ZX-VGA-JOY - A fabulous speccy hardware review by dakidski!


Away from all the gaming reviews and articles, today I shall be looking at with an exclusive review of a new piece of hardware for our retro gaming systems called the ZX-VGA-JOY; a new peripheral for all ZX Spectrums, Sinclair and Amstrads alike which allows the user to connect any kind of VGA monitors, Kempston joystick and computer reset, across a multitude of screen modes and much much more!

The product is produced by Goran Radan and presented on zx-vga-joy.com.  It is manufactured in Croatia at the Elmar Electronic plant. ZX-VGA-JOY is sold by sintech-shop.co.uk, sintech-shop.de and sintech-ship.cz ( http://zx-vga-joy.com/choose-web-shop/ .)

ZX-VGA-JOY top side close-up photo. Neat looking interface.
Initial impression

It is gorgeously designed, in fact the best looking modern ZX-accessory I’ve come across. Both the top of the bottom of the interface is covered by black plates. The top plate has logos and descriptive text on it. The bottom plate has what looks like ventilation holes, probably just a design choice. The unit it clipped together by some kind of plastic thingys. Check out the excellent detailed product photos on zx-vga-joy.com! ( http://zx-vga-joy.com/ ) It comes shipped in professional looking packaging, which adds to the overall positive impression of the product.

ZX-VGA-JOY has, as the name implies, VGA-out, a Kempston joystick port, as well as a button which doubles for various functions – such as system menu or system reset. Unlike some of its competitors, the interface draws power from the ZX-bus, and thus you don’t need a separate or external power supply of any kind. Nice!

ZX-VGA-JOY and various other interfaces for the 48k ZX Spectrum.

What it says on the box

Product description from the website:
“Features:
CRT and LCD VGA monitors
7 screen modes :
640×480 @ 50Hz, 640×480 @ 60Hz, 640×480 @ 75Hz, 640×480 @ 85Hz and 800×600 @ 60Hz with 3 different zooms
Synchronized with ULA
Kempston Joystick interface (can be disabled/enabled)
Computer Reset button
Compatibile with all Sinclair and Amstrad models
Settings adjusment with icon menu
micro USB connector (under top cover) for firmware update
Low power consumption”

ZX-VGA-JOY can zoom the image by minimizing the border area. This image captures the amazing power of this new peripheral. This is what you get if you choose to invest in a unit.
No borders

ZX-VGA-JOY is about the same size as a normal ZX interface, fitting the width of the ZX Spectrum Bus/edge connector. On all models of ZX Spectrum it instantly gives a glorious vibrant picture, which to be honest looks even better than the HDMI-out from the ZX Spectrum Next! I postulate this (uh, I’m SO controversial!) because ZX-VGA-JOY has a special ‘zoom-mode’, where the central part of the ZX Spectrum screen is zoomed in to only show a minimal part of the border area. This greatly increases the gaming screen real-estate, so it almost feels like you are playing your Spectrum in a big cinema! (Please see the photos to understand what I mean.)

For me, it is certain the most enjoyable way thus far to play Spectrum games, and they really shine (and are more fun) in such a huge format. It really blows you away. It also makes me wonder why ZX Spectrum Next and other clones haven’t introduced such a feature (or if they did, why I wasn’t informed about such a feature.)

I never realized how annoying and useless the border was, until I got the ZX-VGA-JOY!

Using the ZX-VGA-JOY on various ZX Spectrum models

I’ve tested the ZX-VGA-JOY on five different models of ZX Spectrums & clones, and on three different monitors that accept VGA. I will list my experience with each model below:

Look! My original 80's datasette + azimuth bent screwdriver! I kept them all these years. Note: Photo taken during sunshine, so the monitor image doesn't look as vibrant as it actually appears in normal light conditions.
ZX Spectrum 48k, rubber keys, composite modded

In the time before ZX-VGA-JOY, the best picture quality you could get out of a standard ZX Spectrum was composite video. And even with composite mods, you would still get artifacts such as color bleeding, those loved & hated ‘running colors’. - NOT with this new interface though!

As with all the speccys I tested this peripheral on, it has a perfect fit into the ZX Bus, no wobble, no worries. The VGA-cable can be screwed into the socket if you like stability.

There is only one single downside to this interface. It has no ZX Bus pass-through in the back. So if you want to use a DivMMC, or similar device to quick-load your games, then you need to use a DivMMC model that comes with its own pass-through, and THEN plug the ZX-VGA-JOY into the back of that.

You could also try ZX-VGA-JOY with a ZX-bus expander, which allows more interfaces to be plugged into the ZX Spectrum at the same time. I personally have no experience with Bus-expanders, but a user called Joggy on the German forum tlienhard reports that this combination works fine. Joggy has tested the ZX-VGA-JOY with a bus expander and both the DivMMC Enjoy and DivIDE CF. He reports it as working fine with both devices, and he has tested it on seven different ZX Spectrums and clones. ( http://forum.tlienhard.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?p=40032#p40032 )

Since I couldn’t plug in my 2014 DivMMC Enjoy model, I ended up using the normal audio-in port of the Spectrum, loading the games through a good old cassette deck.

