The Rotronics Wafadrive peripheral designed to compete with the Sinclair Microdrive, and it did so at a competitive price. Launched at £129.95, it was soon reduced to £99.95, then later to half that at £45.95.
The Wafadrive unit was a large black professional looking box which plugged into the Spectrum's expansion port, with its drives (made by BSR)based on the same "stringy floppy" technology as Sinclair's Microdrives.
Storage was on "wafas", again comprising a continuous loop of tape 1.8mm wide.
It offered many more features than the Microdrive. Not only were there two drive units built in (like other professional storage systems), the unit also comprised a Centronics parallel port and an RS-232 interface.
Another advantage was that it didn't need the Interface 1 to function, all of which offered a decent cost saving compared with buying all the components separately.
The cartridges wafas were supplied in 16K, 32K, 64K and 128K capacities - the only difference being the amount of tape in the wafa.
The main reason for offering the different capacities was speed.
Although much faster than tape, the Wafadrive was slower than the Microdrive. The Wafadrive ran at two speeds - high speed when searching for the tape catalogue (stored at a point on the tape loop immediately after the splice joint), then a slower speed to actually transfer the data. If the read/write head is at a point just after the splice when a search starts, it will have to run through the entire length of the tape until it reaches the splice again.
If you only have a small program, then the Wafadrive would take a long time to find it on a 128K wafa. On a 16K wafa though it could be up to 8 times quicker.
Although slower to transfer data than the Microdrive, the operating system and its associated commands are more friendly. It was much easier to load in a program with just LOAD * "filename", rather than all the LOAD * "m";1;"filename" business!
Not many games or software titles were released on Wafa and they are quite sought after now.
Problems and Issues
I have had over 20 of these units through my workshop and not found a faulty one yet, so they are still very robust machines.
Dirty read/write heads are the only real issue and are easily cleaned with a cotton bud and cassette head cleaning fluid through the wafa slots.
There are some compatibility issues with other Sinclair peripherals, but these are quite rare.
The most common is a conflict with very early Wafadrives and the Multiface 1. The Multiface 1 should be connected to the left hand slot at the back of the Wafadrive, which should be automatically initiated by the Wafadrive when needed.
If you are having problems, then look through the RS-232 edge connector at the bottom right hand side. Looking in, you should see purple, red and white wires connected to the top of the bus. If not, you have a very early Wafadrive unit and you will not be able to use the Multiface.
These now give major problems.
The tape used in the cartridges is the same type used in audio cassettes, but cut very narrow (less than half the width of cassette tape). Whilst strong enough for a few years worth of use in the mid 80's, they don't hold up too well now!
I purchased all the remaining factory stock of wafas from the old BSR warehouse in High Wycombe many boxes of wafas from old factory stock and formatted and tested every single one before offering them on the website. Failure rate (through the tape snapping) was over 80% on all wafas, regardless of the capacity, comparing very poorly to Sinclair Microdrive cartridges which nowadays have a failure rate of about 20% in comparison.
The microdrive cartridges were made using video tape, which is thicker than the cassette tape used in the wafas and the difference in longevity is very evident indeed!
What is also interesting is the wafas stored in individual plastic bags (such as those packaged for retail outlets) had a 100% failure rate.
As with Microdrive cartridges - if you buy any old wafas, tap them sharply a few times on a bench or table, flat against the surface before attempting to format them. This helps to free up a sticking mechanism before the motor simply snaps the tape.