UoB Computing

Deep thoughts from the Centre for Applied Computer Science @ The University of Bolton

Building back better!

Halt! Here be dragons! Well actually, builders, but either way, no one’s allowed up there – not even us!

If you’ve been anywhere near our C2 corridor since the end of May, you may have noticed that we’ve, erm, not been looking our best, and more recently, the corridor has been closed off completely! You might be wondering what’s going on, but don’t worry, we’ve not been permanently evicted from the corridor! Andrew Holland spills the beans on why: we’re having a major and much-needed refit over the summer…

About a month ago, at the end of May, as grading of most students’ work had been completed for the year, we had another task that needed our urgent attention: we had to pack up our things from our staff rooms and place them in storage for the summer. While we were doing that, we saw that our erstwhile and oh-so-familiar computing suites were being dismantled, worn office chairs tossed into a skip and rooms stripped bare ready for the builders to come in over summer.

C2-03, mostly stripped clean, ready for the builders to start their work!

And they’re in now, they started work during the early days of June and while the only visible signs of this are the blocked-off entrances to the C2 corridor – it’s truly a building site, no one is allowed up there, not even us staff to take pictures! – and the sight of fixtures and fittings being thrown out the windows into the skips below, hidden behind those barriers blocking the stairs, within the C2 corridor work is well underway to transform and update our teaching and office spaces to make them look modern, fresh, and bang up to date.

Some of our teaching rooms are being resized as some were too large and didn’t make the best use of the available space and from that, we’ll also gain at least one new extra teaching room. The rooms will also have new lighting, desks, chairs, and blinds, ready for students to arrive in September.

It’s exciting stuff and we – as well as you if you’re studying with us next year I hope – look forward to seeing what C2 looks like after the builders have gone and the refit has been done!

You’ll see soon enough!

Have a great summer!

Happy birthday Sinclair ZX Spectrum

With the humble and much-loved Sinclair ZX Spectrum becoming 40 years old this year, Andrew Holland takes a look back at the machine – commonly and variously known as just a “Sinclair Spectrum”, “Spectrum” or even “Speccy” for short – what made it so popular and at the Spectrum’s legacy over the years since…

ZX Spectrum - Wikipedia
Original rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum, released 1982

The birth of a classic

Launched on the 23rd April 1982 following the success of Sinclair Research’s previous ultra-low-cost computer – the ZX81 – a year earlier, the Spectrum was eagerly awaited by home computer enthusiasts of all ages and seen by some as the machine that would bring affordable colour home computing to the masses.

The late Sir Clive Sinclair was determined to steal a march over the much more expensive Commodore 64 and Acorn’s BBC Micro unveiled just months previously. Whereas Sinclair’s rivals were focused on producing powerful, sophisticated machines with their retail price not really being their prime consideration, Sir Clive was focused on producing a relatively powerful computer for a more modest price. In truth, a machine absolutely “built down to a price” for a mass market in the UK that just couldn’t afford one of the other market-leading machines.

With an initial asking price of just £125 or £175 (soon reduced to £99 and £129 a year later) for the 16K or 48K RAM models respectively, this quirky looking home computer with 15 colours, (rudimentary single-channel) sound generation abilities and possibly the second-worst keyboard ever fitted to any Sinclair machine (the ZX80 and ZX81 take the prize for the worst!), was not only a major upgrade and advance over the 1K RAM monochrome and mute ZX81 but also came in at a fraction of the cost of Commodore’s and Acorn’s much more capable machines (which cost between 2 and 4 times as much as the Spectrum).

Powered by the same low-cost Zilog Z80A processor as Sinclair’s previous two ZX machines, making it relatively easy for the nascent UK computer games industry to get to grips with quickly, the Sinclair Spectrum – in its various forms – sold in the order of 5 million units during a production run lasting 10 years and lead to the development of numerous clones, some of which are still in production today along with their associated and very active user communities.

Those 10 years were a testament to its enduring popularity, the thousands of software titles (admittedly mostly games, of course!) and the vast array of hardware add-ons produced for it from both Sinclair Research itself and the many “garden-shed” and professional software and hardware vendors alike who realised this was a machine well worth supporting.

Like the previous two machines, the original Spectrum was designed to only be connected to a standard TV via the antenna socket as it lacked a dedicated RGB monitor port (with all the associated picture quality issues that were produced compared to a dedicated monitor when you’re pushing a crisp computer-generated display output into a rough UHF modulator designed for rather lower grade fuzzier 625-line analog TV!), this again a clear sign of the “built to a price” mentality of Sinclair – few homes would have a computer monitor lying around but pretty much everyone had a TV they could use, either the main living room TV so as to annoy and frustrate your parents when they wanted to watch Corrie in the evenings or else a little portable TV if you were lucky enough to nag your parents into buying you one also!

Upgrading optionally

All ZX Spectrums had a single expansion port at the back which allowed for hardware expansion. With add-ons from simple joystick port interfaces (as early Spectrum’s lacked built-in joystick ports) to complex mass storage interfaces and even oddities like the Currah μSpeech, there was pretty much nothing that its more expensive rivals could do that the Spectrum couldn’t also be expanded to do.

Though it was true that some of this hardware left much to be desired in terms of quality and reliability, especially (and regrettably) that from Sinclair itself. Few who have ever used the optional (and initially relatively expensive at £49.95) curio that was the Sinclair ZX Microdrive will tell you that it was reliable, for it certainly was not!

spec-microdrive-800 - Retro Games Collector
Sinclair ZX Spectrum with optional ZX Microdrive and ZX Interface 1

The mini cartridges of looped tape that it used stored a nominal 90K when formatted and had – compared to cassette tape storage – a pretty quick 16KB/s transfer rate, putting it almost in the realms of floppy disk-like performance speed-wise. Sadly, this was not matched in terms of reliability as the ultra fast-spooled tape tended to stretch way too easily causing data loss sooner rather than later. Thus trusting anything to a microdrive cartridge was a leap of faith few were willing to make again after losing data that very first (or second!) time (myself included!).

