This is the English version of the interview with ZX Spectrum Next team!
Belavenuto you know, it is difficult, for me, to interview you because we live very near (in the same city) and because we do mettings every week. But, tell us, how was your contact with retrocomputing and a little of your history with ZX Spectrum
When I was a child my father bought a TK3000IIe to work that was the first computer I saw. About ZX Spectrum, I only knew the Brazilian clones (TK90X and TK95) from the magazines. Only later I could buy a TK90X and so I could learn more about your architecture.
Who put ZX Spectrum“inside” you (LOL… internal joke!!!). But tell us: who presented ZX spectrum to you and the ULA problem?
I knew you (Emerson Cavallari) in 2011 and you showed me the ZX Spectrum computers and the ULA (custom chip) problem. Until this date, when ULA crashed (ULA of TK90X and 95) we lost the computer forever because it was impossible to fix it.
Belavenuto, tell me more about TK90X ULA… Talk about the development and the relation with TBBlue.
Our friend Victor Trucco started the process to clone TK90X´s ULA (that is different from the ZX Spectrum ULA) using CPLD (Complex Programmable Logic Device) and I asked him a partnership to help and learn a little more too. We finished the functional prototype in 30 days and now we have a replacement.
TBBlue came from the idea of make a complete ZX Spectrum clone and some peripherals using FPGA like was did in other projects like OCM (One Chip MSX).
And how about Next? What was the idea?
The idea was of Trucco that was thinking to procude a new ZX Spectrum. With the TBBlue was stable it was the perfect candidate for a new ZX.
How is the Next development status today? Is it completely ready? Is there new things to do? Do you imagine how long it will be ready?
The Next is about 99% ready (the hardware). We need to finish the layout for final board end eventually manufacture the case and keyboard if crowdfunding is successful.
We are finishing the hdmi output too that uses a Raspberry Pi Zero and it will be optional.
TBBlue took about one year to be ready. We thinkt that Next will take 6 months to have all units shipped after the crowdfunding.
What are the technical diferences between TBBlue and Next (apart from the case, course!)?
The differences are minimum…They are like the way of the construction that will be done by a industrial manufacturer and about the HDMI output (optional in Next).
Some years ago I designed a ZX Spectrum clone using only chips that you find today. It was the TKBLUE. TK for obvious reasons (Brazilian ZX clone is TK90X) and “Blue” because my pcb are blue.
Coincidentally, at this time, people started speak about to clone the TK90X ULA, including sent the IC to try to clone it (it was not you, Emerson?).
I didn´t like the idea to make this clone outside Brazil and I knew that it could be done. So, in a morning I removed what was exceeding of the TKBLUE and published it as a alpha version of the TK90X ULA.
I announced the beginning of a study to clone using CPLD and, one or two days after it, Fabio Belavenuto wrote to me asking if he could help me in this Project.
He had Xilinx CPLD and I had the Altera one, so we could do two types at same time.
After one month all the things were ready and published in my website.
With ULA finished I had the idea to go back to TKBlue as as new final product, ready to be used inside a TK90X case. But it was difficult to put all the electronic components (about 60) and I didn´t have much free time… I only worked in this project for a few minutes by day and it never was finished although I construct something like 33% by hand.
After a Clube TK meeting, in 2013, I remember that Nelson Gomes lent to Belavenuto a DE-1 development board. Some days after that, Belavenuto called me and showed the board working with the first version of TKBLUE, but totally using FPGA.
In truly,I didn´t like this idea and want to make something using common chips. But due the facility and speed to debug that FPGA gave me, it made my mind.
In this day I renamed the project to TB (Trucco-Belavenuto) and it was the birth of the first version of TBBlue, at the end of 2013.
What did make you to think in Next after TBBlue?
The Next came after a chat, at last November with Henrique Olifiers. I was telling about some things I was working including my final TBBlue version (Belavenuto version was released one year before mine).
I would like to do something using crowdfunding and I thought about the Odytari, a hybrid clone of Atari 2600 and Odyssey but he was more interested in TBBlue. He knew some people in SKY (that has the Amstrad brand and was the Sinclair owner) and could talk to try to make TBBlue under license.
So, the Zx Spectrum Next is a licensed product?
Yes. Olifiers is the co-founder of Bossa Studios that develops games in UK and, few weeks before he knew some “big” people from Sky (UK).
