The beginner’s guide to owning a ZX Spectrum again

Once upon a time, you had a ZX Spectrum. You knew exactly how to set it up, how to use it and most importantly, how to have fun with it. Then one day you either put it away for the last time or perhaps sold it. There are even dark tales of parents throwing our beloved Speccies away! 

Now, many, many (and for some, many) years later you have a ZX Spectrum again and you can’t wait to use it, but things have changed. It’s difficult to find cassette players, Modern TV’s don’t like the signal the ZX Spectrum gives out and perhaps you’ve powered on your New Old ZX Spectrum and the keyboard doesn’t work or it shows a garbled screen?

The article will hopefully walk you through getting back up and running and most importantly, enjoying the ZX Spectrum once again. It will cover what can go wrong, how to connect to modern televisions and modern methods of loading programs.

What can go wrong

Powering up

Due to their age, and particularly for those Spectrums that haven’t been used for a long time, it is not unknown for them to become faulty when powered on for the first time or shortly after. This is due to the design of the Spectrum and the type of memory chip it uses. The capacitors on the voltage supply lines don’t work effectively due to age and this can cause memory chips to fail, in a cascade type effect. It should be noted that this generally affects the original rubber key and Plus 16k and 48k ZX Spectrum, but it should be noted they don’t always fail!

If you wish to service your ZX Spectrum, then see the page on recapping your Spectrum. There are several established companies in the ZX Spectrum community that offer refurbishment and repair services. Ask on the Spectrum For Everyone Facebook group for recommendations. 

Due to a different PCB design, the issues caused by capacitors not performing correctly don’t really affect the Spectrum 128k, +2, +3 and +2A ZX Spectrum. However, we do recommend recapping your ZX Spectrum to keep it running properly for years to come.

The keyboard doesn’t work

The keyboard of the original ZX Spectrum comprises a membrane and rubber mat, whereas the other Spectrums from the Plus onward comprises a membrane and plastic keys. It is fairly common to find that the membrane in the original rubber key, Plus and 128k Spectrums have failed. It is possible to try and fix this by opening the Spectrum and checking to see if the membrane tails, which connect the keyboard to the PCB, are cracked or broken. If they are, then cut the tail just above the crack and reconnect to the PCB. If this does not fix the issue, it means a new membrane is required. These can be bought from several online stores and are easily fitted. The companies that offer repair and refurbishment services mentioned in the previous section can also replace keyboard membranes.

If a +2, +3 or +2A ZX Spectrum has unresponsive keys, it is normally due to a dirty keyboard membrane. If the Spectrum is opened up and the keyboard disassembled, the membrane can be split into layers and wiped with a damp cloth. Once the membrane is dry, reassemble the keyboard and it should work perfectly.

The built-in tape deck or disk drive doesn’t work

The Spectrum +2, +3 and +2A all have integrated means of loading software into the Spectrum, but it is common to find that the tape deck or disk drive do not work, or work correctly. This is commonly down to the drive belts becoming slack or falling apart. The replacement of these is detailed in Servicing your +2/+2A Tape deck and Replacing the drive belt on your +3 FDD. Alternatively, ask on our Facebook page for recommendations for companies who provide repair or refurbishment services.

My joystick or lightgun doesn’t work on my +2, +3 or +2A

Joysticks could be connected to later ZX Spectrums without the need to use an interface. However, these connections did not use the standard used by other joysticks (the Atari standard) but a proprietary one devised by Amstrad.

If you find that your joystick doesn’t work properly, it may be the case that it isn’t wired for the +2, +3 or +2A. Adaptors can be bought online to convert standard joystick to the one that Amstrad implemented.

Some later ZX Spectrums had lightguns bundled with them. Due to the way the lightgun works, it needs to be used with a CRT television and will not work with modern Plasma, LCD or LED televisions.

How to connect to modern televisions

Back in the 1980’s the RF output from the ZX Spectrum was fine for the vast majority of televisions to tune into. However, with the decline of analog television signals and the “auto-tune” capabilities of the tuner on modern televisions, it can be very difficult to get a picture from your ZX Spectrum to display properly, if at all.

The simplest way to get a picture from these earlier Spectrums is to perform the composite video mod, or have it done for you. This modification can be found at composite mod for the 48k range

Once completed, the Spectrum can be connected to your television through the composite video connector, using a composite video lead.

Example television inputs

If you have a SCART connector, a simple adapter can be bought to connect the composite cable to the SCART socket, such as the following.

An alternative to performing the composite video mod is to buy a ZX-HD. This device is an interface that provides an HDMI signal to modern televisions, and is perhaps the simplest solution as it is plug and play and works with all Spectrums. This device is produced by ByteDelight, who stock many useful and interesting items for the Spectrum.

The Spectrum 128, +2, +3 and +2a can connect directly to the SCART connector of a modern television through the use of a RGB-to-SCART cable, available through online stores. Depending upon your television, you may have to modify your Spectrum to make it SCART compliant. As previously mentioned, this modification can be provided by repair and refurbishment companies.

Other display methods include 4:3 ratio computer monitors, using SCART to VGA adapters. Please ask on the Spectrum for Everyone Facebook page for further details.

Modern methods of loading programs

In addition to buying an old cassette recorder (which is likely to have similar issues to that described in “The built-in tape deck or disk drive doesn’t work”, unless serviced) there are several modern methods of loading software into the ZX Spectrum. These make use of the huge array of freely downloadable ZX Spectrum software available on the internet, and utilise SD cards or USB sticks to store the programs.

DivMMC – There are many devices on the market that use the DivMMC standard. Cheaper one need to be manually switched to suit the type of Spectrum it is connected to, more expensive ones auto-detect, but they all take the form of an interface that plugs into the Spectrum. Once a button is pressed on the interface, a menu is presented and once the required program is found, a single press of the keyboard results in the program loading almost instantly. 

Many DivMMC devices also include a joystick interface.

Similar to the DivMMC device is the Retroleum SMART card, which although using a proprietary system, provides essentially the same functionality as the DivMMC devices.

Arduino-based Devices – Devices like the Arduitape and TZXduino essentially replace the cassette deck to load software. An SD card or USB stick containing the program files is used by the internal hardware to create an audio signal that is fed to the Spectrum’s ear socket, in the same manner as used when loading from tape. The devices provide a small display that allows selection of one of the files on the card.

Alternatives – It is also possible to use a laptop, pc or mobile phone to play downloaded files, with the output through the headphone socket and into your ZX Spectrum. Further help with these methods can be had from the community on the Spectrum for Everyone Facebook page.

Article by Will Woodvine.