ZX Spectrum Vega+ hands-on review


HATERS, QUOTH Taylor Swift, gonna hate, hate, hate. Which is fine because they obviously haven’t been hands-on with the eagerly awaited ZX Spectrum Vega+, a handheld version of the popular 1980s computer which has received the blessing and the backing of Sir Clive Sinclair himself.  We, on the other hand, have.

Today, we finally got our INQ-y mitts on a production model of the long-awaited device which raised nearly half a million quid on Indiegogo earlier this year. Now, let’s be clear about this: we haven’t got one of our own yet. And there’s a very good reason why.

“Our backers will be getting their machines first, before the press, before the shops. It’s because of them that we’re here and we owe it to them to make sure they get their Vega first,” explained Suzanne Martin of Retro Computers, the company behind the project.

spectrum-vega-evolution

The company has taken a lot of flack in the past few months and, as a passion project, the doubting has been hard on the team. But the joy of the finished device has made it all worthwhile.

The production process has not been smooth. A number of well-documented flies in the ointment meant that the firmware for the Vega+ is an entirely new build from scratch, with no hangovers at all from the earlier Vega, which used a wired connection to a television.

We got our hands on the first production models off the line, which are in final tweaking before shipping details are announced in what Martin referred to as “days not weeks”, with an assurance that any destined to go under the tree this Christmas will be there.

But the million dollar question: is it any good?

Short answer: yes.

vega-plus-menu

The screen is crisp and clear with high contrast to take full advantage of the primary colour palette on the black background that was the Speccy’s trademark.

The controls are extremely responsive, and there’s a pop-up help key if you need to check what does what for each of the 1,000 games on board spanning classics from Ultimate (Atic Atac, Jetpac) and Psion (Horace Goes Skiing), through to new games built by the passionate fan community.

With so many games written for the machine over the past 30 years, it’s good to know they’re pretty much all available on the internet. And if they’re not pre-loaded, they can be added via the SD card and the built-in key mapping utility.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery of the day is that the device can be connected to an external display and a keyboard, meaning that it could be a powerful tool for people who want to learn to code. 

Full details will be announced at the product’s launch, but the whole unit is also open source, meaning it’s ripe for modding.

The entire thing is being built, right now, in the UK and will be available to buy retail once the backers’ run is complete. Again, Retro has asked us to omit some details, reflecting what a long, difficult road to success the company has had this year, but we should be able to tell you a lot more about that soon.

The important stuff, though. It’s crisp, it’s sharp, the speaker is loud without being tinny, it’s incredibly comfortable to hold and it’s intuitive to control.

spectrum-vega-atic-atacGame loading gives you the full stripey-beepy experience, but takes three seconds instead of five minutes (back in the day, eh?).

Firmware upgrades are a matter of downloading to an SD card and flashing, but as far as we can tell it’s damn near perfect.

There’s a lot more to say, but we’ve been asked to hold off. And when friends of the INQ ask us to be patient a little while longer, we oblige.

So to backers with itchy feet we say this:

It exists.

It’s real.

It’s ready.

It’s imminent.

It’s worth waiting for.

And as soon as the finer details are announced, you’ll hear it from us, because Retro has pledged to tell its backers everything first. µ

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