IMPORTANT UPDATES ON THE DELIVERY SITUATION:
2011-03-10: Have had a report that Syd is no longer able to send boards outside the Ukraine due to a change in the law which came in this week. Trying to confirm the details right now, but clearly this is a major downer if it is indeed true :-( Obviously, Syd is the best person to advise on the current state of orders. (And if you have any more news on the situation, please pass it on to me via comments or email)
2011-03-11: A later report from gringo128 (comment below) suggests that this only affects the EMS delivery service – Syd is now sending boards by standard mail, which is a bit slower (two weeks rather than 5-10 days) but still offers online tracking (and is hopefully adequately insured too, but please check before ordering). Hoping I can bring you news of their successful arrival some time soon…
2011-03-16: The good news: Another Speccy2010 board has safely arrived in the UK by DHL, and Craig, the lucky recipient, has made a follow-up video of unboxing number two. The bad news: The current batch has now sold out, and Syd has stated that he’s decided not to send boards abroad in future, due to the complications this time round. For now all we can do is wait for the situation to change, or someone to step in to take on the role of international distributor (could that be you, dear reader…?). In the meantime, keep an eye on zx.pk.ru and here for news of any new developments.
Updated 2011-03-04: English translation of the Speccy2010 FAQ published
Updated 2011-03-05: Added info about troubleshooting over the serial port.
This is the story of how I got hold of a Speccy2010 board, one of the most exciting developments to hit the Spectrum world in recent times. It’s a Spectrum clone developed in the Ukraine, which replicates the original 48 and 128K Spectrums, along with the Pentagon and Scorpion models popular across Russia. It connects to a TV or monitor by composite video, S-Video or VGA, and lets you load emulator images (tape, snapshot, or TR-DOS disk) from an SD card. The whole thing is the size of a packet of crisps, and is built around an FPGA programmable logic chip which can be reflashed with new firmware versions (again via the SD card) to gain new capabilities as and when they are developed. In short, it’s exactly what people are asking for whenever they post to a Spectrum web forum asking “Why doesn’t someone build a next-generation Spectrum?” And you can buy one, today.
Tempted? Well, here’s the deal. This isn’t mass-produced commodity hardware – Syd, the developer, is building these by hand in small runs – so don’t expect any formal commercial support or handy “enter your credit card details here” online order forms. (Don’t worry – ordering isn’t difficult, just… different.) The boards are fully tested before despatch, and Syd will try to help with any issues you have with it (as will I), but beyond that, it’s sold “as is” – there’ll be no refund if it turns out to be incompatible with your monitor, or doesn’t run your favourite game or whatever. The whole thing cost me £150 (175 EUR, 240 USD) including all delivery / transaction fees, and on top of that you might pay something like £20-30 for the power supply, keyboard, cables, SD cards and other accessories, depending on what you have lying around already. So, it’s somewhere above the “geeky impulse purchase from Firebox” price range you may have been hoping for, but still a very decent price for a piece of kit for a hobby you’re half-way serious about. If your sense of adventure doesn’t stretch this far, stop reading now. For the rest of us, here’s what you have to do…
Sign up on the zx.pk.ru forums. This is the major online community for Russian-speaking Spectrum fans, and is the place where incoming Speccy2010 orders are co-ordinated. If you’re not lucky enough to speak Russian yourself, I’d suggest using Chrome, for its ability to auto-translate pages as you browse. Unfortunately they have a somewhat ‘paranoid’ registration system in place, presumably to cut down on spam signups, and you may need to wait a day or two for the administrators to manually activate your account before you can post.
Head over to the Speccy2010 ordering thread. Have a quick read through if you want to familiarise yourself with how orders are processed, what the current lead time is and so on – you’ll get used to the quirky Google translations after a while, but the main one to be aware of is that “collected fees” means “assembled board”. (It also has a nasty habit of translating the abbreviation for ‘rubles’ to ‘USD’, so don’t be alarmed if you see the price quoted as 3000 USD…) When you’re ready to take the plunge, post a message to that thread (in English – no need to run it through an auto-translator) asking Syd to add you to the list for an assembled machine, and specifying what country you’re in. You’ll get an acknowledgement back with an estimate of when it’ll be ready. I only had to wait a week and a bit – looking back at posts from the last couple of months, it looks like 3-4 weeks has been the typical turnaround time.
