Thinking From the Box

Free DOS for the Lowest-end PCs

Freya - 2001.10.15

When I think of low-end PCs, I have to confess that I often think of all those old XTs and 286 computers! Yes, they are still out there drifting around - but what to do with them? Even Linux requires a 386, and BeOS? Eeeek! Linux even requires a minimum of 4 MB RAM, so some 386 computers are out of the realm of Linux.

So you may be thinking that these computers are unusable unless you happen to have some old MS-DOS disks lying around, and then you are still in the clutches of Microsoft. Well, it's not true, because the Free Software Movement has come to the rescue with FreeDOS!

FreeDOS is an MS-DOS clone, something akin to the Digital Research DOS of old (DR-DOS). FreeDOS is to MS-DOS what Linux is to Unix. You install FreeDOS on your computer, and then you can download and use all those old MS-DOS programs hiding in corners of the Internet.

What's more, even if you are running a real copy of MS-DOS and don't want to leave it, the FreeDOS software is still well worth a look at - it comes with many programs that outperform their MS-DOS counterparts, such as the CD-ROM driver or the CuteMouse mouse driver that lets you use a mouse in your DOS programs (but takes up far less RAM than it's Microsoft mouse counterpart). There is even a program called BitDisk that implements a RAMdisk in only 256 bytes of memory!

FreeDOS is still in Beta, but the new version (Beta 7) has almost everything you could want from a DOS clone, finally giving support for CD-ROMs and networks, and it's bundled with all kinds of useful additional programs and tools.

What can you do with a DOS computer in these modern times? Anything anyone used to do with a DOS computer, of course! Word processing, spreadsheets, PIMS, databases - all these things are out there, and quite often for free. There is even a really good graphical DOS Web Browser called Arachne that supports JavaScript and renders modern Web pages properly. There are email programs as well, such as the well known Pegasus mail.

Using FreeDOS you can bring 286s and even XT computers back from the dead and put them into useful service. Now that Microsoft are completely abandoning DOS, the FreeDOS pages are the place to go to find out what new things are happening in the DOS world.

To download the latest ripcord version go to There is a really useful mailing list on Topica for discussion of FreeDOS development; it's a good place to be to find out all the latest things that are happening in the DOS world.

I hope you all have many wonderful DOS adventures! LEPC

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