Timex Sinclair 1500: The ZX81 in Spectrum clothing

The Timex Sinclair 1500 was Timex’s ill-fated attempt to fix what went wrong with the Timex Sinclair 1000. It was completely compatible with the 1000 and the Sinclair ZX81, but sported 16K of RAM and a better keyboard. These were welcome improvements, but they weren’t enough in the hyper competitive 1983 U.S. computer market.

The Timex Sinclair 1500 was essentially a Sinclair ZX81 with more memory in a Sinclair Spectrum case. Released in July 1983 at a price of $80, it wasn’t successful and Timex withdrew from the market in February 1984.

How a ZX81 ended up in a Spectrum case

Timex Sinclair 1500
The Timex Sinclair 1500 looks like an Americanized Sinclair Spectrum. But it’s a modified ZX-81 board inside.

Timex Sinclair had plans to release the Sinclair Spectrum in the United States, but decided the computer couldn’t compete here as-is. So Timex went back to the drawing board and enhanced the Spectrum a bit to make what became the Timex Sinclair 2068.

Meanwhile, Timex of Portugal had designed a souped-up version of the ZX-81/Timex Sinclair 1000 with more memory that used the Spectrum case and keyboard.

The Timex-Sinclair 1000 was struggling badly in the US market. Even when Timex priced it lower than the aging Atari 2600 game console, which was struggling in its own right in 1983, it still wasn’t selling in the volume Timex would have liked. It just wasn’t powerful enough. It didn’t have enough memory, and the keyboard was too hard to type on.

This enhanced machine became the Timex Sinclair 1500. The memory increase to 16K and calculator-style keyboard from the Spectrum were welcome improvements. And if you wanted more, the existing 16K expansion for the 1000 worked just fine in the 1500, so you could have 32K of RAM.

Priced at $80 upon its July 1983 release, it looked like it could do battle with the Atari 400 and Commodore VIC-20, both of which sold for $99. The VIC had a better keyboard, but not as much memory. Atari had the same amount of memory but a dreadful keyboard. But both of them had color graphics and a larger software library. On paper it was a better matchup, but still not really a fair fight.

Marketing the Timex Sinclair 1500

It’s hard to find much about the Timex Sinclair 1500 in period magazines. Oddly enough, Infoworld stated in its June 20, 1983 issue that it was aimed at the education market. While schools undoubtedly would find the $80 price tag attractive, the 1500 was a poor fit for schools. Loading software from cassette was slow, so schools favored disk drives or cartridges. And I can tell you from the experience of being in elementary school in 1983 that most teachers had no idea what to do with a computer, but they would at least agree that knowing how to type was a useful skill. You wouldn’t learn that on a 1500. You’d learn where the keys were placed, but you wouldn’t learn to touch type on it.

Apple dominated the education market, but everyone wanted a piece of it. IBM pitched the PCjr at the education market, but Commodore, Tandy, and even Atari wanted in as well. Schools that couldn’t afford Apple or IBM were much more likely to go with Atari, Commodore, and Tandy. If nothing else, they could run educational software on cartridge from publishers like Spinnaker on them.

For the most part, magazines paid no attention to the 1500. The 1000 was still selling, even if it was old stock, and the more capable 2068 was on the market by then. Timex was still selling them when it withdrew from the market in February 1984, but it’s unclear how many 1500s it managed to sell. The January 1984 issue of Creative Computing magazine reported that in November 1983, the average street price of a 1000 was lower than that of an Atari 2600. It didn’t even mention the 1500. The more capable 2068 hit the market at $200 but soon was selling for $139.

Where Timex went wrong

Sinclair sold millions of computers in the UK, but when Timex tried to sell essentially the same machines here in the States, they struggled, in spite of the tempting low price.

The problem was Timex’s competitors could Goldilocks them. Commodore did just that in their advertising, talking about how much an IBM PC costs, then talking about how little a Timex Sinclair 1000 cost, but claimed you couldn’t do anything with the 1000. Then they pitched their Commodore 64 as the “just right” machine.

Some would argue the C-64 wasn’t much more of a serious computer than the Timex. And compared to what hit the market in the second half of the decade, they have a point. But at least Commodore and Atari were trying to build the best 8-bit computer possible. The whole idea behind buying a computer in 1983 was to get something more capable than a game console, and the Timex-Sinclair 1500 wasn’t it.

In 1983 and 1984, I was reading every book and magazine about computers I could get my hands on, either at the school library or public library. Everything I read about Timex computers said your first computer might very well be a Timex, but you could expect to outgrow it and want to upgrade. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least in some authors’ minds, but I didn’t know anyone who took that approach. I knew a kid who knew a kid who “had computers” at home (yes, plural), but I never found out if he was exaggerating. Assuming he wasn’t, if someone had multiple computers in 1983, probably one of them was a Timex. Especially in rural Missouri.

But other magazines, especially the influential Creative Computing, warned against buying a computer on price alone.

The Timex Sinclair 1500 today

While the Timex Sinclair 1000 is anything but rare, the 1500 turns up much less often on Ebay. When you do find them, they aren’t crazy expensive. You might pay 50-75% more for a 1500 than you paid for a 1000. Still, the prices aren’t ruinous and the machines don’t take a lot of space, so they can be fun to collect.

The Timex machines were too limited to be successful in 1982-84, but their limitations are part of the appeal today. British software that wasn’t available here in the 1980s is easy to acquire today, and there’s been some new development on these machines in recent years, taking advantage of modern development tools and a more thorough knowledge of the machine.

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