Sinclair ZX Interface 2 and ROM cartridges

Not to be put off, however, Sinclair’s attempt at instant-loading ROM game cartridges – to give the Spectrum a “games console” feel complete with dual joystick ports – via the ill-fated ZX Interface 2, sadly faired little better. Few games were ever produced on cartridge format for it and what few there were, were excessively expensive when compared to their otherwise identical tape-based versions. And I’m not even going to get into the ZX Printer and its rolls of oft-jamming thermal toilet paper!

Sinclair ZX Printer and thermal paper

Third-party hardware, however, generally tended to be better quality and many popular expansion devices did well, with Romantic Robot’s snapshot-creating Multiface perhaps being among the best known and most beloved by gamers and professionals alike. Sadly, I never owned one of those, darn!

We have all the time in the world to… load software from cassette!

If only due to its huge cassette back-catalog if not for the lack of reliability or availability of any other means, for most Spectrum owners, software was loaded from and saved to cassette tape via any standard mono cassette recorder (that you obviously had to buy separately or you already had from previously owning a ZX80 or ZX81, of course!).

The joy of sitting there waiting several minutes for a tape-based game to load is a “joy” that only people who lived through the home computing years of the 1980s can ever relate to and possibly recall being frustrated by. Let me be clear here, that 48K of memory took up to around 8 minutes to be completely filled up by loading from tape. So whenever you wanted to play another game, you had to pull the power cord out from the back and plug it in again (as there was no reset or power switch, another cost-saving!), and then type:

LOAD “”

on the keyboard, hit Enter and then press play on the cassette recorder to start the loading process. If you were lucky, up to 8 minutes or so later the game will have loaded after you (and your bemused and irked parents if they were with you) had endured the screeching and wailing sounds of the loading process as the original Spectrum had only an internal speaker with – yes, you guessed it – no volume control or mute button in sight!

If you think I’m just being a snowflake here and it really wasn’t that bad, then hey, let me not even try to convince you otherwise when there are plenty of videos out there on YouTube that can do it for me. Consider this one of the amazingly popular Jetpac and, as you watch this, keep in mind that this is merely a 16K game, 48k (and later 128K) games took proportionately much longer to load and dished out the same kind of aural racket while doing so – such as this 128K classic arcade conversion, Chase HQ!

Though at least with the 128K games, there was a way to shut them up as the 128K machines were devoid of an internal speaker, choosing instead to output their sound through the TV directly so you could turn the sound down to give your ears a rest – but more on the 128K machines below, I’m jumping ahead of myself!

Of course, as I said above, all this was truly indeed if you were lucky. Sometimes you wouldn’t be, the volume level might have been wrong or the tape damaged or the cat might have walked past at the wrong moment and nudged the ear jack connector at some point, and even if not, sometimes you’d get right to the end of the loading process and the Spectrum would either just crash needing you to try a highly-technical TIOAOA sequence or it would just reset by itself to the power-on screen. It’s why my generation has so much patience, frankly!

Despite the Spectrum’s quirks and faults it truly was an amazing piece of design on many levels. Not least, and in a very geeky way, in that it managed to squeeze a full-colour display out of just 0.75K more RAM than the ZX81 needed to use. It did this by – as you’ll probably have worked out by now – cutting corners to save money by only allowing 2 colours per 8×8 block of pixels.

The Spectrum had no dedicated hardware sprites or graphical processors, all graphics were – as was common back then – solely generated by the main processor and used main memory to do it. Its odd display arrangement lead to the infamous (and sometimes endearing) colour-clash where two graphical “characters” in a game of different colours met. This wouldn’t be a problem on other computers but on the Spectrum, it was and resulted in games where characters would take on their background or other character’s colours unexpectedly or else would simply be rendered in monochrome to avoid this effect happening at all.

But, to be frank, this quirk was yet another example of the Spectrum’s honest, down-to-earth simplicity and charm. It cost far less than its rivals and really, you couldn’t really expect it to perform as well as its rivals. Except that many still did nonetheless and it in no way blunted the desire of software houses to produce games for it who saw its technical limitations as a challenge to write better code to work around them. Graphical limitations aside, if you were gaming on a home computer in the 80s, there was a good chance it was on a Spectrum such were the numbers sold.

With that vast array of games – at one point the largest of any home computer during the 80s – it naturally became the home computer of choice in the UK for every kid that wanted to get into computer gaming without it costing their parents a small fortune. With games costing as little as £1.99 being sold in newsagents from the likes of Mastertronic and Firebird the humble spectrum took its place among its more expensive rivals in the playground wars that then ensued to the battle cries of “my computer is better than yours!” in schools across the land.

Underlining that success lead to games that were big on rival machines being ported to the Spectrum too, including legendary classics such as Elite (which started originally on the BBC Micro). Sure, it wasn’t quite as good-looking as the BBC Micro original but it was just as playable!

Elite, the classic space trading and combat game on the ZX Spectrum

As a side note, Elite is oddly the only game from the Spectrum era that I still play regularly today, sort of. On the PC I am today a huge fan of Frontier Developments’ Elite Dangerous, itself a full-service multiplayer reimagining of the game for the modern age. When I have absolutely nothing else to do, rare though that is, I can sometimes be found plowing my trusty Python around space trading in goods, taking out the odd space pirate and occasionally being expensively ganked by the bad actual human players (I’m still learning how to beef up my ship so I can go on the offensive more but this game is so grindy, it’s not called Elite Dangerous for nothing!).

Elite Dangerous by Frontier Developments, released 2014

But let’s get back to the 80s, and I loved my 48K Spectrum (which I bought second-hand around 1985 to replace an outdated and mocked-by-friends ZX81!) and would spend hours at a time keying in program listings for games included as part of some of the many Spectrum-related monthly magazines of the era such as Sinclair Programs. Yes really, we actually did that!

Y’see, apart from loading commercial games from cassette tape you could also easily program the Spectrum using its built-in BASIC programming language – like most home computers of the time. No bloated compilers or development environments to install here, just power the Spectrum on, and immediately you’re in a BASIC interpreter. Just as I did, it lead so many of my generation to cut their programming teeth on home computers such as these and then end up following software engineering as their professional careers – once a love of programming has been established, it’s hard to give it up! So in some ways, I can say that without the Spectrums I owned as a kid, I’d probably had never become a programmer and later a software engineering lecturer!

