THE +3 SOFTROM
By Andy Ryals
This short article is designed to give an insight into a very rare interface which cropped up on the Spectrum scene in the late 1980s / early 1990s.
Essentially the Softrom was a Multiface variant but with one or two other neat features. The Softrom had 16K of external RAM whilst the Multiface only had 8K. Another neat trick of the Softrom was that it could have two pieces of software loaded into it and switch between the two. Just imagine, early software / hardware multitasking on a 8-bit Speccy!
All these operations were completely invisible to the Spectrum, so the owner of the Softrom had COMPLETE control over the Speccy. Typical software could be a dissasembler loaded into one memory bank to hack the game and a copier in the second memory bank to copy the game to tape or disk when it had been hacked. True hacker magic!!!!
My Softrom was unique in that it was the only one EVER to work on a +3 computer and ALL other versions of the speccy apart from the 16K Speccy although I never tested my Softrom on one.
Originally I purchased my Softrom from that great Spectrum hacker Graham Mason for £100 in February 1991 - yep, serious cash. My first hacks with the Softrom were Xenon 128K and The Spy Who Loved Me (See Your Sinclair 62). I gained all my software from the other great speccy hacker John North. I can also verify that Jon North purchased his for £65 in roughly June 1990 also from one of Graham Masonís mates. The question arises, 'why such a high price?'
Well, these interfaces were custom built with specific chips that were extremely hard to purchase. Only nine Softroms were produced and these were made by a mate of Graham Masonís whose name I never found out. The history of the Softrom is mysterious in that I do not know who first produced these interfaces and I don't know which year they started to be produced. Some information can be gained from late Your Sinclair mags and part of this article is based upon these magazines.
From the nine that were made I own the most unique +3 Softrom, Graham Mason owned one, so did John North, and also ZZKJ (The GOD of speccy hacking, this guy taught Jon North). So were did the others go to? I ain't got a clue but a hunch would be that a fifth Softrom was owned by Theo Devalagas the Greek speccy hacker, a good mate of Graham Mason. The sixth Softrom went to a guy called Steve Shepherd in Norfolk (see later). This still leaves three and I have no idea who owns them.
It also appears that each Softrom was different from the last. Strange! Can you still purchase them? Well the answer to this is... possibly. I have an address if anyone would like to try and contact it, to see if they are still being produced. The chances of the Softrom still being in production are extremely SLIM but I must admit that due to my time being short I have not checked out this address.
The story goes that Steve Shepard was, 'so impressed he bought the company' and started to produce them himself, his address as of August 1991 was: Steve Shepard 50 Lincoln Street, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 3LA.
You could supposedly purchase one from him, but good luck. For more information see Your Sinclair issues 54, 62, 68. When asked to write something on the Softrom the editor asked for press releases, pictures, etc. Well, to be truthful, the Softrom was distributed among ELITE speccy hackers (see the above list of people). Like all good hacking secrets it was kept underground so press releases, reviews, and clippings do not exist.
The only mention of the Softrom occurs in the issues of Your Sinclair mentioned above. I don't own a camera so I can't provide a picture of my unique Softrom. Sorry, I'll try and describe it.
Mine measures approx 190mm by 75mm and it has an optional extender board to make it +3 compatible. It has a reset button built into it, a write enable / disable button to utilise any loaded software, a NORM / SOFT switch which enables normal or software operations and another switch labelled NMI - I forget its use. It has 'SOFTROM' neatly labelled in the middle of the printed circuit board, and 'Expander Systems' on the underside.
I presume that Expander Systems is either the supplier of the printed circuit board (PCB) or the name of the company that produced the Softroms. My Softrom does not have a protective casing, it is just merely a PCB that plugs into the expansion port of the Speccy. I could not tell you if other Softroms have protective coverings as I have only ever seen one Softrom, and that's my own!