Sinclair launched the ZX Microdrive in July 1983. True to Sinclair’s philosophy of miniaturisation and low-cost, it promised a cheap, high-speed storage system using miniature tape cartridges. Unfortunately the Microdrive didn’t take off as well as Sinclair hoped, dogged by unreliability and also the high cost of the tape cartridges.
The Microdrive (and accompanying ZX Interface 1) are sought after in the current Sinclair retro-scene, be it by completist collectors, those who used it back in the day or those who wanted one and never had the chance to own one. With the arrival of the vDriveZX, there is now the opportunity to own a new Microdrive that doesn’t rely on the vagaries of ageing tape cartridges.
The vDriveZX is a new device which is capable of emulating the ZX Microdrive – it provides one or more virtual drives, hence the name. It also provides the software tools to manage these virtual drives and tape cartridge images, in .mdr format, from the ZX Spectrum itself. The information related to the virtual drives and cartridge images are stored on SD card.
Housed in an existing Microdrive housing the vDriveZX can be connected to the ZX Spectrum via the ZX Interface 1. An excellent manual is provided with the vDriveZX clearly explaining the principles, operation and use of the vDriveZX. Also covered, and showing that the vDriveZX is likely to gain further features in the future, is how to easily upgrade the firmware. This is literally a case of having the new software on the SD card in the vDriveZX and typing .UPDATE – a considerable improvement over the process used during testing!
Up to eight Microdrives can be emulated, each with a different cartridge image. Using the software toolkit provided with the vDriveZX, additional virtual drives can be easily added or removed to suit. In addition to this the toolkit provides Bank commands which in simple terms load a previously saved set of images to the virtual drive. An example is that you could have four drives setup as word processor, current documents, archive documents and an empty drive, but by using the Bank commands, you can instantly switch to four drives, each with a game on, ready to play. Further toolkit commands provide for directory control, deletion and renaming.
In use the vDriveZX is pretty much indistinguishable from using a “real” ZX Microdrive as it uses the existing commands used for the ZX Microdrive in Sinclair BASIC. The main differences are the lack of noise from the motor, as it is no longer present, and faster access times as the correct file no longer needs to be found on a physical cart. When loading a file from vDriveZX, you now get a change in the activity LED and a short beep from the vDriveZX, which can be turned off. Creating a new, empty cartridge image can prove a shock to seasoned ZX Microdrive owners, used to perhaps 90KB of cartridge capacity on a good day – the images created on the vDriveZX format to 127KB! (or 126KB, it does depend on the ROM version in your ZX Interface 1)
The vDriveZX works quite happily alongside real ZX Microdrives. Depending on how many virtual drives you have created on the vDriveZX, the physical Microdrive takes the next logical position along. It was quite easy to copy from real microdrive cartridge to virtual image. Once done, the SD card can be removed and the .mdr image created can be stored on a PC and used with the many emulators available. It is this particular function that may also be of interest to those preserving microdrive software. The reverse is also quite true as it was very easy to copy a .mdr image onto a real cartridge. A Multiface 1 was also used to create a “backup” of a game to an image on the vDriveZX, something that the Multiface was created for 33 years ago.
When it come to compatibility, the vDriveZX has been tested and works with the 16/48k Spectrum, Spectrum +, Spectrum 128k (toastrack) and Spectrum 128k +2. A version of the vDriveZX is also being released for the Sinclair QL.
The vDriveZX is an excellent addition to the growing range of modern peripherals available for the ZX Spectrum, providing the ZX Microdrive experience without the need to worry about re-felting cartridges or the potential of a jammed tape cartridge. If you want to try the ZX Microdrive then the vDriveZX is the modern way to do it.
Disclaimer: Will Woodvine has been testing the vDriveZX to aid development for the creator, Charles Ingley.
vDriveZX website: https://vdrivezx.com/