 Just Speccy 128 with SLAM ULA. Note: Photo taken during sunshine, so the monitor image doesn't look as vibrant as it actually appears in normal light conditions.

Just Speccy 128 Issue 3 (yellow) with SLAM 128 ULA

Works without any issues! Since I could load from the built-in DivMMC, I didn’t need to worry about multiple interfaces in the ZX Bus.

Since Just Speccy 128 comes with built-in Kempston Joystick, I couldn’t use the Kempston port on the ZX-VGA-JOY. The Spectrum apparently refuses to work with two Kempston interfaces, creating a conflict. So in order to use the built-in Kempston on the Just Speccy 128, I first need to disable the Kempston in the ZX-VGA-JOY menu system. This is very easy though. Even though the RGB Scart picture from the Just Speccy 128 is great, the VGA picture is even nicer. Also, using the ZX-VGA-JOY, I can apply the 'zoom-mode' to increase my gaming real-estate.

I'd recommend the ZX-VGA-JOY to all Just Speccy 128 users. But read more below.

My second Just Speccy 128 with +2 ULA. It doesn't work with the ZX-VGA-JOY. Note: Photo taken during sunshine, so the monitor image doesn't look as vibrant as it actually appears in normal light conditions.

Just Speccy 128 Issue 3 (green) with +2 ULA

This Just Speccy 128 has an original +2 ULA, I believe ripped from a grey model. (The identification print on the ULA-chip is “Amstrad 4005’.) I've always had minor issues with this particular machine, and even get ULA Rain on certain software! I don't know whether to blame the ULA, or this unique Just Speccy 128 assembly.

But, the ZX-VGA-JOY doesn't work with this ZX clone. All I get is garbage on the screen.

I feared that this Just Speccy 128 had broken down, since it didn’t work with the new interface. So I immediately double-tested it on my living room television using RGB Scart. Luckily it worked just fine. Phew. Still, I don’t know why it won’t play with ZX-VGA-JOY.

Again user Joggy of tlienhard comes to the rescue. He has tested the ZX-VGA-JOY with a grey +2 ZX Spectrum, and confirms that it works just fine.

My trust old +2a.  Note: Photo taken during sunshine, so the monitor image doesn't look as vibrant as it actually appears in normal light conditions.

ZX Spectrum 128 +2a black

Perfect match, no issues! Since the +2a has a built-in cassette deck, I used that to load up games. There was no conflict between the joystick interfaces in the +2a and the ZX-VGA-JOY.

So with the ZX-VGA-JOY the +2a actually accepts a total of three joysticks! I'm not sure any games support this configuration though.

Note: On my +2a I use a joystick port adapter that converts the native +2/+3 joystick standard (SJS1) to standard Atari joystick pin-configuration. Using this I can use normal Atari-standard joypads/joysticks.

As with all the other tested machines, the picture looks superb. It is identical across the board. I'd recommend the ZX-VGA-JOY to all +2a users.

ZX Spectrum Next + ZX-VGA-JOY? Yeah, that was a crazy experiment, and naturally it didn't work. But at least I didn't kill my ZX Spectrum Next trying.

ZX Spectrum Next

The ZX Spectrum Next supports HDMI, VGA and RGB Scart output by default. So testing the ZX-VGA-JOY on the Next was just for fun and completeness.

Connecting the ZX-VGA-JOY to the ZX Spectrum Next, and then plugging the VGA cable from the ZX-VGA-JOY into a VGA monitor doesn't work. You can only force it to show the built-in ZX-VGA-JOY menu, nothing else, and you can't escape the menu.

The ZX Spectrum Next comes with two joystick interfaces in the front. These can be configured any way you’d like. You CAN plug the ZX-VGA-JOY into the ZX Spectrum Next, and use it as a third Kempston joystick interface. So you get three joysticks in total. It only requires you to go into the ZX Spectrum Next boot up settings, and change all the ZX Next joystick settings away from Kempston. Doing this avoids any Kempston conflicts.

Naturally I can't recommend it to ZX Spectrum Next users. But hey, I needed to try it out.

ZX-VGA-JOY works fine with modern 16:9 PC monitors as well, here an ASUS VP228.  Note: Photo taken during sunshine, so the monitor image doesn't look as vibrant as it actually appears in normal light conditions.

Monitors

I tested out the ZX-VGA-JOY on three different monitors that all accept VGA-input. Two 4:3 monitors, which match the ZX aspect ratio, and one 16:9 monitor.

Naturally I would recommend using a 4:3 monitor, as you get black side bars or stretched image on 16:9 monitors (see the pictures.)

ZX-VGA-JOY looked absolutely stunning on all my monitors. I've never seen the ZX look this good, EVER. Again, the 800x600 60Hz 'zoom-mode' really shined on my 4:3 monitors.

