The Timex Sinclair 2068 was the US version of the much more popular Sinclair ZX Spectrum, one of the most successful home computers of the 1980s in the UK. The 2068 unfortunately didn’t match its British brother’s success.
Timex withrew from the US computer market in February 1984, soon after the release of the Timex Sinclair 2068, one of the early casualties of the home computer wars. The 2068 proved to be the last of Timex’s home computers.
Timex Sinclair 2068 vs Sinclair ZX Spectrum
With the 2068, Timex sought to create an improved version of the ZX Spectrum for the US market. This wasn’t a bad idea, and some of Timex’s changes seemed based on its experience selling variants of the earlier Sinclair ZX81 in the United States. Unfortunately, Timex’s execution wasn’t quite on the money.
The first problem is that Timex replaced the membrane keyboard with a calculator-style rubber chicklet keyboard like the IBM PCjr. While an improvement, this didn’t go far enough when many of the other computers in its class had full-sized, full-travel keyboards.
The second problem was that Timex improved too much in other areas. The Basic commands it added broke compatibility with the Spectrum, and when Timex added an AY-3-8912 sound chip, it didn’t put it at the same I/O address that Sinclair used in the Spectrum+. That meant only about 10% of the commercial titles for the ZX Spectrum would run on the 2068. The workaround was to swap in a Spectrum ROM, but full compatibility out of the box would have been better.
Arguably, if Timex had left the ROMs alone and just included a full-size, full-travel keyboard, the 2068 might have stood a better chance.
Timex released a total of 44 titles for the 2068, but this pales compared to the 1,726-title library the ZX Spectrum boasted.
The 2068 sported a Zilog Z-80A CPU running at 3.5 MHz, 48K of RAM, 32K of ROM, color graphics at a resolution of up to 256×192 and monochrome graphics at 512×192, and 3-voice sound. Timex marketed it as an 80K computer, but the 32K ROM wasn’t all that useful to the consumer. By the same logic, the Commodore 64 was a 96K computer.
Critical acclaim for the Timex Sinclair 2068
The Timex Sinclair 2068 received a good review in Infoworld in December 1983, partly due to the improvements against the earlier Timex Sinclair 1000 and 1500 models, both of which were based on the Sinclair ZX-81. It was much faster, had color graphics, and a much better keyboard. Additionally, its AY sound chip, while not as good as Commodore’s SID chip in the C-64, held its own against the chips in the Coleco Adam and IBM PCjr. It also had one of the best implementations of Basic on the market.
Popular Mechanics was a bit less kind, partly because it found a flaw in the video signal. Both magazines said it was a good value at $200.
The market reception wasn’t as good. Timex released the 2068 in November 1983, just in time for the Christmas season. And in February 1984, Timex withdrew from the home computer market.
While reviewers didn’t object to the $200 price tag, the Commodore 64 offered a better keyboard and more memory for about $100 more. For consumers looking to the future, the C-64 had a broader array of peripherals available, including an inexpensive disk drive, printer, and a modem. And Commodore quickly lowered the price of the C-64 to less than $200, forcing Timex to lower its price to as little as $139 by February 1984.
Meanwhile, Texas Instruments was selling its TI-99/4A at blowout pricing as it prepared to exit the computer market. If you wanted a cheap computer, the 99/4A offered a proper keyboard for less than $100, and boasted a library of 56 software titles.
Tandy released its MC-10 to compete directly with the 2068. It was unsuccessful for the same reasons as the 2068.
Coleco’s offering had quality control problems, but offered significant value. For $600, it included dual tape drives and a printer and a good quality full-travel keyboard, and full compatibility with the Coleco Vision game console.
And Commodore wasn’t done. Commodore saw the 2068 and ZX Spectrum as a threat, so it designed what became the Plus/4 with these machines in mind. Commodore displayed prototype machines at the January 1983 CES. A month later, Timex retreated. Then Commodore released the machines anyway and competed with itself more than anyone else, which must have given Timex computer executives a laugh as they planned their next moves.
The Timex Sinclair 2068 in the international market
Timex’s Portuguese division continued to sell the 2068 even after the demise of the US division. An optional ZX Spectrum emulator cartridge solved the compatibility problem and permitted UK Spectrum titles to run, and the machine lasted until 1989 in Portugal and Poland, where the market was a bit less competitive than in the States.
How Timex could have done better
Sinclair was able to wage a price war in the UK, where it had a head start. In the United States, Commodore was ready to fight a price war with all comers, and since it made its own chips, it could fight off even the simple Sinclair designs, which were essentially two chips plus RAM. And Commodore had an army of peripherals to sell. This gave them an opportunity to improve their overall profit margin, and also gave the perception of being a more serious computer. Not everyone would buy a disk drive, though many did. Fewer bought the modem and speech synthesizer, but they wanted the options to be available.
Timex’s other problem was lack of software. Its competitors all had reasonably large software libraries by 1983, much of it first-party titles. Had Timex reached an agreement to import and convert existing Spectrum titles to work on the 2068 and publish them themselves, the 2068 may have fared better as a budget system. Most of what existed on the 2068 and the 1000/1500 were first-party titles, but Timex didn’t publish enough of them.
Finally, Timex needed to do something about the keyboard. US critics hammered anything that didn’t have a full-travel keyboard. They were more forgiving on entry-level $99 machines, but the 2068 was supposed to be a move upmarket.
The Timex Sinclair 2068 today
If you’re an American and you’re curious about the Sinclair Spectrum, it’s probably cheaper to get a Timex Sinclair 2068 off Ebay than to import a Spectrum. They aren’t common, but not a lot of people know about them so they aren’t crazy expensive. You’ll probably want to swap in a Spectrum ROM, but once you do that, you’ll have basically a North American Spectrum. And that can be an interesting hobby machine, especially as one ponders what might have been.