SINCLAIR ZX81 HOME COMPUTER
by Mark Nobes, chief editor
The ZX81 was the first cheap, mass-marketed home computer, selling a total of 1.5 million units before it was discontinued in 1984. It was truly innovative, and allowed the general public to get their hands on something that was once only available to businesses and hobbyists with huge amounts of cash to spare.
However, those who rushed out to buy a ZX80 will probably have been regretting the move after the release of the ZX81 (labelled the Timex Sinclair 1000 and 1500 in the U.S.). For a start it was half the price (£49.95 or £69.95 in kit form), it used just five chips (the ZX80 used 21) and it had a much better BASIC programming language.
As with virtually all other home computers around at the time, programs were loaded and saved via an external cassette recorder, which was the most popular and cheapest method in the early 80s. However, anyone who experienced using this method will know that it wasn't always reliable! Floppy Disk drives were available to purchase as extras with other, more expensive computers such as the Atari 800, Commodore Vic 20 and IBM PC.
Although the ZX81 was, by far, the cheapest computer available at the time, it was also the least powerful. It had just 1kB of RAM, although this was expandable to 16kB. With a maximum resolution of just 64 x 44 characters and mono display, the IBM PC with its 640 x 200 res, 16 colour display and the Atari 800 with a 320 x 192 res, 256 colour display wiped the floor with it, but you had to be pretty well off to buy one of these!
An IBM PC would set you back $1265, an Atari 800 was $899.95 and a Commodore Vic-20 was $260. So at $99.95, the ZX81 was truly affordable and allowed more people than ever to join the home computing revolution, and you have to admire it for that.
This fantastic image features a ZX81 with its original packaging accessories and ZX81 BASIC manual
The ZX81 motherboard, Issue One version (public domain image)
ZX81 interface - side views (public domain image)
The Sinclair 16K RAM memory module was externally connected to the ZX81 and was notoriously wobbly.
Sinclair ZX Thermal Printer for the ZX81
The Sinclair Timex 1000 was a ZX81 variant which was sold in the U.S. (Public domain image)
The ZX81 with cassettes on the front cover of Your Computer magazine in October 1981.
This video clip originally showed scramble on a Timex Sinclair 1000 (the US version of the ZX81) which had music (not being produced by the computer as it had no sound chip) and had been added by the video uploader.
However, this video suddenly disappeared off Youtube, and I've now replaced it with an even better one above which features running commentary.
By the way, if you owned a ZX81 then you will know that you also had to purchase the 16Kb expansion pack to play games.
Here's a ZX81 game called Gunfighter. Well, it's a step-up from Pong, at least! Again, 16Kb would have been needed to play such a sophisticated game.