These are the monitors I used:

1. NEC MultiSync LCD 1990FXp 4:3.
2. Fujitsu Siemens Computers LCD Color Monitor Scenicview B17-2 4:3.
3. My modern desktop HDMI PC monitor ASUS VP228.

Note: All my pictures were taken during a day with strong sunshine. So don’t use the accompanying pictures to judge the ZX-VGA-JOY picture quality. Only during brief moments of a cloud passing the sun, I was able to photograph how brilliant the ZX-VGA-JOY looks.

This is the menu you get, when you press the only button on the ZX-VGA-JOY.

The ZX-VGA-JOY menu

The physical button serves a few purposes.

-Click it once briefly to go to the internal ZX-VGA-JOY menu.
-Click and navigate. From the menu you use the single button to navigate and select options. It may sound complicated, but it is actually intuitive and easy to operate. You just click until you reach your wanted choice, and then wait a second for a screen blink confirmation, which is a reply from the ZX-VGA-JOY that it has selected your choice.
-Click and hold to reset the machine, this functions as a normal ZX Spectrum reset-button.

ZX-VGA-JOY can save your preferred choices. I've set mine up to always boot to my preferred video-mode, which I mentioned in the previous paragraph about monitors. In order to do this, you navigate in the menu to the ‘Save settings’ option, and it will save your current choices. Next time you power it on, it will boot to whatever you selected.

Note: In the ‘Save settings’ option, there is also an option for ‘Power mode’, which I frankly didn’t investigate further.

The ZX-VGA-JOY menu has several options, depending on your firmware version. I tested the interface on version 1.03a firmware.

I'm no expert on refresh rates, but you can set the interface to 640x480 in four different Hz modes, ranging from 50Hz up to 85Hz. (One of my monitors didn’t like the 85Hz signal.) I guess this is to cater for different types of VGA-monitors.

800x600 mode only serves you 60Hz, but instead you get three different zoom options, each maximizing the gaming screen area and minimizing the border area. I go for minimal borders, and can only see a fragment of the border area, the place where the loading bars show during game loading.

Even though the 'zoom-mode' expands the central screen area, it never looks wrong, pixel-wise or aspect ratio-wise. In fact it just looks awesome.

There is an ‘interlace’ option, which I guess is scan-lines of sorts. Some people like scan-lines on their LCD screen. It is also useful if you want to experiment with a certain new “LCD Mode” proposed by George Velesoft. (See https://www.facebook.com/groups/1066251293516270/ ) It is actually worth exploring further, and the pictures in this video mode look stunning. ZX-VGA-JOY is perfectly compatible with Velesoft’s “LCD Mode”. Take a gander at a few examples:


You can turn the Kempston joystick interface on and off in the ZX-VGA-JOY menu. This is useful if you use the peripheral on clones with built-in Kempston joystick interfaces, such as the Just Speccy 128.

Then there is a ‘Video sync’option in the ZX-VGA-JOY menu, which you can set to ‘Auto’, ‘48k’ or ‘128k’. I have no idea what this is for.

"LCD Mode" by George Velesoft. ZX-VGA-JOY displays these static interlaced images without any flicker on an LCD monitor. Imagine if we could play games looking like this on a ZX Spectrum!
VGA sneak attack

I initially focused my retro computing towards RGB as a standard. But VGA has slowly invaded my retro corner. I often use VGA on my Atari ST via the UBE Video Switch. I use VGA on my Sharp MZ-800 via the Unicard add-on. Both my Apple II’s, Apple //e and //c, have VGA-adapters from A2heaven.com. Even when using the ZX Spectrum Next, I find myself using VGA more often than HDMI!

I'd highly recommend the ZX-VGA-JOY to all ZX Spectrum users. It could be the ultimate ZX upgrade for 2019. ZX-VGA-JOY is a notch above all other current ZX peripherals, both in design and functionality.

Just be mindful that ZX-VGA-JOY has no throughput edge connector. So get a ZX-Bus expander, or a DivMMC which comes with a throughput edge connector, such as Bytedelight’s DivMMC EnJOY! PRO ONE. If you know other similar DivMMC devices with throughput edge connector, please comment below.

I will be using my ZX-VGA-Joy frequently in the future. The ‘zoom-mode’, which produces big screen gaming is really a game-changer for me. When I want that ‘retro feel’, I will however also continue to use my ZX Spectrums with CRT TV’s.

A ZX-VGA-JOY will set you back £44.99, €49.99 or 1299 CZK respectively, without shipping. A fair price for a fine product in my humble opinion.

ZX Spectrum is the best hobby ever. Let's hope the party never ends. The red pants hero from Karnov agrees. Note: Photo taken during sunshine, so the monitor image doesn't look as vibrant as it actually appears in normal light conditions.

Transparency

I was given a free review sample of the ZX-VGA-JOY by its creator. This has not influenced my presentation of the product, which is honest to the core. IF the product sucked, I would criticize it. But in all honesty, I have nothing bad to say about the ZX-VGA-JOY.


Written by dakidski of RetroGamingDenmark

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