There were pages and pages of code in magazines and kids would just sit around at evenings, weekends, and – if parents were really lucky – school holidays and type in a several pages-long listing for a game. Oh, we so knew how to rock back then, eh?! The illustration that went with the listing in the magazine usually showed a fancy and well-drawn spaceship or something equally as cool, but by the time you’d actually got the program finished and running – if it ran at all, sometimes you’d make a mistake that would render the whole thing useless and you’d spend hours hunting down the bugs – you’d see a little block that moved on the screen that vaguely resembled something like a spaceship.

And that little block moved very slowly because oh, the one thing you never knew before – but you do now – is that programs in Sinclair BASIC run very slowly compared to commercial software which was written not in any high-level language (such as BASIC) but in assembly instead, exactly for performance reasons! And writing assembly on a Spectrum is hard, proper hard. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself for a challenging and frustrating but rewarding experience!

Tasword 128 word processing software

But via coding in BASIC was simply how you interacted with the machine unless you had loaded a game or other software, such as a spreadsheet package or word processor perhaps – yes, this funny little machine could even be used for word processing, Tasword was used regularly for my college essays during the early 90s and I remember squinting at its irregular and cramped custom 64 characters per line display to this day on a 12″ B&W TV (the Spectrum had 32 characters per line by default)!

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Sadly, fun though all this was, as the decade wore on it was obvious to many that upgrades were needed to keep the Spectrum popular. First, Sinclair Research released a relatively minor update – the ZX Spectrum+ – which was little more than the same 48K Spectrum mainboard inside a new case sporting a new, QL-inspired proper keyboard and a reset button for the first time (I kid you not!). Costing £180 (reduced to £130 in 1985 when the original rubber-keyed machines were axed), inside it was exactly the same machine even if it looked like something rather fancier at first glance from the slick TV adverts put out for it at the time!

ZX Spectrum+, released 1984.

This obviously wasn’t going to be enough and while its replacement was launched first in Spain in 1985 (due to an agreement with Sinclair’s Spanish distributor Investrónica who also co-designed it with Sinclair), it wasn’t until 1986 that the UK saw the launch of the ZX Spectrum 128K.

ZX Spectrum 128K, released 1985 (Spain)/1986 (UK)

With a huge black heatsink on the right-hand side on which to burn your wrist on a summer’s day, this machine earned the nickname “The Toastrack”. Priced at £180 and having the exact same graphics abilities and CPU as all of the previous Spectrums, it sported 128K of RAM, MIDI and RS232 ports, an RGB and composite monitor port, and an AY-3-8912 3-channel dedicated sound chip working alongside the existing Spectrum CPU-generated single sound channel. This meant that games could be written to take advantage of these new abilities but they would not be backward compatible with older spectrums.

The need for games to be coded to take specific advantage of the machine’s new features might have been a problem were it not that, thankfully, the Spectrum 128K was fully backward compatible with existing 16K and 48K software titles and hardware, so people moving to the new machine didn’t have to junk their existing games collection or add-ons, phew! For the remainder of the 80s and into the 90s it was common for games to be released for both 48K and 128K machines, there being very few 128K-only releases in recognition of the vast numbers of 48K Spectrums already sold.

Thus games often came on cassettes with two versions on them (one on either side) for 48K or 128K machines or else the loading was in several parts. The earlier part of the load was for the bulk of the game common to both machines and the later part was purely for the extra features of the 128K version. This made the Spectrum 128K truly the machine to have and owners mocked and laughed at their Spectrum 48K owning friends in the playgrounds. I finally upgraded to a Spectrum 128K by 1990, curiously swapping a second-hand Sinclair Pocket TV for it at that time via the Loot paper (at the time the place to obtain second-hand home micro stuff, or pretty much anything really!). In retrospect, while it was a great swap and I loved that Spectrum even more than my original 48K Speccy, I wished I hung onto that TV now. It would have been a great bit of retro-tech to have kept, albeit now totally useless since TV has long since gone fully digital!

Soon after the launch of the Spectrum 128K, a cash-strapped Sinclair Research saw Sir Clive sell the Sinclair brand name and rights to produce further ZX Spectrum models to Alan Sugar’s Amstrad and 1986 thus saw the launch of another new Spectrum, the +2, replacing the Spectrum 128K for around £140, Amstrad holding true to its promise of being able to make the Spectrum for a significantly reduced cost by shifting production to the far-east.

This was essentially the same machine as the Spectrum 128K but in another new case with an even better keyboard, two proprietary joystick ports (that annoyingly looked like standard Atari “D” ports but were wired differently meaning only official Sinclair sticks worked) and an integrated cassette deck (which annoyingly lacked a tape counter but even more so, still no bloomin’ power switch!). But no more would you need to faff around with an external tape deck, it should all just work straight away (and usually did)!

ZX Spectrum +2, released 1986

The following year saw one final new Spectrum launched, the +3 (and for cost reasons, a reworked +2 using the +3’s core internals, named +2A on screen but not on the case), to be sold alongside the +2A at an initial £249 (soon dropped to £199 however). The +3 was the first and only true Sinclair-branded Spectrum to feature a built-in floppy disk drive, with Amstrad opting for the relatively non-standard 3-inch drive as also used in Amstrad’s own rival computer, the CPC-6128. Amstrad was said to have used this drive over the much more common 3.5-inch drive for, unsurprisingly, cost reasons.

Other than the disk drive, the +3 offered little new over the +2 apart from a bunch of unfortunate bugs and incompatibilities as Amstrad’s redesign to incorporate the disk drive’s +3DOS operating system (and enable the new machine to optionally boot up in CP/M) along with other sundry changes and tweaks to the internal core design caused a small number of existing software titles and hardware to no longer operate correctly or at all. Most notable among these is the ZX Interface 1, thus rendering the ZX Microdrives unusable on the +3 (and +2A) despite remaining compatible with all previous Spectrums. This combined with a design defect that lead to garbled sound on early units, the dearth of titles produced on floppy disks and the relatively high cost compared to the otherwise equally-as-good +2 meant the +3 was never as successful as any of the previous machines and production of it ended in 1990.

ZX Spectrum +3, released 1987

But collectively the Spectrum 128K, +2, and +3 were relatively simple upgrades to what remained fundamentally an early 1980s design. With the age of 16-bit home computing arriving with the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga in 1985, it was viewed by many as too little, too late even at launch, even if all the 128K Spectrum models continued to stick to the original Sinclair values of undercutting other mainstream rivals and remaining easy to set up and use.

The +2 remained in production until 1992 when declining sales spelt the Spectrum’s demise (which by then was at revision +2B, apt for when this slightly Shakespeare-esq named model met with the slings and arrow of outrageous (mis)fortune by being canned!).

I carried on using my Spectrum 128K until the mid-90s during which time I had moved to the PC as my “go-to” computer for doing stuff in general and for playing games.

Over the years that followed I sadly lost that Spectrum and the huge collection of games I had for it but about a decade ago whimsy and a hawk-eyed scouring of eBay one day lead me to pick up a Spectrum +2 and some games, boxed in pretty good condition for a good price. I had to fix the keyboard on it and it currently

Pacmania on the ZX Spectrum, NAMCO/Grandslam Entertainments

has some distorted sound issues that it didn’t have when I bought it, but otherwise still works well for a machine made in 1987 and occasionally puts in an appearance on campus at “end of year” weeks where I’ll boot up Pacmania on it and let befuddled students play a retro game on actual real hardware they’ve usually never seen before!

Those 10 years of production for what was pretty much the same machine, save for minor enhancements, and with the later machines mostly being backwards compatible with hardware and software from the early ones is an achievement in its own right and Sir Clive Sinclair should have been rightly proud of his achievement with this machine, even if he originally wanted the machine to be taken seriously as a “proper” computer not merely as a “games machine”.

But that those 10 years also lead to thousands and thousands of kids growing up in the 80s and early 90s to later seek careers in the computer hardware, software or gaming industry is further testament to the amazing success and endearing nature of the Sinclair Spectrum and the loyal following it engendered in millions of users, but this is not where the Spectrum story ends, not by a long way…

The Imitation Game

A computer as astoundingly popular as the Spectrum yet built on such relatively low-cost and simple hardware was inevitably going to be the subject of cloning, both officially and unofficially sanctioned by Sinclair or Amstrad.

America’s Timex Sinclair 2068, released 1983

The USA had the Timex Sinclair 2068 which while being an official Sinclair Spectrum for America was sadly mostly incompatible with original Sinclair Spectrum software without the use of emulation ROMs.

Likewise, Spain’s Investrónica had both the 48K Spectrum+ and Spectrum 128K, which they helped to localise for the Spanish market while by far and away it was the Soviet Union (and later Russia) that had the largest number of unofficial clones of any other country.

The SAM Coupé
MGT’s SAM Coupé

Back in the UK, 1989 saw the partial clone known as the SAM Coupé by Miles Gordon Technology (MGT). Best known for their Spectrum disk drive add-ons, they fancied a stab at the Spectrum clone market as they saw Amstrad losing interest in the Spectrum brand and unwilling to invest in another new Spectrum, allegedly for fear of it damaging sales of their own established and successful CPC rival home computer models.

Priced at £150, the SAM Coupé was intended as a “next-generation” successor machine to the Sinclair Spectrum with a faster CPU and greatly enhanced graphics, memory and sound compared to even the 128K Spectrums, while having compatibility with the majority of 48K Spectrum software (but sadly not 128K Spectrum software) via emulation but remained based on 8-bit technology. As the world had already long begun its move into the 16-bit era, it was effectively obsolete at the time of launch and was axed just 3 years later, causing the collapse of the company (twice!) in the process.

The ZX Spectrum’s legacy today

So by 1993, there was no new Spectrum compatible machine in production in the UK and this remained the case until the latter half of the 2010s when several die-hard fans of the Spectrum, including one who worked on the design of the original and another who had been working on his own project in Brazil to produce an updated Spectrum clone (TBBlue), got together to design the first true, new “official” Sinclair Spectrum in more than 2 decades. With intellectual property rights and branding agreements obtained from Sky (now the owners of Amstrad), to ensure it was branded as a Sinclair machine and remained fully compatible and not just a clean-room engineered clone, a brand-new greatly enhanced machine was designed, funded, and produced over the course of two Kickstarter campaigns (so far!).

The Spectrum Next, designed by Rick Dickinson, in all its glory.
Spectrum Next, released 2017

Crucially, the Spectrum Next is hardware and software compatible with the original Spectrum machines, both 48K and 128K variants as its – now obsolete – Z80A processor is implemented using an FPGA chip instead of via emulation and specific modes exist in the firmware for each of the previous Spectrum variants, thus ensuring maximum compatibility. While its £300+ price tag means it’s not exactly cheap, for the many new abilities it offers (which are far in advance of the original Spectrum), it is priced similarly to how the original Spectrum was back in 1982, allowing for inflation.

The machines are in short supply and not widely available (and go for many times their original purchase price on eBay) but just go to demonstrate how popular the Sinclair Spectrum still is 40 years on! If there’s ever a 3rd Kickstarter for it, I’d love to back it and get one! That childhood love and urge to get a new Sinclair computer is back again!

The ZX Spectrum thus lives on, as actual new, real hardware you can buy still (sort of), as emulators on countless other computing platforms from the PC to the Raspberry Pi and it lives on in the many enthusiasts who are still writing new software for the Spectrum and Spectrum Next and those who produce an abundance of material on many Spectrum fan sites and YouTube channels, of which, one of the most remarkable and long-lasting must be Paul Jenkinson’s The Spectrum Show.

And for those with aging Spectrums in need of repair, like myself, there’s even still a way to get them fixed, as companies like Mutant Caterpillar offer a full repair and refurb service for your beloved Speccy!

40 years old and there’s life in the Spectrum still, here’s to the next 40 years!

Happy Birthday to the humble Speccy, now where’s that copy of Pacmania… 😁

The keyboard: your computer’s tyres?

