Tuesday, June 27, 2017

My Experience with FreeDOS

            I was born in 1994. By the time I first starting using computers, around 2000, the Windows 9x family had taken over the PC market. My first PC was an eMachine running Windows 98. Although I only knew DOS as the daunting command line behind the OS back then, I recently started exploring retro PC gaming. YouTube channels like the 8-bit guy and Lazy Game Reviews inspired me to get into DOS gaming myself. As a software engineer, I have also always wanted to experiment with BASIC so buying a DOS laptop for retro gaming and experimentation made sense to me.

However, when I looked on eBay I realized there were no cheap DOS laptops that I could be sure would work without some kind of expert repair. In my search for an alternative I came across the FreeDOS project which blew my mind. I did not expect to find a DOS-based operating system that was being actively maintained in 2017.

Unsure of what to expect, I downloaded an ISO of FreeDOS, burned it to a USB drive and installed it on an old Acer netbook I had lying around. To my amazement, it worked right out of the box. I was expecting to have to spend hours fiddling with drivers to make the sound, video, and input all work correctly. However, FreeDOS came with all the drivers required and no hassle.

To make my experience as authentic as possible, I got a USB floppy drive and some floppy disks from my college professor. Even though I was amazed by FreeDOS’ driver support, I still did not expect a USB device to plug and play like on Windows. However, once I plugged in the USB floppy drive and put a disk in, it worked great! The computer even tried to boot from the floppy like MS-DOS would have back in the day. I was highly impressed.

I copied King’s Quest 1 to a floppy disk and ran it in FreeDOS. The sound, controls, and graphics all worked perfectly and I spent hours playing my way through the game. I tried several other games too; DOOM, Scorched Earth, Aaargh, and Monster Bash. All of them worked and I had several fun evenings acquainting myself with video gaming as it was in the 80’s and early 90’s.

I also got GW-BASIC working on FreeDOS. After acquainting myself with how painful it was to program back in the 1980’s I started developing a Hangman game in BASIC. I’m still working on it, and learning BASIC has made me appreciate being able to code with modern IDEs and operating systems.

I highly recommend FreeDOS for anybody looking to satisfy their nostalgia for DOS or experience computing as it was before Windows. The development team has done a great job recreating the experience while minimizing the hassle.