So it has recently occurred to me that I never actually did a proper review of MS-DOS 6.22, either in this blog or in my old one. This bothers me, because in a previous post I did claim that I had “already talked extensively” about that version of DOS, when in fact I hadn’t. So here is my long-awaited review of the last and greatest (non-Windows) installment in the MS-DOS saga.
This article will be divided into two parts: The first part will go over some of the interesting features that are shared by multiple versions of MS-DOS, including earlier systems like MS-DOS 5.0 (which was the first DOS I tried out in my early days of playing around with VirtualBox). The second part will go over some highlights of the last version of MS-DOS – features that were introduced in MS-DOS 6.x and weren’t present in earlier versions. Indeed, MS-DOS 6.22 has a wealth of new and exciting features (“new” in relation to other DOS’s that is) that I think set it apart as the ultimate text-mode OS from Microsoft.
Part 1: MS-DOS Features
Added in MS-DOS 4.0 as a more user-friendly alternative to the command prompt, this was for a few years the default graphical shell for MS-DOS, before being gradually supplanted by Windows, and eventually discontinued altogether in Version 6.22. It provides a tiled view of your filesystem, as well as the ability to run any DOS command from within DOS Shell. There are a few different viewing modes, and the one shown in the screenshot above is the file info mode, which I find rather aesthetically pleasing. There is also the default mode, which provides a tree view of your filesystem. Although no longer included in Version 6.22 by default, Microsoft provided an extension disk that included all the obsolete features removed from that version. This extension disk can be found online via various abandonware sites.
This is the default partition manager in DOS. Although you don’t need to use this program directly when setting up MS-DOS, it is running in the background, and you can always access it later if you want to edit the partition table. Almost all DOS-based operating systems have some variation of this program, and although they may differ significantly from one another in look and feel, they all provide the same basic functionality. Those familiar with Linux may note that this program has the same name and purpose as the
fdisk utility for the *nix platform. Don’t confuse the two though, because they are completely different programs.
This is the default text editor for MS-DOS, affectionately named “the blue screen of death that you can edit” by old-school Microsoft haters. It is launched by running the
EDIT command. Other versions of DOS have similar editors – the
EDITOR program in DR-DOS, the IBM E editor included with PC-DOS, and of course FreeDOS EDIT. The screenshot above is actually a later version of MS-DOS Editor, taken from Windows XP and installed on MS-DOS 6.22 via a floppy image that I made. I happen to like that version better because the color options are more flexible, which allows me to choose a much more aesthetic colorscheme.
DOS batch programming
MS-DOS provides a simple programming language for creating batch files to run from the command line. Although the constructs in this language are rather primitive and can be somewhat limiting, it has many useful applications in the DOS world. It provides a few basic control flow commands, including
IF statements, and
GOTO statements. The AUTOEXEC.BAT file is an example of DOS batch programming, and it is present on every system.
Those familiar with shell scripting on the Unix/Linux platform probably know about aliases – substitute commands that can be mapped to other commands. DOS also provides a form of aliases, though not through any specific command or even any options of any command. The way you implement aliases in DOS is by creating a batch file whose filename is the name of the alias you want to create, and having the batch file run the command you want the alias mapped to. The code you would use is shown in the screenshot above.
Although the MS-DOS command line does not provide a command history by default, there is a program you can use to add one. This program is
DOSKEY. Simply run the
DOSKEY command in your AUTOEXEC.BAT file, and you have a convenient command history that you can scroll back up through if you want to repeat a command, which is something we command line junkies end up doing quite often.
Not everyone knows this, but Microsoft actually made its name not as an operating system company, but as a company that wrote BASIC interpreters. They continued this tradition into the DOS years with a BASIC dialect called QBASIC, which later evolved into the Visual Basic language familiar to .NET programmers. QBASIC is a neat little language that makes things like graphics programming incredibly easy. I have used it to implement sprite animation, which can be used for all kinds of 2D retro game programming. If you want to read more about QBASIC, I have written a series of articles on the topic which can be found here, here, and here.
Part 2: MS-DOS 6.22 Features
Interactive HELP program
In earlier versions of MS-DOS, the
HELP command simply printed a concise list of the default commands available on the system, and it was up to the user to look up each individual command. Although you can still do that in MS-DOS 6.22 with the
FASTHELP command, there is now a more user-friendly option. MS-DOS 6.22 comes with an interactive online manual, which has a man page for each command available on the prompt as well as for each command available in the CONFIG.SYS file. It even has man pages for important drivers. This program definitely makes learning how to use MS-DOS’s myriad of features a lot easier.
CONFIG.SYS startup menu
If you want, you can configure DOS to boot to an interactive menu that allows the user to select different options for startup. I have created a menu that selects between different shells to load, such as Windows 3.1, DOS Navigator, etc. I have shared my entire CONFIG.SYS file, complete with menu commands, in this article.
The Microsoft Diagnostics utility, or MSD, allows the user to get various diagnostic information about the computer, such as the specs of different hardware devices and the layout of memory. It provides an interactive menu-driven interface that allows you to navigate to different categories of information in order to troubleshoot problems or obtain important system information for the purpose of getting new software to work. I don’t really use it for much of anything, though it’s fun to look at the memory layout and see where everything is in memory.
Somewhere along the way, Microsoft must have realized that disk fragmentation was an issue that needed to be addressed, so they added the
DEFRAG utility to combat this problem. This utility shows you the layout of data on your hard drive, with a legend for all the symbols it uses. You can even watch the data get moved around in real time as it’s defragging.
In addition to addressing the fragmentation issue, Microsoft also introduced a utility to combat the rise in computer viruses during the early 90’s. This program detects and cleans viruses from your system, and also includes a list of all known viruses with information about each one. It’s not particularly useful as an antivirus utility anymore, since the viruses it was built to deal with are long gone, but it is useful as a reference of historic viruses, which has allowed me to pick stuff out from the list and look it up online to get more detailed information.
Written to replace the older
CHKDSK program in DOS, this interactive utility scans the hard disk looking for bad clusters and reports any that it finds. Not very useful if you’re running MS-DOS in a VM, but still interesting.
As its name suggests, this is a utility that backs up sections of your hard drive to a floppy. You have to do a lot of configuration before you can use it, but it is a robust utility with a lot of flexibility, allowing you to choose between different disk densities, which files to back up, etc. If running DOS in a VM, just use a blank floppy image, and this will give you a nifty backup archive that you can restore files from at a later date.
Well, I hope you enjoyed my review of MS-DOS 6.22. I obviously didn’t cover everything that this operating system has to offer, but those were just some of the highlights. See you next time, and happy retrocomputing.