You wouldn’t think it would be this hard, but I’m having a tough time finding a keyboard I like and realised the keyboard is possibly the most important part of a computer system, at least from an HCI perspective…

Back when I terrorised a very patient, kind, middle-aged man and the local populace of the South Manchester town I then lived in by learning to drive almost two decades ago (2006), said kind and patient driving instructor taught me many useful things that have stayed with me ever since. The concept of MSM: Mirror, Signal, Maneuver for one and the idea that your tyres are possibly the most important – and most overlooked – part of any car.

I was confused by this at first, because when he asked “What do you think is the most important part of the car?” my first thought was that it’s surely “the engine” or maybe this was a trick or philosophical or meta question or something and thus the answer would have been “the driver?”. But no it was, as he confidently proclaimed, the humble tyre. All 4 of them. He explained this was simply because no matter how powerful, fast, high-tech or amazing any car is (or isn’t!), all cars are only ever as good as their tyres. The tyre is the only “interface” a car has with the road and if you get that bit wrong the rest of the car is always compromised as a result.

I didn’t really believe it at first but I’ve only ever owned relatively small city cars with skinny tyres and my goodness, does the quality of tyre you fit to them make a difference when pootling around the frequently wet roads of Greater Manchester!

So yes, it’s good advice!

While I can’t say I’ve spent the rest of my life only buying premium tyres, I am at least a little choosy when it comes to picking replacement tyres. When I buy tyres I try to go for something with a reasonable reputation even if it’s not a premium tyre. I’ve long baulked at the prospect of paying £200+ for a tyre but I equally baulk when confronted with a £35 unknown budget brand. Buy cheap, buy twice they say, or when it comes to car tyres, buy cheap and end up in a ditch (or worse)! I’ve come to accept his advice was absolutely sage!

And y’know, I think the keyboard is the computer’s equivalent of the tyre. Getting the wrong keyboard really changes the “feel” of the computer and how pleasant it is (or isn’t) to use. But have you ever considered that or is your keyboard little more than an afterthought at best or something you’ve never even considered at worst? If it is, let me urge you to think again about them (or think for the first time, perhaps)…

I’ve been sat in front of a computer keyboard for far longer than I’ve ever been sat in front of a steering wheel, and that’s true for pretty much all of us who carve out careers in computing.

My first time in front of any computer keyboard was aged around 10 years, when I happened upon a Sinclair ZX81 in another classroom at my junior school. First struck with awe, then with envy, as I was told my class wouldn’t get to play with it that year (the school only had 1 computer and it was this other class’ for the year) I nonetheless did manage to get “a go” on it and soon owned one at home, and it sparked a love of computing that has stayed with me ever since.

It had a flat, non-tactile plastic membrane “keyboard” which is possibly easily the worst keyboard fitted to any computer in history, ever. From that, I moved swiftly to its successor, the rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum (whose keyboard jokes are both legion and legendary) and later the updated ZX Spectrum+ 128k and at last, had a computer with a “proper” keyboard (well, at least a keyboard that actually looked like a grown-up keyboard even if it was still mushy and cheap-feeling underneath, ah Sir Clive, my generation, we so loved you!).

At my secondary school, the various Research Machines computers they had all had full-sized, proper keyboards and I was starting to see that the “PC standard” keyboard (or at least, sometimes quirky approximations of it: step forward the Amstrad PCW8512 and PC 1640 I used at college later!) was where we were all going. A drab, unexciting beige rectangle of keys huddled together in vaguely logical groups and originally bested by IBM’s early design classic, the Model M.

In 1996 I took a year out from university to do my industrial placement “sandwich” year. By the way, this is something I recommend anyone contemplating a computing-related degree looks to do. Happily, here at Bolton we’ve launched a range of “sandwich” computing degrees this year so you can study with us now and still take that year out between your 2nd and 3rd year to get some vital paid industry experience!

1996 was my very first time earning money and being asked to do real things in exchange for it, it was at the head office of a large bank, in their IT department. Lots of things “blew my mind” there while in my still-impressionable and easily impressed 20s. My coworkers – and the company itself – were loyal to the IBM brand. Every desktop was an IBM something-or-other and all laptops were IBM ThinkPads (historical fact: IBM would later sell their microcomputer making division to Lenovo almost a decade later and you can still buy ThinkPad laptops and ThinkStation desktops from Lenovo today and they are still a level above most other machines in terms of quality and ease of use, in my humble opinion).

The one thing I noticed about all of these machines was that their keyboards were amazing (and, compared to modern rivals, they still are today!). So nice and comfortable to type on and not in any way the cheap, low-quality keyboards I had gotten used to during my childhood on home computers or had to put up with on generic “tier-3” PC clones at college and university. These were professional tools and they looked and felt the part. But, as I walked past the desk of a much more seasoned member of staff, I was struck by the keyboard on his desk, utterly unlike any other:

Original 1st-generation Microsoft Natural keyboard

You probably recognise this as being one of those weird and apparently impossible-to-type on Microsoft keyboards that were suddenly very popular in the mid and late 90s. And so it was, a first-generation Microsoft Natural keyboard to be precise. Otherwise known generically as an ergonomic keyboard. Oh yes, I recall our lecturer for Human-Computer Interaction showing us odd pictures of “ergonomic” and futuristic input devices as she remarked on how modern computing risked making us all sick long term just a year previously.

I asked the guy, Bob, I think his name was, what this was all about, why he had it and what it was like to type on. He stood up and invited me to sit down to try it, insisting that no explanation could ever be as good as just trying it for myself and feeling the benefits.

So I did. It was weird to type on as the split forced you to keep your hands over the right keys for each hand. Properly weird. Thankfully, I had learned how to touch type at college (Keyboarding, hmm, easiest GCSE ever back then, honestly!) and so it wasn’t a huge challenge to do that for me, but it just felt weird all the same. He let me play on it for a few minutes while he went to get a coffee and speak to his manager and by the time he came back 15 minutes later, we both realised I was typing fluidly on the keyboard and seemed to be enjoying it.

