Transfering data from old DOS machines

Today we will be talking about how you go about transferring data to and from old DOS machines. I generally use the data transfer initially to back up stuff on my vintage machines, and to install software from my archive to the vintage machine. If you have a vintage machine of any kind, I would strongly recommend you have a backup on a more modern machine. There are many different ways that you may wish to perform the transfer, here are some of my prefered simple ways of transferring data.

Floppy Disks

Yes I know, it seems obvious but with modern machines you may need to go out of your way to install a floppy drive in your system. Many old machines only have a 5.25 inch floppy drive. which could pose a problem for you. Surprisingly most systems even modern ones will support a 5.25 floppy drive if you have the right cables, but if that is not a option you may be able to install a more compatible 3.5 inch floppy drive in your vintage system. The disadvantage of this method is that you cannot move large amounts of data

Serial Cable

Another option you have is to use a serial cable and some special software to do the data transfer. This requires some important things, firstly the hardware to be able to do it. Pretty much all vintage computers have serial ports so they typically aren’t a problem. You also need a serial null modem cable, which is pretty simple if like me you’ve been using these cables for a long time. I’ve had them for the purposes of playing games via serial for quite a while. The last thing that you need is a serial port in you modern machine. This can be difficult as many modern machines do not have any serial ports on board, others require a header connected to the mainboard to access the feature. If you don’t have a port I’d recommend getting a serial card as this is the method most likely to work. You may try a USB adapter first if you like but they are often problematic and don’t work. Now for the software you can use a variety of programs, but I’d recommend you get a copy of laplink 3 for DOS. It works quite well and seems to be robust. You will need to set up dosbox on your modern machine if you are running a newer OS. Be sure to set up the link from a virtual dosbox serial port to the real serial port. You can of course also use other software such as terminal software that uses the zmodem protocol.  If the old machine has windows 3.x on it, you can use the terminal program in it in conjunction with the terminal program in your modern windows. The advantages of serial are obvious, you can transfer alot of data instead of just a few megabytes. The down side is usually the speed. It’s faster than floppies if you account for the time swapping and managing the copy, but it’s still pretty slow. You can speed things up by compressing what you want to send using pkzip or lha, but this does take time to create and extract, which can be significant on old systems. Parallel ports are pretty much the same deal as serial except they require a different set of cables and software, but generally have the same good and bad points with a higher speed. This is my prefered way of transferring data.

Via Hard Disk

This is probably the hardest way of moving data, but by far the fastest once it is working. The main problems with hard disks are the in ability of modern machine to read many old drives and vice versa. You really need to do your homework before connecting an old drive into a new machine or a newer hard disk into an old machine. ATA (also known as IDE) adapters used different standards over time and many of them are incompatible. I remember at one point frying a newer hard disk trying to connect to a older computer because of the differing signalling voltages between the two eras of hard disk. I think the best way is to find a adapter or card that will fit either the modern machine or vintage one, it must be known to work with the particular hard disk you have. SCSI cards and hard disks are a good option as the drives are fast, and you’ll find plenty of adapters to suit modern and vintage machines. To minimise the risk to you modern machine you may try to use a USB to IDE adapter, but may find it doesn’t work depending on the age of the vintage hardware. I don’t like to use this method as it puts hardware at risk of damage, and vintage components are hard to come by. Also I don’t like messing to much with my working vintage systems configuration. The only reason I’d do this is if the drive is already failing and I needed the data back fast. You can use tools like ddrescue on linux to make a image of a hard disk containing as much data as is recoverable and retreive your data from there.


The last method you can use is networking. A network is a good option if you use your vintage machine on a regular basis and need to transfer data regularly. There is alot you need to do but it is usually fairly simple as long as you can get the appropriate equipment. You’ll need a preferably ne2000 compatible card for your vintage machine that has dos support, and the microsoft networking software (often comes with windows for workgroups). Once you set up the network share, you simple just need to be connected to your network and you can either map a network drive or use windows explorer to do what you need to be done. This is  a good solution in that it is typically faster than serial, less likely to damage hardware than directly connecting devices, and cane be set up as a permanent solution. The down side is that the set up itself can be difficult if you are not familiar with networking.


I prefer using the serial cable method myself as it is one of the simplest and quickest to set up. You’ll also find it’s the most compatible across the most vintage machines. Incidently it’s also the one requiring the least hardware and software knowledge, so it’s also what I’d recommend inexperienced people try, unless they only need to transfer a small amount in which case a floppy is a good choice. The other methods require you to be able to install specialised hardware and/or software. Connection of hard drives in particular is the most perilous for the inexperienced, as destruction of hardware is a very real possibility. Network connectivity is usually overkill for me as I don’t set up any of my vintage machines in a permanent place, and I generally don’t have to worry to much about how long the transfer will take so serial is fine. If you happen to have a parallel cable you can get some better speed than serial with much of the same convenience, but many old parallel ports are not bi-directional so you will need a backup in case it fails.


0 Responses to “Transfering data from old DOS machines”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blogs I Follow

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Mister G Kids

A daily comic about real stuff little kids say in school. By Matt Gajdoš

Random Battles: my life long level grind

completing every RPG, ever.

Gough's Tech Zone

Reversing the mindless enslavement of humans by technology.

Retrocosm's Vintage Computing, Tech & Scale RC Blog

Random mutterings on retro computing, old technology, some new, plus radio controlled scale modelling.


retro computing and gaming plus a little more

Retrocomputing with 90's SPARC

21st-Century computing, the hard way


MS-DOS game reviews, retro ramblings and more...

%d bloggers like this: