The Retroleum SMART card interface is a combined SD card reader, Kempston compatible joystick interface, and diagnostic tool for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum - and with a price tag of £23.99 it certainly looks like a good way to start modernising a Spectrum set up.
When I first got a Spectrum running after... well, a few years, after that moment of euphoria when it not only looked good in all its rubber-keyed glory, but also successfully loaded and played a game, I went back to my long archived box of Spectral goodness in search of a joystick. I found several; some had survived the years and three house moves better than others, but regrettably neither of the necessary interfaces were still in good order.
It was as I weighed up the likelihood of acquiring more unservicable junk from eBay and the cost of a new replacement that the SMART came to my attention - and although my immediate requirement was for a joystick interface, the idea of loading games straight from an SD card had a certain appeal -and at the price, it seemed like a bargain. But is it any good?
Well, my first thought was that it was a tight fit in the Spectrum's I/O port; that, combined with it being a naked circuitboard made me a little wary of breaking it before it was even plugged in, but that was probably just paranoia. As long as it's lined up properly there's no problem plugging it in, and once it's in place there's no real reason to disconnect it. The tight fit becomes a good thing at this point, especially if you've ever pulled your joystick interface loose during a particularly frantic game of Spitfire 40.
Loading straight from SD loses some of the retro experience, but it works a treat, and is a definite winner for speed and convenience. The SMART only load .sna files, which are not as easily obtainable as some Spectrum file types, but there are workrounds - I loaded up some of my favourite games in Spectaculator and saved them as .sna files from there. I can't say I've had a 100% success record that way, and there may well be easier ways, but that worked with the tools I had available and I've successfully played more games than have crashed, so I'd say it's a thumbs up there.
The SMART has a built in reset button - something which was lacking from the rubber-keyed Spectrum, requiring tedious unplugging whenever you wanted to change games. With the SMART plugged in, a quick button push and you're back at the SD menu. Amazingly convenient! With the SMART connected your Spectrum will default to the SD menu when switched on, but by changing the settings of some jumper switches on the SMART this can be disabled, allowing the Spectrum to start up in BASIC, ready for games to be loaded the old fashioned way (if the digital file is corrupted or unavailable), while the SMART acts purely as a Kempston compatible joystick interface.
As a joystick interface it was a bit hit and miss at first, but after trying a selection of controllers I found one that worked well enough. I'm putting this down to old and abused joysticks rather than a problem with the interface; since then I've picked up another second-hand joystick (from a charity shop in, rather brilliantly, Kempston), which feels pretty sound so I'm hoping that will give me another option when I get to try it out. Still, it fulfilled the purpose I bought it for, so definite thumbs up there!
The diagnostic tools were something of a bonus, but as I have a couple of non-functioning Spectrums, I decided to plug it into one and see what happened. The diagnostic ROM is accessed by changing the jumper settings again, and boots the Spectrum into a series of tests, the results of which are expressed both on screen and by different beeper tones (for when your Spectrum is too far gone to display anything intelligent on the screen). This identified a dodgy RAM chip, which I was then able to replace and have a spare Spectrum at hand. Thumbs up again!
All in all, a great little piece of kit - for my purposes, the only slight flaw being the lack of support for .tzx files and the extra messing around that involved. Also bear in mind that the SMART will not physically fit the larger 128K Spectrum models. There are probably more comprehensive diagnostic tools and more flexible SD card readers available; and as each Retroleum card is lovingly hand-crafted by a bloke called Phil on his kitchen table (probably), delivery can take a few days - but even so you can't argue with the value for money it provides. There can't be many ways to improve the Sinclair gaming experience for the same money.
The Retroleum SMART Card Interface is available from http://store.retroleum.co.uk/spectrum-peripherals, currently priced at £23.99 plus postage, and comes highly recommended.