He explained that the reason for the weird design is not just to make it easier and more natural to type on but also to reduce fatigue and thus the damage you’ll do to your wrists and hands over a lifetime being stuck in front of a computer typing away on a keyboard. He explained a condition called RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) that was apparently becoming common among office workers and thus it was his employer that got him this funky looking keyboard as he had started to develop RSI and a touch of osteoarthritis to add insult to literal injury.

I was sceptical about those health benefit claims for sure but I couldn’t deny that I loved typing on that thing, more than almost any other keyboard I had used previously. Suddenly those ThinkPad keyboards seemed “meh” and as for the Model M of my office PC, I no longer loved it! It was certainly much more comfortable than any normal keyboard and my hands sat at better angles over the keys and I could feel less strain on even my (relatively) young wrists at the time. Marketing hype or not, I was sold.

A few weeks later I bought my first ergonomic keyboard, my budget couldn’t stretch to the Microsoft one (they were expensive back then, and really, still are relatively speaking today) so I went for one made by Trust:

pvdz.ee - Trust ErgoTrack
Trust Ergo Track keyboard – an early Microsoft Natural keyboard clone (NB. when new, they were completely white! 😁)

I loved it from the start even though it wasn’t quite as good as the Microsoft one I fell in love with during my placement. It also wasn’t particularly good quality and as I upgraded my PC over the next couple of years, I started to realise how keys were starting to stick and it was time to get another keyboard. So, what else was I to do? I was working as a graduate by then and thus had a bit more money to splash on a keyboard. So I bought the genuine article, albeit the latest version of it, the Microsoft Natural Elite:


Microsoft Natural Elite keyboard

It wasn’t quite as good as Microsoft’s original but way better than the Trust. This was my stalwart through most of the 2000s until one day, the right control key died suddenly. Yes, that’s it, I had lost control. (groan, ok, sorry – at least it wasn’t the Esc key or there’d had been no escape!!)

I’d no idea why it failed, I tried cleaning it, begging it, bashing it and swearing at it. Unsurprisingly, none of those things fixed it. Into the bin it went and my wrists and hands and well-established biases for Microsoft keyboards plus a desire to go for something a bit more slick and funky looking by then meant I just had to go for this, the Microsoft Comfort Curve 3000:

Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard 3000
Microsoft Comfort Curve 3000 Keyboard 

I hated this darn thing from the start! No, seriously, I did. Oddly I still have it lying around somewhere but I just hated using it. The keys were way too flat and unresponsive and it being merely gently curved – not split – just didn’t work for me. It was replaced less than a year later by this, the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000:

Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 keyboard

Despite its slightly Dilbert-esq sounding name, it was a worthy replacement, though again, still not quite as good as the Elite (Microsoft, I think there’s a pattern here!) and that became my mainstay until 2014.

By this time Microsoft’s keyboards no longer seemed to have the reputation for quality they once had and I certainly had not been all that impressed by the 4000 given its rather high cost and relatively scrappy build quality, not even 2 years in it was starting to develop problems but I kept using it, albeit it now lived at work.

I wanted to get something else for home use and not pay a fortune for it. Happily, I came across the Perixx PERIBOARD-512 for a fraction of the price of Microsoft’s keyboards:

Perixx PERIBOARD 512 keyboard

This has been a reliable workhorse, comfortable if rather clattery but nonetheless solidly reliable over 7 years. You can even still buy them today, a testament to a good design that’s been a best-seller and proven itself reliable “in the field”. Then last summer it started to get a bit sticky, the keys seemed a bit worn in places and no amount of cleaning it, lubing it and asking it nicely seemed to be helping. It was time to get a replacement.

And this, dear and patient reader, is where my troubles have truly begun.

I seemed to have forgotten the reason why I loved ergonomic keyboards in the first place, why I felt they were necessary and why I fell in love with one back in the 90s. I could have just bought another Perixx ‘512 but I wanted to go for something that was backlit as, though I don’t get much time to play it, as some of you may already know, I’m something of an Elite Dangerous fan and it’s so much nicer to play that in the dark and when you do, you really need a backlit keyboard (oh yes, you do!). So for all of these reasons and because backlit ergonomic keyboards are really hard to come by, I went for this, the Perixx PERIBOARD 324:

Perixx PERIBOARD-324 cabled keyboard with background lighting - 2 Hubs - X-Shear keys - Standard size - White background lighting
Perixx PERIBOARD 324

I really should have known but the combination of flat chiclet-style keys and its odd habit of having keys “bounce” resulting in keys registering twice ruled it out within days of receiving it. But I was still sold on the idea of a backlit keyboard and I was still forgetting about why I ever bought into ergonomic ones. So I went a bit upmarket and bought my first ever mechanical keyboard, the Lenovo Legion K500:

Lenovo Legion K500 Gaming Keyboard | Lenovo US
Lenovo Legion K500

Now, this really looks the part. The keys feel really nice, though different as mechanical vs membrane is always quite a jump. But while I liked it and said “yup, that’s a keeper” there was something I was forgetting as I was celebrating this new keyboard last December.

And that something hit me, hard, about 4 weeks ago. I have indeed spent most of my life at a keyboad and of course, inevitably my hands have still suffered from wear and tear over all those years even though I’ve spent half of those years behind an ergonomic keyboard! Osteoarthritis is what it is, most of us who use keyboards extensively will get it, even if just a little. And boy, did it flare up suddenly. It didn’t take me long to realise that the relatively poorer typing position and harder strike required on the keys was causing my fingers to get inflamed or at least wasn’t helping me at a time like this. This keyboard had to go, sadly.

It was packed back into its box (where it remains still) and I finally bought what should be keyboard heaven for me. An ergonomic keyboard WITH A BACKLIGHT! Step forward, the Perixx PERIBOARD 330:

Perixx PERIBOARD 330 backlit keyboard

This thing looks wonderful (especially in the dark!). The front can be raised so the keyboard slopes backwards (as ergonomic keyboards truly should be but seldom are), it’s backlit and it has a built-in USB hub for plugging stuff in and a 4-way trackwheel. Surely this is keyboard perfection?

