Friday, February 03, 2017

Simple Start to Retrofitting a ZX81


My Sourced ZX81 was Modified for the American Market
Having played around with emulating the ZX81 as part of building a Raspberry PI / Arduino platform in the AZ15, I thought it might be fun to revisit the real device.

To start I'd be needing a ZX81, a process that proved trickier than anticipated. There should be no shortage of ZX81s in Australia, yet they seem sparse enough to command high-ish prices, high enough to send me searching further afield. European and UK prices again seemed rather expensive, particularly if including postage. So to the USA then, a Timex 1000 would be just as acceptable, in the end I found a reasonably priced American fitted out ZX81, obviously sent to the new world before the official deal between Timex and Sinclair.

So what exactly can be done to update and bring a ZX81 into the now? Well, there is a great deal of information out there concerning the upgrading, modifying and repairing of ZX81s. Should you decide to do everything from scratch the information and resources are available. However the really good news is that many of the parts required for a refurbishment and upgrade can be bought right off the shelf.

New or Replacement Power Supply

Before even turning on my ZX81 for the first time (in my possession at least) I needed a power supply, my unit came sans power brick. While I had no option but to source a new supply, it's recommended that even if you still have an original Sinclair unregulated power brick that you should still replace it with a switch mode equivalent.

An original Sinclair unit is rated at 9V, however as the supply is unregulated that can get as high as 12V, this leaves the ZX81s internal regulator doing all the heavy lifting. Governing the required 5v (down from 12V) leads to an excessive amount of heat being generated inside the case.

You can use a regulated power supply of anywhere between 7.5V and 9V with a minimum 1000mA (1 Amp ) current draw. The easiest or most available substitution seems to be regulated 9V supply. The power supply should also have 3.5mm phono plug jack plug at the business end. Power input of +7.5V to +9V should be at the tip of the plug, with the lower / outer ring being ground.

I picked up an appropriate Switchmode Plugpack 9VDC 1.66A from Jaycar (Australian Electronics Chain), the unit provided a variety of jacks that can be substituted as or if required. Similar Plugpacks should be available just about everywhere. Ebay often seems to have packs marketed as being specifically for the ZX81.

Optionally a power switching cable can be added between the supply and the ZX81. This will save some wear and tear on the ZX81s power socket These can be made easily enough, or purchased from specialist suppliers such as the Retro Sparse Shop, that's if you don't want the hassle of tracking down appropriate parts yourself and in all actuality might prove more cost effective.

Composite Video Output

The second thing in need of attention is the video signal. as the combination of modern (not the best quality admittedly) LED TV and RF signal emitting from the ZX81 is terrible to say the least.

There are various video mod available that will provide composite video out, ranging from ones that you can build yourself to others ready to fit into the case with minimal fuss. I've gone with an off the shelf fix in the form of the ZX8-CCB, a video mod created by the venerable Pokemon. The ZX8-CCB is available from The Sell My Retro website. Before going into the fitting of the ZX8-CCB, lets quickly look at other composite video mods.

If you choose to build your own then it would be hard to do better than the mod by Joulesper Coulomb detailed in the YouTube video, 'ZX81 Video Conditioning'. A lot of effort has gone into the mod, and spectacular results have been achieved, which can clearly be seen in the video. Minimal parts are required to undertake the modification, it is easily assembled on strip board and once built, the entire project can be housed in the existing ZX81s modulator case.

There are slightly easier mods to build yourself, most of these use a single transistor and a some resistors, such as the simple mod by the ZX-TEAM. You can see the results of that video modification on Terry Stewart's (retro computer collector extraordinaire) web page. However, these simple mods may not work so well with earlier issues of the ZX81 due to a missing back porch signal, and possibly leaving the resulting picture a little on the dark side.

For off the shelf options, there is the Atari (yes you read that correctly) composite video mod for the ZX81, sold by The Future was 8 bit. Dave Curran on his Tynemouth Software Blog, details the fitting of this interface to great effect. Lastly (of course there are bound to be more), there is the Sinclair ZX81 ZXVid - Composite Video/ULA Fix, available from Sell My Retro. You can see the results of this mod on the YouTube video ZX81 - ZXVid board, Composite mod.

Fitting the ZX8-CCB

The process of fitting the ZX8-CCB is very well documented in the instruction sheet supplied with the kit. There is no assembly of the kit required, and it's down to a little soldering to the ZX81.

To start, it's simply a matter of attaching the input wires to the back of the ZX81 circuit board: red wire +5V to ULA pin 40, the black wire 0V to ULA pin 34 and the yellow wire to video In at ULA pin 16.

For the output wires you have a choice to make, either integrating a small video jack (3.5mm) between the two cover parts (as suggested in the instructions sheet), or re-purpose the modulator casing. The second option is what I decided to go with.

In order to fit the ZX8-CCB into the modulator case, the case needs to be removed from the ZX81 circuit board. There are 2 or 3 wires going into the side of modulator, these can be trimmed of at the base, or de-soldered. Also there are two large pins directly underneath the modulator, these hold the modulator unit in place. These also need to be de-soldered to remove the modulator from the ZX81s circuit board.

Once the modulator casing is free from the ZX81 you can then set about removing the existing contents (though a combination of cutting and de-soldering). What's inside the box will vary depending on the modulator, on PAL models there is a cross bar and the main circuit board to remove, as I have a USA model there was no crossbar.

ZX81-CCB Input Wires Soldered at the Back to the ZX81 Circuit Board

After the modulator has been gutted it can then be re-attached to the main circuit board, with the ZX8-CCB placed inside the casing affixed with a square of double sided tape. The remaining wires are then attached: brown wire for video out to the center of the phono socket, and the the black wire 0V to to the side of the modulator casing.

ZX81-CCB housed insdie the Modulator Case. (Wires latter moved to run through vaccant holes in the casing)

In the initial fitting I had the three wires which are soldered to the ZX81s circuit board running over the side of the modulator casing. With the modulator lid placed back over the top, this was perfectly serviceable but looked a little untidy. I latter decided to move these wires and have them running through the now vacant holes (of which there are three) on the side of the modulator.

Composite Results

So what of the results? In a word 'amazing'. It is unfortunate that I don't have a CRT TV laying around to give the proper picture, though even upscaled through a composite to VGA converter box the clarity is almost as clear as on many an emulators, it's certainly the best video I've even seen emanating from a ZX81.

After Composite Video Mod (with a little HRG graphic teaser)

Of course I'm not the only one to have retrofitted a ZX8-CCB to a ZX81, these things sell like hotcakes. And as is the way with these thing, half way through typing up this post I found another blog post detailing a similar install of a ZX8-CCB. I'd suggest checking out Kevin Phillip's entry 'Rejuvenating My Geriatric Childhood Friend' for extra information. The better you're informed before making any medications there better.

Next Time

There are a couple more modifications I'm wanting to make, along with a couple of interface addons to try out. (Hint one of the is in the final picture). I'll get around to detailing those and more soon.

See  Part 2 and Part 3

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  1. Where cab I buy the ZX8-CCB?

    1. They come up for sale on sell my retro: There ae other options like the ZXVid that do a similar job which are also avaliable on the site.