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Clones and variants

Clones | Variants


The simple design of the ZX computers made them easy machines to pirate. Within only a few years of the launch of the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, a huge number of illegal clones had been produced around the world. The map below shows the countries in which cloned Sinclair computers were produced:

(Based on National Geographic Society mapping)

There were three clusters of clone-producing countries, each market having developed for rather different reasons.

South America

Sinclair computers were not officially distributed in South America, but were available as expensive "grey imports". However, weak intellectual property laws allowed Brazilian and Argentinian manufacturers to produce near-identical copies of the Timex and Sinclair machines.

Hong Kong / China

Sinclair computers were available officially in Japan, via a distribution agreement with Mitsui (which specialised in importing British goods into Asia, such as Jaguar cars and Burberry raincoats). However, as in South America, a lack of official distribution and weak IP laws allowed local manufacturers in Hong Kong to produce clones of Sinclair products. Although they were successful, they were soon displaced by a wave of cheap Japanese and Korean home computers based on the now-defunct MSX standard.

Eastern Europe

By far the biggest numbers of clones of Sinclair computers were produced in countries behind the Iron Curtain, particularly in the Soviet Union. More types were produced in the USSR than in the rest of the world combined, but Sinclair clones also appeared in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania.

During the Cold War, high technology exports to the communist bloc were strictly controlled by Western countries, out of fear that Western technology would be used or reverse-engineered for military purposes. This made it very difficult and expensive to obtain Sinclair machines legitimately. In the USSR, at a time when the average monthly income was just 250 roubles a month, a Spectrum cost 40,000 roubles - equivalent to 13 years' wages. Despite this or perhaps even because of this, a technologically literate population wanted access to home computers. A near-complete lack of IP laws meant that clones proliferated rapidly.

Unlike the more-or-less straight copies produced in South America and Hong Kong, eastern European Sinclair clones were often heavily re-engineered. Many included features which Western Sinclair owners would have given their back teeth for, such as more memory, faster processors, disk drives - even hard disks - and proper full-size keyboards.

Remarkably, even though the Spectrum effectively died out in the West in the early 1990s, Spectrum clones are still being made in eastern Europe and a thriving user community is still producing software.


Legal licensed variants of the Sinclair computers were also produced in a number of countries. Most obviously, Timex in the United States produced a number of machines based on (or rebadged versions of) Sinclair's UK computers. In Britain, Miles Gordon Technologies produced the Spectrum-compatible Sam Coupé following Amstrad's 1986 buyout of Sinclair. The only other place in Europe where legal Spectrum clones were produced was Spain, where Sinclair's partner company, Investronica, produced a version of the Spectrum+ and Spectrum 128. Semi-legal variants were produced in Portugal by, ironically, Timex: the company's local subsidiary survived the US parent's collapse and produced a number of unauthorised "Timex Computer" clones of the Timex/Sinclair machines.

The Sinclair QL reappeared in radically altered form as the ICL One Per Desk (also marketed as the British Telecom Merlin Tonto and Australian Telecom Computerphone), an innovative all-in-one desktop business communications system. After Amstrad dropped the QL from the Sinclair range, the machine was redeveloped as the CST Thor. The QL later saw another redevelopment in the shape of the Q40, produced by Peter Graf.

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Chris Owen 1994-2003