Image to ZX Spec takes your pictures back in time

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Image to ZX Spec is a free Java-based application which shows you how your pictures and videos might have looked on the classic old ZX Spectrum home computer.

Never heard the Spectrum? It was released almost 35 years ago so that’s no great surprise, but all you really need to know is its extremely basic graphics specs: a cramped 256×192 resolution, about a 20th of a megapixel, and a palette limited to 7 colors at two levels of brightness each, plus black.

This isn’t as bad as it sounds. No, really. Developers used a host of dithering and error diffusion techniques to deliver the best possible picture quality, and Image to ZX Spec brings the same approach to the modern desktop.

One immediate problem is the interface, which almost never worked as expected. There was no drag and drop, no thumbnail viewing when importing, no double or right-click actions. And although you can turn off scaling to 256×192 and use the original resolution of an image, the preview window displays the picture at that full resolution, even if it’s larger than the size of your screen…

And yet, if you’re patient, and forgiving, and in a good mood, and fight your way through, some of the (relatively) higher quality effects can deliver impressive results.

We reduced a full-color portrait to only 9 colors with the lightness filter, but somehow it still looked good. There was more than enough detail to be recognizable, the key areas of light and shade were preserved, and there was even a tiny scattering of purple to represent some flowers in the background.

The "Character" effect is another highlight, building your image with ASCII characters. Blocks of detail are represented by characters depending on how many pixels they take, so the lightest areas are blank, the next might be ".", then ":", "-" and so on. Sounds odd if you’ve not seen it before, but with the right source picture the results can be amazing: a very accurate black and white representation of the original, but if you zoom in you can see the characters that make it up.

Surprise bonus features include the ability to import videos and export animated GIFs, and you get plenty of manual control over the image conversion process.

Image to ZX Spec’s awkward interface is a huge problem here, but if you like the idea, and your favorite graphics editor doesn’t have any comparable color reduction effects, it’s worth a quick look.

Image to ZX Spec is a free Java-based tool for Windows, Linux and Mac.

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