I can’t remember when exactly the Speak & Spell first entered my life – it was sometime in the very early ‘80s when I was four or five years old – but I do remember being amazed that my parents allowed me to touch and play with this marvel of technology, when other devices, like the VCR and the stereo, were strictly off-limits. And now a new Speak & Spell is coming for kids who aren’t quite ready for that outdated phone or tablet you still have lying around. After introducing the classic educational title, The Oregon Trail, to a new generation of kids with the first portable version of the game, Basic Fun! is reviving another classic electronic toy from my youth, and my first real gadget obsession.
By today’s standards, the Speak & Spell is beyond primitive, but when introduced by Texas Instruments at CES in 1978, it was one of the first handheld devices to incorporate an electronic display, expansion cartridges, and a speech synthesis engine that could say and spell over 200 words. It even ran on one of the first microprocessors, the TMS1000, which was a power hog that would quickly drain the toy’s four C-sized batteries.
The Speak & Spell’s computerised voice was its most impressive feature, and it was so fascinating to me as a kid that I can still clearly hear its raspy, slightly incomprehensible pronunciations in my head; when I’d be hard-pressed to remember the voices of any of my childhood friends. We even dug one up when I was in college to fake a robot voice for a radio show, because, for whatever tragic reason, the Speak & Spell I grew up with died, and was Marie Kondo’d by my parents. RIP my old friend.
Phones, tablets, and even handheld video games have since filled the niche Speak & Spell inhabited so well, but if you’re eager for your kids to learn to spell the same way you did, or are simply looking for a cheaper gadget that’s not as fragile as a slab of glass and plastic, then this new version could be appealing.
Basic Fun! worked hard to make its recreation as faithful to the original as possible; although with a few compromises. The kid-friendly, dust-proof (alphabetically-arranged) keyboard is still here, as are all of the original game modes, and the simple segmented display that’s been updated with semi-modern LCD technology. But to make it more user-friendly, the new Speak & Spell now features additional voice commands that give brief instructions as you switch between each game mode, whereas the original only included them in the printed instruction manual due to its limited memory for storing voice commands.
Basic Fun!’s new Speak & Spell uses recordings instead of synthesising an electronic voice on the fly.
Where the new Speak & Spell differs from the original – and this could be a deal-breaker for some nostalgia-seekers – is its voice. Instead of using a synthesizer that generates spoken words from a bunch of coded instructions, Basic Fun!’s Speak & Spell uses voice recordings that have been processed to sound like they’re being generated by a computer. The monotonous, stilted delivery sounds very close to the original version, but it’s definitely different.
That’s probably going to deter some Speak & Spell fans from buying the new version when it’s available sometime in the autumn, but the recorded voice actually sounds clearer with better pronunciation. I can remember getting occasionally frustrated at my Speak & Spell when I couldn’t understand it, so the new version might actually be a better learning tool as a result of its minor upgrades. [Basic Fun!]