So he did the contacts and after some e-mails we found the people that could discuss about Amstrad.
After talk a little this person said that he had did it before (Spectrum Vega probably).
So, it was very simple to get the license, logos and intelectual property (manual and ROMs).
Next step was to make contact to Rick Dickinson. Searching at Google we discovered that he was still working and after he hear about our project he immediately accepted to make the new design.
What is your relation with Henrique Olifiers?
I know Henrique about 31 years. It was rare people that had a TK90X (Brazilian clone of ZX Spectrum
When I was 12 y.o. I saw a handwritten card in a cockboard of a computing store (probably the only one of the city).
The announce said something like this: TK90X games for sell.
I written down the number, but who talked to him was a friend of mine (I don´t remember the name now, I don´t see him for a long time).
He went tho Henrique´s house, that was very near of mine, but I only went there in the next weekend.
After initial presentations, he started to show me the software collection available and probably I showed mine, I don´t remember…
But I remember clearly of the “Quiosque do James”, probably the first game programmed by Henrique. He showed me it proudly!
James sells Lemonade and you should define the price and quantity of Lemonade to do. But if the weather was hot or a storm happened and you had profit or loss.
But, after that day, I came back to Henrique´s house hundred times because and some times we had some inspiration moments.
One of our successfully experiences was with a acceleration card and memory expansion of a Amiga 2000. We was about 16, 18 y.o.
He had received the board as a work payment and he didn´t know what to do with it.
He had a Amiga 500 and we spent some minutes reading the computer´s manual (that had schemas) and, someway, we got the Amiga 2000 board working in a Amiga 500!
We soldered tons of cables between the board and the computer and it worked at the FIRST TRY!!!
I think it was the first “serious” computer mod. So, the Amiga 500 board was screwed in a piece of wood beside of acceleration board with a lot of cables.
The Amiga 500 case was cut and it was turned in a keyboard with a flat cable, like the PC´s. After some years I asked him about this Amiga and it was still working!
Our ways has separated for many reasons but we met ourselves again some years later when he called me to work with programming in a firm where he was the editor of a electronic magazine about games.
Part of this firm was divided and turned the Finaboss Ltd where I worked for almost 15 years although Henrique had left to go to UK many years before.
Why did this project is happening in UK and not in Brazil?
The shipping from Brazil to Europe would be very expensive I believe most of the tiers will be coming from there.
I didn’t compare all the prices but I am sure that making it in UK will be cheaper than do it in Brazil and it will make the crowdfunding more attractive and more people can participate.
To compare: my TBBlue sells 150 units but maybe I could done something like 200 to 250 if I decide to make a complete computer.
I sold only the base board and the user had to buy the FPGA out of Brazil and it “scared” many buyers.
So I thing I could have 50% plus buyers.
So, let´s think about twices the initial sells (500 units). It was not big enough to a project like Next because we have BIG expenses.
The UK´s position in Europe is perfect do distribute and have a great number of possible supporters, so the shipping costs can be lower, and the campaign may have more chances of being funded.
And to know that the distribution will be made from UK, where was the birthplace of Sinclair, is very exciting!
Will the firmware be open-source? Could any person to change the code?
Yes! 100% open-source! When I say 100% I want to say the part that we did in FPGA.
For example, we will not give the ROM´s source code because it maybe does not exist anymore.
We will not give code of other persons, like ESXDOS. But about the operation of Next, any person that know about FPGA and VHDL will be able to download the tools to develop and change it.
People will be able to make improvement that we can release in future official updates!
Will the board (only the main board) sell by crowdfunding system too? If I have a ZX Spectrum 48 case and I want only the Next board, will be it possible? The Next board fits perfectly in it? And how about the connectors? Will they need some case adaptation?
Yes, and it was the first requirement that I did to Rick Dickinson and he didn´t like it so much! He had freedom to create what he wanted, however it had to be retro compatible (as possible) with the old case of ZX Spectrum 48K.
So, to help our campaign, motherboards will be available and, probably, they will cost a half of the final price of the full Next. However, some adaptation work will be necessary, like a cut and some drillings in the case. It will be a good work to DIY (do it yourself) will love to do!
Your initial talk with Henrique happened in November 2015. Why did it take a long time to arrive to the public? Was there a specific reason (technical problema, for example) that was avoiding you to published that new?