Arrange delivery and payment details. Syd sent me a PM/email telling me the board was ready, and quoting a price of 125 USD for the unit, and 50 USD delivery to the UK by EMS, Express Mail Service (which is the option I went for, although he was happy to consider alternatives). Making the payment was where it got interesting: online services such as PayPal aren’t available for recipients in Russia and the Ukraine, which left wire transfer as the most practical option. Western Union are the internationally recognised market leaders, but their operations in the UK are a bit odd: the agent locations that you visit to make your payment are a random assortment of newsagents, Turkish café bars and hairdressers. I’m sure they’re all perfectly nice newsagents, bars and hairdressers, but they don’t feel like the sort of places I want to make important financial transactions. :-) The second biggest player (in the UK, at least) is MoneyGram, which is available at Post Offices and branches of Thomas Cook. Much more reassuring – and what’s more, their transfer fee for sending $175 to the Ukraine was only £9.99, rather than the £19.60 quoted on the Western Union website. Syd agreed to accept payment by MoneyGram, so we were all sorted.
Make the payment. This is where I have to introduce the elephant in the room: ask anyone who’s been on the internet for any length of time what’s the first thing that comes into their head when you say “wire transfer”, and the answer will probably be “Nigeria”. There’s a good reason why scammers like wire transfer so much: once the money has changed hands, the sender has very little recourse if the deal goes pear-shaped. No credit card chargebacks, no PayPal dispute resolution – the money is in the recipient’s pocket as cold hard cash. The advice you’ll see all over the internet is “never send money by wire transfer to someone you haven’t met in person” – and here we’re about to merrily disregard that advice. I can’t stress this enough – this is at your own risk.
In reality, it comes down to the same matter of trust as buying anything on eBay or Amazon: you’re relying on the merchant to deliver what they promise, and you’d never expect, or want, to have to go through a disputes procedure. You can take my account here as the equivalent of a hearty “AAA+++ Excellent transaction!!!” feedback message on eBay, and by looking back through that forum thread on zx.pk.ru, you’ll (hopefully) be able to confirm that Syd has a universally positive track record of satisfied customers, and use that as a basis to decide for yourself whether the opportunity to get hold of an awesome piece of Spectrum kit outweighs following the sensible advice of the internet.
I chose the red pill. :-)
So, with the massive disclaimer out of the way, making a MoneyGram payment turns out to be pretty straightforward. The friendly person behind the counter will give you a form where you fill in your name and address, amount to send, and the recipient’s name, city and country. There’s a set of tick boxes marked “Options to collect funds” where the correct one is “MoneyGram Agent Location”, and you have the option of entering a “test question” for the recipient, which I left blank. On my form I entered the amount to send in USD, but when the cashier re-entered it all into their system they needed to know the amount in pounds – so before you get there, it’s worth checking on the MoneyGram website (via the ‘How much?’ link) so that you have a figure to hand, rounded up by a pound or two to cover any margin of error (but you’ll have the chance to confirm the exact dollar amount before they hit the big red ‘send’ button). You’ll make that payment along with the £10 transaction fee – I was almost caught out because the whole thing has to be paid in cash, not by card, but handily Post Office counters will allow you to withdraw money from certain banks (including mine, Lloyds TSB) on the spot, which is effectively the same thing as paying by card.
When you’re done, you’ll get back a receipt with the all-important “MoneyGram Ref. No” listed on it – email this to Syd (it’s probably helpful to let him know the final dollar amount transferred too), and he’ll collect his well-earned money and send out your package.
Wait for it to arrive. Packages sent by EMS from the Ukraine to the UK will be handled by Parcelforce, on whose website you’re destined to spend the next 5-10 days being this person. Unless you somehow manage to beat the system, you’ll see it make its way to your local depot, whereupon its status will change to “Held – Awaiting payment of charges”. Shortly afterwards, you’ll get a letter from Parcelforce with a reference number in it, detailing the customs charges you need to pay – £31, in my case. You can pay this online through the Parcelforce website, and, hopefully, be able to schedule a delivery for the following day.
I dare say that people who regularly import exotic products will have an armoury of dodges for getting around customs charges – having it declared as a personal gift, understating the value of the goods… whatever. Personally, I’d say that after coming all this way, it would be exceedingly silly to risk having the package confiscated all for the sake of saving a few quid – but it’s your call.
Unpack! In your parcel, you’ll receive the all-important Speccy2010 board, a snug plastic box to put it in (although you’ll need to cut your own holes for the connectors) and a sticker to go on the box (because it wouldn’t be a real Spectrum without that four-colour stripe, would it…?). The other essential items you need, not included in the package, are:
- A power adapter – the regular barrel type (with a 2.1mm pin), with +5V tip and ground outside, rated at 1A or more. I ended up spending £23 on the most expensive one at Maplin, because on past experience every random bit of electrical equipment I buy always needs a slightly better one than I’ve got already – and it’s really small as well, which is good. You could probably get a suitable power supply much cheaper if you shopped around – in fact, it looks like the one I bought is now on offer for £15 for the next month. Basts! As it happens, I already had one that did 4.5V rather than 5V, and it seemed to work just as well.
