January 28, 2005

My workstation OS: FreeDOS

Author: Lee A. Spain

In battles over operating system superiority, emotions run high. Capabilities are assembled like armies and run out on discussion boards to face the flames. So let me say this now: your operating system is probably better than mine. Most modern operating systems are better than FreeDOS when considered by any objective criteria. FreeDOS doesn't multitask, doesn't surf the Internet easily, isn't great for multimedia productions, and doesn't even do Windows. But I love it anyway.

I love FreeDOS because it's a throwback to a familiar era in my life as a computer user. In 1990, I was the master of my computers and my applications. I knew my way around my config.sys and autoexec.bat file. I knew MS-DOS commands. As a FreeDOS user, I simply have to remember what I knew about 15 years ago.

Most business applications of the MS-DOS era work great on FreeDOS. I've found that old versions of WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, Quattro Pro, and Quicken run fine. These programs and all their documentation run about $3 a piece at garage sales or thrift shops. If you are a pack rat, you may still have some stored in your own basement.

FreeDOS runs on almost any PC that I can scrounge up. It is designed to work on any IBM-compatible PC, from the original 8088s on up to the most modern systems. FreeDOS can extend the useful life of lots of old hardware. Most recently, I used it on an old 486/75 that I picked up in a thrift store for a mere $6.06. All I had to do was add a hard drive I found in a computer surplus store for about $10. At first, I tried to get FreeBSD 5.1 installed on the old beast, but I kept getting pages of scary messages on my screen. Apparently some of my hardware was of dubious origin and was not being recognized. After my fifth attempt, I formatted the hard drive using a Windows 98 system disk and installed FreeDOS from a single diskette. It simply worked.

If your system is more problematic, FreeDOS's Web site is filled with great tips on getting old systems going. For example, I found good advice on how to get a CD-ROM drive of unknown origin recognized and working with a generic CD-ROM driver. The FreeDOS site hosts information about settings for early sound cards, and has plenty of information on how to configure your system through the autoexec.bat and config.sys files. It also has dedicated sections on how to run FreeDOS on various laptops and how gamers can use it. FreeDOS itself includes a great little mouse driver called CUTEMOUSE.

With FreeDOS, you can play many of the great old games of the MS-DOS era. Many classic MS-DOS games can be freely downloaded as abandonware. In addition, FreeDOS users can take advantage of the thousands of freeware and shareware applications that were originally created for MS-DOS. I have found FreeDOS great for games like Castle Wolfenstein and Doom. However, I have had trouble with a few games that were not designed for hardware like a 486 at a blazing 75 megahertz. For example, when I attempted to play Links386 golf, I found the course was well-rendered. However, due to the CPU speed, I had no hope of controlling the club well enough to play. Similarly, when I tried to play an early version of Castle, I was quickly swarmed by unstoppable bad guys. FreeDOS may also have trouble with a few games that were designed to use some of the more esoteric functions of MS-DOS or strange configurations of memory.

Finally, I love FreeDOS because it is free. It shows what a small cadre of programmers can accomplish in the face of a large corporation. When Microsoft announced that it would end support for MS-DOS, the father of FreeDOS, Jim Hall, was appalled. At the time he was supporting the IT efforts of a large educational institution that had lots of MS-DOS applications. Now, a decade later, Jim and lots of other great programmers have moved the FreeDOS project all the way to version 0.90. Most of the kinks have been worked out and release 1.0 seems tantalizingly close.

FreeDOS allows anyone to run MS-DOS applications without relying on Microsoft. You have to love that kind of independence!

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