posted by Marti van Lin on Thu 7th Sep 2006 21:07 UTC
IconThe FreeDOS kernel originally produced by Pat Villani and what we consider today to be the full featured operating system "FreeDOS" by Jim Hall and is currently maintained by the FreeDOS team, including many third party contributors. It's first goal was to create a full featured MS DOS clone but it has extended beyond this with features like "out of the box" networking support.

The first major stable release FreeDOS 1.0 is already released but this review was written on July 2006.

The test machine

* Pentium 133 CPU
* 32 MB RAM;
* SiS VESA 2 SVGA 1MB GPU;
* 1,2 GiB IDE HDD;
* 24x IDE CD-ROM drive;
* General keyboard;
* PS/2 mouse;
* OPTi9xx soundcard;
* 3COM Etherlink III combi NIC.

Installation

After downloading the full ISO9660 image and burning to CDR, I booted the system without a glitch. The bootstrap provides a menu, but you will have exactly 2 seconds to make a choice (this should be extended to at least 10 seconds i guess). I fired up fdisk to partition the HDD in one large FAT16 partition and formated it. Next I rebooted and fired up the setup program, which is pretty straight forward. You'll have the option to choose what to install and what to exclude. I choose a full install.

First boot

After about 15 minutes the installation was done and i rebooted from the HDD. Major differences with MS DOS include CONFIG.SYS being called FDCONFIG and AUTOEXEC.BAT being called FDAUTO.BAT. These two are pretty well designed and show some amount of intelligence.

GUI

FreeDOS comes out of the box with the SEAL 2 GUI, which unfortunately is no longer developed, and Shane Land's (aka. Shane M. Coughlan) OpenGEM 4. This version is already pretty outdated, so I grabbed OpenGEM 5 from Shane Land's website.

Installing OpenGEM 5 is a breeze!

If you start the install script it may prompt you to overwrite OPENGEM.ZIP, your answer shoult be Y(es)! Now OpenGEM gets recursively unzipped to the root directory of the C:\ partition (you will have to edit the install.bat file to install to another partition). This may take quit some time (depending on the used machine). In fact OpenGEM does not require any further configuration, it simply runs right out of the box, by launching GEM.BAT, or simply GEM from the root directory on the command line interface. If you want to use a printer, soundcard or change your Video settings, you'll simply fire up SETUP.BAT. That's all.

The general OpenGEM 5 distribution is a single tasking environment, but on the website there is also a experimental multi tasking version available and a very useful Software Developers Kit to write additional GEM applications.

Third party applications

OpenGEM 5 comes up with some office / Internet / multimedia applications, but i've been searching the web for alternatives and i have found a way cool web browser called Arachne, a complete CD-burning package (with DOS-CDRoast GUI), Ken's Labyrinth FPS. All of these are 100% free (as in free beer, not necessarily free speech) of course. They are freeware or Open Sources . Beside that there are many Freeware repositorys on the web like this one.

Surfing the web under FreeDOS

I was quite amazed by the Arachne web browser. At first I was not able to setup a connection using the "build in" connection wizard. I realized the problem must be the setup of the NIC. I downloaded DOS drivers and a configuration tool from the 3COM website and started playing around with it. After setting up the NIC properly and rebooted, the Arachne Connection wizard did its job pretty well and now i am able to surf the web on a FreeDOS box. Hooray!

Multimedia

Multimedia has always been a little tricky under DOS. Fortunately FreeDOS includes mpxplay, a commandline audio player that supports all popular audio formats, like WAV, MP3 and Ogg-Vorbis, beside that, OpenGEM provides another MP3 player and a full featured audio CD player. If you are in to tracking music, good old FasterTracker 2 and my personal favorite, Jeffrey Lim's Impulse Tracker will do just fine.

Development

My biggest source of frustration in the MS DOS age was that full featured compilers where too expensive, the so called "lite" versions, like Microsoft's "Quick" series where a joke in my opinion. I found Quick C rather useless. Fortunately there are some way cool free compilers available these days. C coders seriously should take a look ad DJ Delorie's DJGPP. For Pascal coders there is FreePascal. For BASIC fans there is FreeBASIC. And if you are a Assembler geek, the only thing you'll have to do is to install the LANG package from the FreeDOS distribution. You don't even have to start the FreeDOS setup program from the cd-rom, unzipping the LANG.ZIP file recursively in your FreeDOS directory is sufficient.

Conclusion

FreeDOS in combination with OpenGEM 5 and some additional applications and games gives your old dusty boxes a second life. It's quite a amazing experience to see your desktop firing up within a wink. We've got used to the fact that firing up the desktop takes minutes, with FreeDOS/OpenGEM this is a matter of seconds. The only con is that you need quite some DOS experience and computer knowledge in general, to get the best out of FreeDOS. And since you are a OSNews reader, it's very likely, you have all the required skills.

DOS is not dead, enjoy!

Thanks to Eric Auer for contributing the screenshots below the "First boot" section and Shane Martin Coughlan for correcting my crappy English.

Maastricht (NL) July 6 2006 / Marti van Lin


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