No, the keys absolutely suck! Yes it’s a chiclet-style keyboard and yes that’s going to mean it’s not as nice a traditional full-travel keyboard, but the keys are totally flat hard squares of hard to press down plastic. It’s like typing on scrabble tiles but much less comfortable! Some of the keys, like the T and N keys require you hit them dead on centre otherwise they don’t go down at all. They’ve not got even the slightest bit of indentation to them meaning your fingers slip and slide over and off them by mistake when you try to type fast. A fluid typing experience it is not by any means.

4 days. That’s how long that one lasted with me before being sent back. Everyone I showed that keyboard to at the university said it was awful. Some of my own friends said things about it I couldn’t even repeat here. To get 100% hatred on something like a keyboard really takes some doing eh?!

So I’ve just bought something else, and this, while not being backlit (that dream seems to have bit the dust now) is at least an ergonomic keyboard, the Cherry KC 4500 Ergo:

CHERRY KC 4500 ERGO Corded Ergonomic Keyboard Black | Ebuyer.com
Cherry KC 4500 Ergo keyboard

This is of significantly better quality and feel than the Perixx ‘330 but still, it’s not amazing.

The keys are also flat, chiclet and without any indentation whatsoever but at least are a little easier to press and the travel of the keys is softer and with a little more feeling than the Perixx. But some of the keys are crowded together and it’s very easy to hit the wrong key or get your fingers in the wrong place as some of the keys are weirdly shaped and smaller than expected.

In short: arrrggghhh, bloomin’ heck, not again!

I’m evaluating this keyboard now given it has a 14 day “no questions asked” returns window (I’m currently on day 6!) but I’m not sure about keeping it really already. It’s much harder to type on than the Perixx ‘512 even if the palm rest is rather soothing for my wrists as I type this, which is probably the weirdest piece I’ll likely ever write for this site!

Why can’t someone just make a proper (i.e. not form-over-function chiclet) keyboard with proper backlit keys in an ergonomic format? There must be a market for it. Or maybe there’s one I just haven’t found yet. It must have a £ on the 3 key (this is the UK, don’t you know!), must be backlit and must be ergonomic. Shall I keep looking or just give up and buy another Perixx ‘512?!

So, two lessons learnt here:

  1. Finding a decent ergonomic keyboard is something of a challenge these days; and
  2. You really should try to find one, look after your wrists and hands and they’ll look after you!

Seriously, really do. Make sure you do get time away from the keyboard and look after your hands, you’ll miss them when they’ve gone! I’d still recommend you look into an ergonomic keyboard of any make, despite my troubles here. Your wrists will thank you for it later regardless of whichever one you go for.

Now, does anyone want to buy a 3-month-old Legion K500 gaming keyboard, hmm?.. please get in touch! 😉

And as for me, if you can suggest a good one, with a backlight, the comments section below is for you! I think I still need a new “tyre”…


8th April 2022 update: After 10 days of using it, I gave up on the Cherry KC 4500 and returned it for a refund. It was too uncomfortable to type on in the end, some of the keys were too small/oddly placed and the feel of the keys just wasn’t right. I’m okay with a chiclet keyboard (heck, I’ve got a modern ThinkPad laptop with easily the finest chiclet keyboard of any laptop IMHO) but this was just not good enough.

I’ve just ordered something else though (it’s very odd-looking but sadly is sans-backlight still!) and will come back to this in a few days and say and show you what it is…

28th April 2022 update: So that replacement arrived a few days later and it’s this, the Lenovo Go Wireless Split Keyboard:

Lenovo Go Wireless Split Keyboard

Now, this is significantly better, the keys are slightly scalloped and better spaced making it much nicer to type on, but still not a patch on a full-travel keyboard as it’s still a chiclet type. A little flawed though it still is, it’s actually pretty similar in feel to that of the modern Lenovo ThinkPads, even if that actual real cork wrist-rest worries me as I think one day one of my cats will realise it’s an ideal scratching mat! And actually, that wrist-rest could be more comfortable, for cork, it’s pretty hard really!

Lenovo Go Wireless Numeric Keypad
Lenovo Go Wireless Numeric Keypad

Given that it’s cost me a small fortune (relatively speaking – though University of Bolton staff and students thankfully get a 20% discount from Lenovo!) for both it and the optional wireless numeric keyboard, I’m going to have to get used to it over time – I can’t send this one back, but I don’t think I’ll be needing to, I’ll be alright…

I hope!

When “Networking” doesn’t involve routers or cables…

This week for our undergraduates, “networking” didn’t only relate to getting into the details of routers, CAT5 cables, and packet tracing as it normally would, it also related to getting out and about to meet and greet (potential) future employers at Manchester Digital’s Talent Day 2022…

One of the downsides of the Covid-19 lockdowns has undoubtedly been the axing of the many external events our students (and lecturers!) would normally be attending and getting involved with throughout the academic year.

No more true is that than when it comes to graduate recruitment fairs, in a world where we’ve all had to be 2 meters apart, such events were simply out of the question.

So I think it’s fair to say many of us were all champing at the bit for ages to get out to events again, but waiting patiently was the only thing we could have done!

Now, however, as the world returns to some kind of normality these events can take place again and so, with great enthusiasm – and a smattering of yummy snacks and gifts thrown in for good measure by the companies attending – many of our students (and a few of us lecturers!) descended on Piccadilly in Manchester to attend Talent Day 2022 on 9th February 2022.

Manchester Digital – an independent trade body for the tech and digital services sectors in Greater Manchester – brought together around 40 of the region’s pioneering and inspiring digital, creative and tech-related companies under one roof at this fantastic event (the first since the lockdowns ended I believe) for our students to meet, greet and get to know.

From small tech start-ups and businesses operating in some very niche and unusual fields to large mainstream, “household” names (Bentley, Roku, Autotrader and Iceland Stores to name but four), there truly was “something for everyone” if what you were looking for was to make those vital contacts to help you land that first graduate computing role when you leave university in just a few months time, as many of our undergraduates are about to do.

But it’s not just about graduate roles for our HE6 students. Our HE5 students came along too as many were keen to find summer work placements or even a year-long placement.

