I was extremely lucky to secure one of the first vDrive ZXs when the creator, Charlie Ingley put them up for sale on Sellmyretro.com The sale came at just the right time, since I had just got my Interface One and one Microdrive working with the help of my good friend Russell. Taking his advice, I re-capped both the drives that I had but only one was operational. However, due to the pending release (at the time) of the vDrive ZX, this didn’t matter so much.
The package arrived from New Zealand in good time (about a week and a half). The contents were well packed and came with a note explaining where to get the information to install and use the device. The vDrive components that Charlie supplies are retro-fitted into an existing drive case.
The first step in installation is to strip the old drive down. Charlie’s instructions give clear guidelines with regard to this. Having re-capped the boards inside the non-working Microdrive, I had no trouble, once again, opening the Microdrive’s case and preparing it for a vDrive.
Once stripped down, there is a spacer supplied by Charlie to fit. This is very easy and just slips on top of a post near the front of the base.
Once the spacer is in place, the first part of the vDrive can be fitted above. This is secured by two pan-head (rounded) screws towards the rear of the case in the two spots the original board was secured to. I ensured the board was parallel with the case by first tightening up the first screw just before it bit, then secured the second screw before finally finishing the first screw off.
The second board, that holds the SD-Card, piggy-backs the first board by being plugged into the DuPont style header. The header is two pins too wide but it is easy to center the top board so as to have a pin spare either side which is how Charlie explains it in the installation instructions. It is pretty obvious since that centers the SD-Card board to the case too.
The next part of assembly I found a little finicky. Not for any reason other than the LED hole in my Microdrive case was a touch too small to receive the new LED. However, it was a simple case of enlarging the hole. I do recommend you try the fit before you make any changes to your case as there is a small tolerance, and you may find the LED fits without any modification being required at all.
Using a pair of sharp scissors, my trusty Dahle ones I have had for many years, I opened them up and using the pointier side, I VERY gently enlarged the LED hole. If you have this issue, it is essential that you just take a minute sliver of plastic out of the hole to prevent the LED from floating around and not being an adequate friction fit.
After starting the LED off by hand, I gently pushed it all the way home with a flat screwdriver, being careful not to push on the wires going into the LED.
Now to close the case. Being careful to give enough clearance to the LED wires for the top screw, I closed the case and used the supplied pair of flat Philips screws to fix the top to the bottom.
Lastly, for me, there was a single long screw to fit on the base. I flipped the case over and did so. In Charlie’s instructions, the plate that is normally used to secure two Microdrives together is removed before the installation begins. My case had a broken tab and therefore didn’t require removal of the plate.
That completed the assembly. Nice and simple with ‘No Dramas’. I have kept the internals of the Microdrive and the old screws in case I can further service it later on or use it as a parts donor to fix another drive.
Now to connect the vDrive to my Spectrum. I chose my trusty Samsung issue 4S to try it out. I slid the Interface One under the Spectrum’s case as is usual and then connected the vDrive in place of my Microdrive.
Firing the kit up, and pressing ‘Run’ crashed the machine. The lights on the vDrive did react, flashing red-green-red-green but afterwards, the Spectrum screen remained white with no cursor. I tried the setup with an alternative machine with the same results. I had a feeling I knew what was wrong so I got my other Samsung out of storage. This one I had refurbished including replacing a faulty Z80 chip with one from the excellent Retroleum. This machine worked perfectly with a ‘Toolkit installed OK, 0:1’ report given and a short audio confirmation pip. As I suspected, the issue was a faulty M1 line on the other machine’s Z80 (which will require replacing!). Charlie has already resolved this issue and it will be fixed in a future firmware update.
When you are preparing to use an SD-Card, you need to initialise it by typing .sdinit This is part of the toolkit on board the vDrive. The prompt ‘Format & initialise SD [Y/N] ?’ is given. Replying to this with a lower case ‘y’ currently reports ‘OK 0:1’ but actually does nothing. Replying with a Capital ‘Y’ using the Caps Shift key initialises the SD-Card correctly. I informed Charlie about this issue and he replied that he had included it as a feature to prevent mistakenly formatting a card. However, he feels it is redundant now and will remove it in a future firmware revision.
The initialisation automatically creates a single virtual Microdrive slot on the SD-Card. To this, you need to add an image. This is a two stage process. First you issue a .mkimg “filename” command which creates a .mdr file with your supplied filename. The next step is to allocate the slot with the image. This is carried out using the .ld drive “filename” command. Replace ‘drive’ with the virtual drive number you wish it to be. In our case, it will be ‘1’ since there is only one slot currently available. When you have done this, you can do a .ls to list the SD-Card contents and a .li to list your current drive. Lastly, you will need to format the virtual drive for use. This can be done with the usual Spectrum FORMAT “m”;drive;”filename” command or Charlie’s rather shorter .f drive “filename”. Depending on the Interface ROM version you have, you will either end up with a 127K formatted virtual drive (ROM V1) or a 126K virtual drive (ROM v2). After formatting, a normal CAT drive will give you the name of the virtual drive and the capacity.
You can then use this virtual drive just like a normal Microdrive. All the standard Microdrive commands should work and, because the vDrive acts as a Microdrive emulator, the Interface one cannot tell the difference between a regular Microdrive and a vDrive ZX.
Another feature of the vDrive is that you can have multiple ‘banks’ of configured drives. This means that on the same SD-Card, you can have a bank specifically for programming, another for gaming etc. You can also use virtual drive images in multiple banks. So, if you have an image you always want to be in slot one, just allocate it each time you make a new bank and it will be there.
One of the things that did catch me out was when I came to make a further image and allocate it. I had made an image and I was trying to allocate it to drive two (you can have up to eight virtual drives in one bank). I hadn’t created another slot to allocate it too. Only the first one is created automatically. The remedy for this is to issue a .mkdrv num, num being the number of slots you wish to create. You can confirm they have been created with a further .lv command. After this, you can follow the process for allocating the new image to the new slot as documented above.
Charlie has created a fabulous replacement for the Microdrive in the vDrive. Although there are a few ‘gotchas’ to be aware of, I believe this comprehensive system will be very popular. It is really easy to use, once you have used it for a short while and gives limitless storage and great replacement for the original Microdrive Cartridges which are sadly showing their age.
One of the first things I did was to find my copy of the original Microdrive Demo Cartridge and use the excellent copier program to back up my current cartridges to SD-Card. Since the SD-Cards can be read and written to with a PC/Mac, I also did a further backup on my PC.
Many thanks to Charlie Ingley for creating this great piece of hardware and also for helping me out with my first steps in using it.