- A VGA, PAL composite video, PAL S-Video or SCART RGB monitor, and corresponding cable. The VGA, composite and S-Video connectors are the standard 15-pin D socket, phono, and 4-pin mini DIN sockets respectively; SCART RGB requires a custom cable to the VGA port, as detailed in the Speccy2010 FAQ (see also: original Russian version).
- An SD card, and some way of writing to it. I tried a 512Mb one (the smallest, cheapest one you can get at Maplin) and a 4Gb SDHC card, and both worked perfectly fine.
- A PS/2 keyboard.
- A USB cable (Type A/flat to Type B/square), for debugging over serial terminal and reflashing the boot loader (none of which you’ll have to do, hopefully)
- Audio speakers (3.5mm stereo output)
- A PS/2 mouse
- 1-2 joysticks (9-pin D, Atari/Sega standard)
Prepare an SD card with the necessary software. Alongside the FPGA, the board has an ARM microcontroller which comes pre-flashed with a small boot loader – when the Speccy2010 is powered up, this loads the remainder of the firmware (for both the ARM and FPGA) from the SD card. The files you need are roms.7z and the latest speccy2010-bin package from the Speccy2010 Google Code downloads page. You’ll need something that can unpack .7z files – 7-Zip on Windows, or Stuffit Expander on Mac (also available as a free download on the Mac App Store). With everything unpacked and copied to the SD card (formatted as FAT16 or FAT32, which it almost certainly will be already), it should look like this:
|- speccy2010.bin |- speccy2010.hlp |- speccy2010.rbf |- roms |- 48.rom |- pentagon.rom |- system.rom |- trdos.rom |- trdos503.rom
You’ll also want some actual software to run on there, of course – the Speccy2010 can load .sna snapshots, .tap and .tzx tape images, and .trd, .scl and .fdi TR-DOS disk images.
Connect up and switch on. Insert the SD card, connect up the keyboard (it’s the socket closest to the corner) and monitor, then plug in the power. Wait 10-20 seconds for the process of flashing the firmware to complete – then, if the screen doesn’t come up right away, use one of the following key combinations to select the appropriate video output:
- CTRL + 1: Composite / S-Video
- CTRL + 2: RGB SCART
- CTRL + 3: VGA 50Hz (note: may not be supported by all VGA monitors)
- CTRL + 4: VGA 60Hz (more compatible than VGA 50Hz, but will increase overall running speed by 20%)
- CTRL + 5: VGA 75Hz (as above, but increases running speed by 50%)
Note that the above combinations use the keys 1-5, not F1-F5. The selected option will be remembered for future start-ups. Once you have the screen up, you can use F9 to bring up the configuration menu and F12 for the file selector. Further control keys are detailed in the FAQ.
Troubleshooting: If you can’t get the display to come up, the serial console output (sent over the USB port) may give you some clues as to why not. To access this, you’ll first need to install a driver on the PC to make the Speccy2010 visible as a serial device: the snappily-titled FTDI VCP (Virtual COM Port) driver. This is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, with a straightforward install process in each case. When that’s in place, attach the Speccy2010 via USB cable to your PC (with power to the Speccy2010 disconnected at this point; the USB-to-serial chip is powered entirely over USB, it would seem). On Windows, a new COM port should pop up; on Linux and Mac, a couple of new devices will appear under /dev/: /dev/tty.usbserial-A700fbVb and /dev/cu.usbserial-A700fbVb, in my case.
You’re now ready to connect to this new port with a terminal application – Syd suggests Tera Term for Windows, and for Mac and Linux, GNU Screen does the job nicely. (It’s bundled with OS X, and probably a quick package install away on Linux.) To connect over Screen, use the command line:
screen /dev/tty.usbserial-A700fbVb 115200
- passing in the filename to the tty device as it appears on your computer. (115200 is the transfer rate, if you’re wondering.)
You can now power up the Speccy2010, while keeping a watchful eye on the terminal output. (Incidentally, the FAQ specifically suggests disconnecting and reconnecting jumper XS10 – the one just behind the power connector – when you want to power up; it just cuts the 5V line. I’m not sure why this is better than unplugging / replugging, and it doesn’t seem to make any difference, but I thought I’d better mention it…) Hopefully, you’ll get the message “Speccy2010 boot ver 1.0!” followed by some diagnostics to tell you how far it’s getting through the boot-up process. If you don’t get anything at all, that could be a sign that your ARM microcontroller doesn’t have the boot loader flashed on it yet… in which case, I’ll have to refer you to the FAQ. It looks like you’ll need Windows, as the command-line utility for flashing the firmware appears to be a closed-source .exe… but I didn’t need to worry about that, as mine was pre-flashed, and hopefully yours will be too – and hopefully the way that the important code is loaded from SD card will mean that we won’t have to worry about reflashing over USB in future either.
The Speccy2010: A Complete Guide For Non-Russian-Speakers by Matt Westcott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.