And as lecturers also, we were keen to speak to employers as not only are we looking to find even more partners in the IT sector to join those we already partner with as we’ve now launched our “sandwich” Computing degrees, but it’s also great to share with them a little about what we do: our clear ethos and relentless focus on industry-relevant teaching, our degree apprenticeships, our fantastic support, and giving all our students the best possible chance to carve out successful IT careers, as well as encouraging them to come and guest speak with us and invite our students to events they run too!

Both students and lecturers were very impressed with the event: along with all the stands offering chances to meet and greet, there were also a number of interesting and useful seminars and talks throughout the day.

For students and lecturers alike, it was informative, educational, inspirational and some very good networking was done that day, who knows where those contacts will lead in the future!

And as The University of Bolton is in the process of becoming a member of Manchester Digital itself during February 2022, one thing’s for sure: we’ll be going again next year and getting involved in many more of their events and activities!

Thank you Manchester Digital for an amazing event, see you at the next one!

Happy birthday BBC Micro

The venerable BBC micro celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

We have one in working condition in the Centre for Applied Computer Science. The University’s Head of Networks stuck his head around our office door and casually mentioned they had found a BBC Micro in a store cupboard and asked whether we wanted it. My inner teenager who had wanted a BBC since 1981 immediately said “yes please”. A few power supply capacitors needed changing and a TV with analogue input was found. The beeb made a happy chime and we were ready to go. Now what?

For those of you too young to remember the 8-bit home computer revolution in the 1980s, the BBC Micro was an important computer for home users. Most of us could not afford one, they cost almost £400 in 1981; adjusted for inflation that is a shade under £1600 today. That’s Apple money! The contemporary ZX Spectrum was a quarter of the price so most of us had those instead. It is difficult to explain just how limited the early 8-bit home computers were in modern terms.

The BBC Micro was a beast for its time. It had a full keyboard, plenty of expansion interfaces and was built without the cost saving compromises of the Spectrum. We have to remember that as an 8-bit system it was very limited. Even with 16 bits for addressing that only gives you an address space of only 64Kb. That’s right, kilobytes – not gigabytes or megabytes: 65536 memory locations. Actually it is worse than that, only half that space was available to programmers. The other 32Kb was used by the system. The 1980s gave us a special breed of programmer trying to wring every last shred of performance from these relatively limited computers.

The classic space shooter Elite

A great example of creative programming is the renowned Elite space trading (and shooting) game. Legend has it that the game used every single byte of available memory. The legend isn’t quite true, according to the dedicated BBC Elite Wiki there were actually 66 bytes of unused memory! There is a famous hack used in this game which is very impressive. The BBC micro had a number of graphics modes with different capabilities. One mode allows (relatively) high resolution graphics with a limited number of colours. Another offers more colours at much lower resolution. Elite wanted both! The above picture shows a high res, low colour spaceship in wireframe view in the top part of the screen and a low res full colour console at the bottom.

As detailed in the Elite Wiki the programmers exploited the way screens refresh faster than our eyes can follow. On a UK screen running at 50Hz the image is drawn from top to bottom. The programmers calculated how many clock ticks it would take to get 3/4 of the way down the screen. They set a timer running at the start of each screen load and put the graphics into the high res low colour mode. When the timer expired 3/4 of the way through drawing the screen it generated an interrupt and the graphics mode was switched to the high colour mode for the rest of the screen before switching back and resetting the clock for the next frame.

Elite Dangerous (2014) by Frontier Developments

Andrew Holland who regularly writes here is a big fan of the current Elite Dangerous game (available on Steam if you are interested). It has all the high end graphics and performance that the original lacked. In every way it is a better game. You could not squeeze it in to 32k of memory though.

“November to Remember” enters its 3rd amazing week!

What a fantastic week it’s been for our Our November to Remember series of guest lectures series.

This week has seen two more great speakers, you can watch them below and catch up with all of them from our official YouTube channel:

Winning CV and Business Growth with Chidinma Maduka, MBA, ACIPM, SWP
Internet of Things: End-to-End Research Overview. The Ambient Assisted Living Environment with Dr. Eng. Christos P. Antonopoulos

Hackathon 2021 with Bolton Council: Data-Digging for the local environment!

What a busy and exciting week it’s been!

This week saw our inaugural annual Bolton data hackathon as students from our computing degrees organised themselves into teams to rise to the challenge thrown down to them by our friends at Bolton Council: discover something new relating to the local environment by “digging deep” into complex open data sets to truly turn data into meaningful and insightful information.

Students at all levels, from first-year undergraduates to postgraduates, set to work over the two-day event to sift, sort, shape, examine and explore a variety of complex datasets during what proved to be an enlightening, challenging and entertaining event for everyone.

7 teams presented their conclusions and the members of the top 3 teams who were judged as having produced the best outcomes, were awarded £50 Amazon gift vouchers each.

But not only were cash prizes up for grabs, the top-scoring team’s lucky members also get the opportunity of several work experience days at Bolton Council to learn more about how computing shapes and supports what the council does in many different ways.

The winning teams were:

1st Place – Team Mountain (Nathan Barron, Ike Igweze, Umara Akhtar, Ash-Lee Ashton, Nitesh Pandit)

2nd Place – Team Ctrl Alt Delete ( Josh Price, Alison McCaughtrie)

3rd Place – Team Data Miners (Isa Hussain, Faizaan Mohmed, Subodh Shah, Anis Patel, Abimbola Abatan-Balagun)

Our hard-working and creative winners, Team Mountain!

Well done to them and to everyone who took part!

This is a great outcome and shows once again that The University of Bolton truly has a focus on graduate employability as those experience days will greatly add to their CVs and give them valuable insight into the working world and the work of local councils.

Thanks again to the amazing people at Bolton Council and Data Mill North who helped us to make this possible, we look forward to seeing you again in 2022!

Who knows what the theme will be next year, but one thing’s for certain: our students will love taking part!

Can they dig it? Yes, they can! 😉

“November to Remember” powers on into its second week!

What a fantastic week it’s been for our Our November to Remember series of guest lectures series.

This week has seen two more great speakers, you can watch them below and catch up with all of them from our official YouTube channel:

Business creativity and Innovation with Christopher Agbamuche,Vice President Bank of America. USA
Research and Publication Experiences with Dr. Thippa Reddy Gadekallu

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