran formats: the MiniDisc.
Back in the 90s, I was dimly aware of MiniDisc: a few rich kids had them, and towards the late 90s / early 00s as I was pratting around in bands and things, I came across them as field recording devices and handy tools in the sound engineer’s arsenal for backing tracks and the like. Never owned one myself though, until now.
In a spate of probably ill-advised late night eBaying, I have now acquired:
A Sharp MiniDisc recorder
A tiny Sony MiniDisc portable player
A USB to TOSLINK adapter for my PC
A bunch of new-old-stock MiniDiscs
Why? I have absolutely no idea. But I’m going to have a ton of fun making mixtapes and the like.
Just following up on my last post, my attention has been drawn (or rather, drawn back) to eM Client. It’s early doors, but so far it’s like night and day. So fast. So straightforward. Proper support for Gmail, without arsing around. A proper unified inbox.
All it needs now is for its developers to team up with Tutanota and I will have email Nirvana. How about it, guys?
UPDATE: I just asked it to mark over 12,000 archived Gmail messages as read and it showed me the spinny wheel of Aaargh for a grand total of about 3 seconds before quietly shoving the job into the background and giving me back control. Damn, this thing is impressive. Me like.