Happy Birthday, Sinclair QL - 28 years today

Happy Birthday, Sinclair QL - 28 years today

Summary: It was a time before the GUI, when computers were micros, when memory was measured in kilobytes and storage strategy meant choosing whether to buy a second five and a quarter inch floppy drive. It was eleven days before the launch of the Apple Macintosh.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

It was a time before the GUI, when computers were micros, when memory was measured in kilobytes and storage strategy meant choosing whether to buy a second five and a quarter inch floppy drive. It was eleven days before the launch of the Apple Macintosh. It was 12 January, 1984: the day of the Sinclair QL.

For those who weren't born then, the QL was the quintessence of Sinclair Research — home of the ZX 81 and ZX Spectrum. Sleek, black and impractical, it had some really good ideas overshadowed by some really bad ones.


The only TV advert for the QL, made for a 1985 relaunch. But what was an Apple Mackintosh?

Sinclair's business machine, the QL came with a four-pack of productivity software from an up-and-coming software company called Psion — Abacus spreadsheet, Archive database, Easel business graphics and Quill word processor, bundled together as Xchange. It was one of the first mass-market micros with a 32 bit processor; a Motorola 68008. It had 128k of memory, pretty good for the time, and a well-specified if quirky BASIC with a windowing graphics system and a multitasking operating system.

Those were the good ideas. The bad ones — ah, the bad ones. Storage was limited to Microdrives, Sinclair's proprietary inch-square tape loops, that were slow and unreliable. The 32-bittedness of the 68008 was shoehorned into an 8-bit bus that comprehensively ruined performance. The graphics were quirky; no hardware assistance meant that the CPU did just about everything, slowing things down even more. The video signal was just outside normal standards: if you didn't buy a monitor but used a TV, it might not work.

Worst of all, though, was that the QL was launched before the hardware or firmware were finished. There were bugs in both, and the operating system was too big to fit in the QL's ROMs so early models came with the infamous dongle; an extra memory card that stuck out of the back of the machine in a flimsy plastic box. That's if you could get a computer: although Sinclair took orders at launch, the first production models only struggled out of the company in April.

Within Sinclair Research, the QL was not much loved. There was an unofficial ban on any conversation starting "What the QL should have been was...", and anyone caught mournfully balancing a 3.5" floppy drive above the microdrive slots was ostracised until lunchtime.

Sales drooped, money was lost in astronomical amounts, and it proved to be the company's last significant launch. After a couple of Spectrum revamps, Sinclair Research crumbled into dust leaving Alan Sugar to hoover up the brand (and yours truly).

These days, the QL is mostly famous for being Linus Torvald's first computer — and the one that persuaded him to buy an IBM-compatible PC. Psion is mostly famous for having spawned, at some remove, Symbian. And Clive Sinclair is known, perhaps unfairly, as being another example of Why Britain Can't Make Stuff.

(Thanks to Urs Koenig for pointing out the anniversary)

Topic: Emerging Tech

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • God knows why they were so obsessed with the Microdrive, it was awful even when it did work.

    You think SR would have learned their lesson regarding delivery times from the ZX-Spectrum, the Advertising Standards Authority actually banned them from 'promising' a 30 day delivery time because so many people complained about waitng months on end for their purchase.

    Clive Sinclair wasn't a great entrepreneur, more a crank inventor who occasionally came up with a gadget that was actually ok and came up with it at the right time. He just could not (cannot) seem to see that some things are not commercially viable. Even when he did get it right he usually made a pigs ear of the marketing and manufacturing.

    It's a pity he didn't work for someone like Alan Sugar, he could have banged out gadget after gadget and (Sir) Alan could have cherry picked the ones that were viable & marketed them professionally. just imagine if the Sinclair pocket calculator had emerged by that route? The UK would be THE world leader in that sort of technology today!
  • I remember that a friend of mine waited for ages to buy one one of these with a plan to write a book with it. The trouble he had doing that (once the machine finally arrived) doesn't bear remembering - and the book was rubbish too....
    Manek Dubash
  • I remember the glossy QL brochure * that fell out of a copy of Personal Computer World. There were some order forms in the back promising early delivery (I think). It also said that if you didn't have enough credit on your credit card Sinclair could arrange an increase for you!

    And as some commentators pointed out at the time, 'quantum' really means very small!

    (* I got a fiver for it on eBay a while ago!)