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Tricky Art Of Finding Parts For Retro Computers (Part 2)

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Specialist Sales

Of course, when it comes to sourcing specialist sellers of retro parts, the Internet is the first place to look. One such specialist source of parts is RWAP Software (www.rwapsoftware.co.uk) dealing in support for the Sinclair range of computers, including the Sinclair QL, Cambridge Z88 and ZX Spectrum. The guys behind the service have expertise and knowledge on their chosen systems in abundance, developing and improving software for Sinclair systems, while also offering a broad range of hardware, such as replacement keyboard membranes.

One such specialist source of parts is RWAP Software (www.rwapsoftware.co.uk) dealing in support for the Sinclair range of computers, including the Sinclair QL, Cambridge Z88 and ZX Spectrum

One such specialist source of parts is RWAP Software (www.rwapsoftware.co.uk) dealing in support for the Sinclair range of computers, including the Sinclair QL, Cambridge Z88 and ZX Spectrum

“Many parts simply won’t be found at these sort of more populist events, although finding whole systems might be possible”

I contacted Rich Mellor from the company to get his take on finding retro part and he told me that the biggest problem is that many items; microchips in particular, just aren’t made any more.

“Although you can sometimes find similar chip on offer from suppliers in the Far East and the USA, Rich tells us, “The minimum order quantities, coupled with carriage and import duties, can make this an expensive exercise, particularly in the case of retro computers, as often the code was cutting edge for the time, and may require specific tolerances within the chips, or even undocumented features.”

Sinclair ZX81

Sinclair ZX81

In the case of RWAP Software, in the past it has arranged for some parts to be reverse engineered in order to solve its customers’ problems. “This is of course much easier for non-electrical components, such as cases, or even keyboard membranes where the original details can be worked out. When it comes to custom made chips, if there is no detailed source code or documentation available, then you are normally left with either obtaining supplies from second hand equipment or completely re-engineering based on what the chip needs to achieve.”

Mellor told me about a particularly interesting example of the problem of sourcing retro parts: the case of the ZX-ULA2 board for the Sinclair ZX81. In this instance, the original ZX81 ULA (Uncommitted Logic Array – a pre- fabricated chip that was customized to Sinclair’s design) was no longer available, and any second-hand supplies might struggle with modern televisions. “To address this issue”, he explained, “The designer considered what the ULA does for the ZX81 and how this may be modeled within a CPLD [Complex Programmable Logic Device], and even improved upon it to provide additional functionality. As a result, the ZX-ULA2 was born, which uses modern, easily obtainable parts, to provide the ZX81 with a replacement ULA, which has composite video out, plus a Turbo mode to make the ZX81 run even more quickly. The use of a CPLD meant that design times were reduced, as the functionality could be tested out in software, and the chip could be re-programmed easily to overcome any minor issues in the original design.”

 
The ZX-ULA2 was born, which uses modern, easily obtainable parts, to provide the ZX81 with a replacement ULA, which has composite video out, plus a Turbo mode to make the ZX81 run even more quickly

The ZX-ULA2 was born, which uses modern, easily obtainable parts, to provide the ZX81 with a replacement ULA, which has composite video out, plus a Turbo mode to make the ZX81 run even more quickly

The company has also been instrumental in getting replacement keyboard membranes reverse engineered for a range of computers, including the ZX Spectrum, ZX80, ZX81, QL, Enterprise 64 and the Sam Coupe. Developing strong supplier relationships has been the key, says Rich: “It has helped that we have built up a good relationship with a company based in Scotland, who are happy to produce short production runs- so that we can get more limited numbers made if necessary, or even produce them on a just in time basis.”

 
The ZX Spectrum

The ZX Spectrum

That company is Mekall (www.mekall.com), which RWAP Software uses because of its willingness to produce small production runs rather than the thousands of units a typical minimum order for parts might require. Rich said: “They obviously take pride in their products and we are glad to work with them in continuing support for 1980s computers such as the Sinclair ZX81, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Sam Coupe.”

Sell My Retro

Interestingly, one website cropped up many times among the various parties I contacted about sourcing retro parts – www.sellmyretro.com. Sell My Retro is a trading website aimed at retro and vintage computer collectors, but offering something a little more specific than eBay would. It’s completely free to list items for sale (the site charges final value fees) and items can be listed wither at a fixed price or sold as a standard auction item.

 
Sell My Retro is a trading website aimed at retro and vintage computer collectors, but offering something a little more specific than eBay would

Sell My Retro is a trading website aimed at retro and vintage computer collectors, but offering something a little more specific than eBay would

A quick look at the site’s categories showcases the various items that are up for grabs. Take your pick from keyboard membranes, zip disks, old games and replacement plastic case rivets. It’s a simple enough process. For example, at the time of writing you could buy a brand new conversion kit if you’re bought a ZXpand Interface for use with your Sinclair ZX81 home computer, you’d be looking at $52.85. Put your bid in, as with any other auction site, and if you get lucky, it’s yours. It’s a no-frills site, for sure, but for a wealth of parts at your fingertips, it’s easy to understand why it’s rated so highly among the retro buyers’ community.

Another site that was recommended to me is www.rewind-bits.co.uk, which offers up bits chiefly for the console gamers among you. Whether it’s Atari, the Sega mega System or the Commodore 64, this has parts from replacement hinges, cables and voltage regulators, right up to case shells, screens and stylus pen replacements.

The Parts Are Out There

You’ll find plenty of other sites offering parts for older, classic systems and consoles, too- nobody is going to tell you to avoid the number one online auction site everybody knows all too well, for example – but I’ve stuck within these two sites for now, as they came recommended from the guys I spoke with and, as they’re the chaps in the know, I’d be a fool not to go with what they say.

However you choose to source your retro parts, whether it’s in person at a computer fair, shopping online via auction sites or via the likes of specialists such as RWAP Software, make sure you share your experiences with others on forums, whether those experiences are positive or negative. Specialist disciplines such as this thrive and survive on the feedback of the general public so if you’ve sourced a part form a cracking source; you really ought to let others know. After all, isn’t that what makes the retro computing community so great?

 

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