Rick took a while to make the design and the end year holidays didn´t help too.
We talked in November 2015 and until Sky gives the OK to start and an initial meeting with Rick it was already December, Christmas, New Year, …
After that we had a (not so good) surprise with Vega+ where we knew that Rick was involved in the project too.
So I´m guessing that he only could be worked in our project after Vega+, about February or March 2016.
The official announce was April 30th (my birthday too) was strategic because Play Expo Blackpool a big entertainment fair in UK. I think that is like a Campus Party mixed with E3 but I never went there, so I can be wrong.
Henrique was invited to make a talk, so it was the perfect date to the announce. Media was already looking the fair and it would be good to keep a certain distance from Vega+ annoucement because a “fight for attention” would be bad for both projects.
I understood that technical part is responsibility of you and Belavenuto. The case production, payments managements, logistics with Henrique. Could you explain the participation of each member in the project?
Belavenuto and me will make the hardware and firmware! We will do the development, eventual bug corrections and design the final board that will be produced.
Certainly we will produce some boards in Brazil for the workbench tests but all the final boards will be produced in United Kingdom.
Olifiers (Henrique) takes care of the administrative things and created a firm to this, the SpecNext Ltd. Rick Dickinson, apart from the design, will supervise the plastic production, ensuring the final quality of the keyboard that he designed.
What are the Next´s technical specifications?
Processor Z80 3.5Mhz and 7Mhz modes (implemented in the FPGA)
Memory 512Kb RAM
Video output RGB, VGA, mini HDMI
Storage SD card slot, with DivMMC-compatible protocol
Tape support Mic and Ear ports for cassette tape loading and saving
Audio with stereo output
Joystick port DB9 compatible with Interface 1 or Interface 2 protocols
PS/2 port Mouse with Kempston mode emulation OR external keyboard
Extras Multiface functionality for memory access, save games, cheats etc
Expansion Original Spectrum external bus expansion port
After crowdfunding finishes, is there any prediction about the time to ship the equipment?
We talked with some suppliers and the medium time should be about 2 or 3 months to ship the equipment.
So if we start the crowdfunding in June and all the things go fine, the first buyers will receive the equipment about September, I guess.
For the Brazilians fans, will it be a local production, to reduce shipping time and costs?
I don´t see any chance of that happens. It would be impracticable to send the “mold” of the plastic injection and even empty cases, because the quantity.
Maybe the paper box, manuals, and other things could be done here, main board too but the production cost in UK is very cheaper than Brazil
So, I think that it would be more expensive than import it.
Maybe some Brazilian big store can import a batch of Nexts, who knows? I hope we can see the ZX Spectrum Next in the department stores at the corner!
I hope we can see the ZX Spectrum Next in the department stores in Brazil!
What will be the Next options? Will be there different configurations? Different prices?
Different configurations, no. But different colors, with the same hardware. The standard config will be black, complete with a SD card. Maybe the white version can cost a few extra bucks to help to pay the extra production.
It will be possible to buy only the board to put inside a ZX Spectrum 48K case and others compatibles and option to you buy only the Next empty case for you put your old computer in a new “clothing”.
Leave your final message to our readers (Brazilians specially)!
As I said, I am sorry but it was not possible to make this project in Brazil, because the expensive production costs.
For people that could not participate buying this machine, I ask that help disseminating it, primarily when the campaign begins!
Remember that we are putting Brazil in the retro computing scenario of the world!
I know Trucco a little more than 30 years. We lived in Petropolis, a little city in Rio de Janeiro state and, in that age, there were few people that had TK90X there.
So, I was a Trucco´s Projects fan and he is very talented when the subject is hardware! He does wonderful things with only a piece of cable and a couple of bolts LOL.
His patience with my suggestions is like a saint! My requests makes him makes him to jump in solutions that nobody would think before! We are a really great duo!
My responsability in Next is to do what I make better: join different talents to work and create something special! I only help people to think more from different angles to make some thing special!
The Next announce exceeded our expectations.
It´s difficult to estimate how popular this project will be but the numbers are very good until now!
The main countries are UK, Russia, Brazil and Spain but there are fans all around the world.
We will not arrive in millions like original Spectrum but what counts is the passion of the people that wants to take your Zx Spectrum Next and play with it!
This is our mission!
published em: 09/05/2016