Sunday, May 6, 2018

Tutorial: Basic navigation on FreeDOS

New users often ask "I installed FreeDOS, but how do I use it?" If you haven't used DOS before, the blinking C:\> FreeDOS prompt can seem a little unfriendly. And maybe scary. So I wanted to write a gentle introduction to FreeDOS, to get you started. This article introduces just the basics: how to get around, and how to look at files.

The DOS prompt

First, let's look at the empty C:\> prompt and see what it means:

DOS is a "disk operating system" and was created during a time when personal computers ran from floppy disks. Even when computers supported hard drives, it was not uncommon in the 1980s and 1990s to frequently switch between the different drives. For example, you might make a backup copy of your most important files to a floppy disk.

FreeDOS references each drive by a letter. Early PC's could only have two floppy drives, which were assigned as the A: and B: drives. The first partition on the first hard drive was the C: drive. And so on for other drive letters. So the C: in the prompt means you are using the first partition on the first hard drive.

DOS also supports directories and subdirectories, delimited by \. Putting that together with the drive letter, the C:\ in the prompt means you are in the top directory, or "root" directory, of the C: drive.

And the > is the literal prompt where you type your DOS commands. The part before the > tells you the current working directory, and you type commands at the > prompt.

Finding your way around in DOS

The basics of navigating through directories in FreeDOS are pretty simple. You need to remember only a few commands:

Displaying a directory

When you want to see the contents of the current directory, use the DIR command. Since FreeDOS commands are case-insensitive, you could also type dir. By default, FreeDOS displays the details of every file and subdirectory, including the name, extension, size, and last modified date and time.

If you don't want the extra details about individual file sizes, you can display a "wide" directory by using the /w option with the DIR command. Note that FreeDOS uses the slash character (/) to start options.

You can look inside a specific subdirectory by passing the path name as a parameter to DIR. DOS names are case-insensitive. FreeDOS will usually display files and directories in all uppercase, but you can equally reference them in lowercase.

Changing the working directory

Once you can see the contents of a directory, you can "move into" any other directory. On FreeDOS, you change your working directory with the CHDIR command, also abbreviated as CD. You can change into a subdirectory with a command like CD CHOICE or into a new path with CD \FDOS\DOC\CHOICE.

FreeDOS uses . to represent the current directory, and .. for the parent directory (one level "up" from the current directory). You can combine these. For example, CD .. changes to the parent directory, and CD ..\.. moves you two levels "up" from the current directory.

FreeDOS also supports CD - to jump back to your previous working directory. That makes it handy when you changed into a new path to do one thing, and want to go back to your previous work.

Changing the working drive

Remember that FreeDOS assigns the first partition on the first hard drive as the C: drive, and so on for other drive letters. On modern systems, people rarely divide a hard drive with multiple DOS partitions, and simply use the whole disk—or as much of it as they can assign to DOS. So C: is usually the first hard drive, and D: is usually another hard drive or the CD-ROM drive. Other network drives can be mapped to other letters, such as E: or Z:, or however you want to organize them.

Changing between drives is easy enough under FreeDOS. Just type the drive letter followed by a colon (:) on the command line, and FreeDOS will change to that working drive. For example, I keep a D: drive where I store installers for various DOS applications and games that I want to test.

Be careful that you don't try to change to a drive that doesn't exist. FreeDOS may set the working drive, but if you try to do anything there, you'll get the somewhat infamous "Abort, Retry, Fail" DOS error message.

Other things to try

With the CD and DIR commands, you have the basics of FreeDOS navigation. These commands allow you to find your way around DOS directories, and see what other subdirectories and files exist. Once you are comfortable with basic navigation, you might also try these other basic FreeDOS commands:

  • MKDIR or MD to create new directories
  • RMDIR or RD to remove directories
  • TREE to view a list of directories and subdirectories in a tree-like format
  • TYPE and MORE to display file contents
  • RENAME or REN to rename files
  • DEL or ERASE to delete files
  • EDIT to edit files
  • CLS to clear the screen

In FreeDOS, you can use the /? parameter to get brief instructions to use each command. For example, EDIT /? will show you the usage and options for the editor. Or you can type HELP to use an interactive help system.

Like any DOS, FreeDOS is meant to be a simple operating system. The DOS file system is pretty simple to navigate with only a few basic commands. So I encourage you to install FreeDOS and experiment with the DOS command line. Maybe now it won't seem so scary.


  1. and then it is completely unclear how to install and run programs. for example, at least some kind of game from the FD disk.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion! I'm writing something about how to install FreeDOS, and how to use FDIMPLES to install & remove other software extras (like a game) from the CDROM. Look for that in a few days.