FreeDOS open-source text-based OS turns 30, still in active development and primarily used for retro gaming

FreeDOS as seen on the screen of a retro PC
(Image credit: Shutterstock & FreeDOS)

Younger PC users may have never encountered DOS. Even those of us who had a taste of it may only have used it as the Command Prompt or PowerShell 'app' in Windows. But even though Microsoft stopped updating MS-DOS in the year 2000 (as part of Windows Me), there remains a small group of passionate developers building and maintaining an open-source version of this operating system, called FreeDOS.

FreeDOS dates back to 1994, when its developer, Jim Hall announced it as PD-DOS. With Microsoft switching to the Windows operating system that focused on a graphical user interface, Hall wanted to keep this seminal command-line interface-based OS alive, so he built a public domain version (PD) of the text-based operating system. He would rename PD-DOS to FreeDOS soon thereafter, and it still receives updates up until today.

The operating system’s latest version is version 1.3, with major updates released every four to six years. This development cycle might seem long, especially as it’s not as complicated as Microsoft’s latest operating system. However, there are still challenges to conquer for such an old piece of software.

The biggest one is the shift from the old BIOS to the new UEFI firmware on most modern motherboards. While most custom DIY PC builds still retain some form of BIOS compatibility, many new computers no longer retain this ability. Furthermore, the introduction of Arm-based processors, like the Snapdragon X-powered Copilot+ PCs, means that this hardware is no longer compatible with FreeDOS.

It’s for these reasons that Hall doesn’t recommend running FreeDOS on bare metal (or directly on the PC). “That’s one reason why we recommend using FreeDOS in a virtual machine,” said Hall, in a recent interview with Ars Technica. “The virtual machines provide the BIOS. Although, from a practical side, I think most people aren’t interested in trying to run FreeDOS on bare hardware on a new desktop or laptop, with a 16-core Intel Core Ultra CPU, 32GB memory, 512GB SSD, and Wi-Fi. If you’re going to run FreeDOS, you are probably looking for that ‘retro’ computing experience, so you’re more likely to install FreeDOS on an older PC anyway.”

Nowadays you would probably need to dig out your granddad’s old IBM PC or your father’s first computer to find hardware to run FreeDOS directly. However, the rise of retro gaming has seen the release of several ‘new’ retro PCs, including the Retro Pocket 386 and Hand 386, which are powered by 40 MHz Intel 386 processors, or the even older Book 8088, which uses an Intel 8088 CPU.

With the right hardware or a virtual machine setup with FreeDOS you can run iconic retro games, like Duke Nukem, Commander Keen, Biomenace, and Wolfenstein 3D the way they were meant to be played. However, while the current version FreeDOS will load most classic DOS apps, it has one major incompatibility: it cannot serve as a boot loader for early versions of Windows, like Windows 3.1. MS-DOS compatible. But with FreeDOS development still on-going, there’s still hope that we can get this, and more functionality, in a future release.

Jowi Morales
Contributing Writer

Jowi Morales is a tech enthusiast with years of experience working in the industry. He’s been writing with several tech publications since 2021, where he’s been interested in tech hardware and consumer electronics.

  • JeffreyP55
    I have it. I get much more enjoy Amiga Forever emulator (Amiga OS's). Way far ahead of DOS and crippled video cards of the day. Finally had to jump ship. Commodore pooched the gooch. Developers went elsewhere, Commodore turned out garbage at the end then folded. I knew the father of the Amiga. Nice man as was his wife a nice lady. R.I.P. Jay Minor.
  • TerryLaze
    JeffreyP55 said:
    I have it. I much more enjoy Amiga Forever emulator (Amiga OS's).
    Yeah but that needs windows to run, or linux.
    FreeDos boots the PC from nothing and is great for running dos things.

    Next best thing is any of the frontends that boot linux and then straight into retroarch and can run pretty much anything, including dos and amiga.
  • mbbrutman
    That's a PCjr pictured in the article. Too bad a standard PCjr can't actually run FreeDOS. ;-0
  • bit_user
    I still have a FreeDOS USB stick that I made for installing BIOS updates, SSD firmware update, etc. However, I haven't had to use it in probably the past 5 years due to better support for that sort of thing in Linux or via UEFI.

    BTW, the UEFI shell seems very DOS-like, but with better built-in hardware support. That was a pleasant surprise, when I first discovered it.
  • KnightShadey
    Admin said:
    Nowadays you would probably need to dig out your granddad’s old IBM PC

    Hey, what d'ya mean grandad? 🤨 😜

    My 2nd PC as a kid, after the Commodore P.E.T. (with 8" floppy + tape drive ) was an original IBM PC with dual floppies, first upgrade was Electrohome colour monitor and individual punch down memory kit with loose chips in a tube.
    I still have the Keyboard in the garage (which is still the best keyboard ever IMO, just like a Selectric typewriter), the PC itself is buried in parents' attic, along with original boxes of IBM PC DOS, BASIC, FORTRAN, and games like Micro$oft Decathlon, Temple of Apshai, and Kings Quest. Some of those are now on Steam.

    Even used the PCJr (like the one in the photo) at summer camp at the IBM Country Club in Markham.

    Still have original M$ Arcade that came with the Model 25 that includes Asteroids, BattleZone, Centipede, Missile Command, and Tempest. I transfered it from floppy to file and it still plays on Windows from 3.1->95,98,2K,ME,Vista,7,8,10 & 11* , with just a few tweaks mainly for speed, bit more for 11.

    My Grandad's PC (which would, I guess, stand for Pocket Calculator) was one of these which I used to love to play with, along with a slide-ruler;