How to run old software on a modern PC or laptop

Need to get data from some old document or spreadsheet but can’t open it in modern apps? Do you have some old applications or games you want to run but your computer refuses to install them? Maybe the media is old or taking up space unnecessarily; You want to back up the files before the hard drives are retired.


It’s been over 40 years since the first home computers were sold. Many of us have decades of digital data at our disposal, much of which seems inaccessible. But with the right tools and software, it’s possible to salvage old data and get it running on current operating systems.

In fact, now is probably the best time to get that data before it’s too late.


Running the software: your options

You may have already discovered that running old software on your computer is not easy. Media loading may not be possible; The app may not work on your operating system. This last point could be due to hardware compatibility or a different operating system.

Fortunately, software can also be the solution. Once you have successfully retrieved the data (whether personal files or software), it can usually be executed using one of the following methods:

  • emulation
  • Virtual machine
  • DLL library
  • Compatibility Settings

However, before investigating how to make the data work, you need to know if the original media is readable and if the data can be copied from it.

Removing data from the original media can also be difficult. Old CDs and DVDs can usually be retrieved with a USB optical reader. Other, older formats are more difficult to handle.

For example, software released between 1995 and 2010 was typically released on CD-ROM or DVD-ROM. (Since then, downloads have become increasingly popular).

Older software shipped and stored on different media:

  • 3.5 inch floppy disks
  • 5.25 inch hard drives
  • cartridges
  • cassettes

If you still have the original media, there’s a good chance it can be recovered. This may come as a surprise as you may be under the impression that media has a finite shelf life that has expired. For example, there is something called disc rot that affects optical media. Similar problems can affect magnetic storage devices (floppy disks, cassette tapes, etc.).

The risks to old storage media are true, but that doesn’t mean media stored in the right conditions can’t be archived.

Archive old hard drives

When you’re looking for a way to remove data from old media that predates optical drives, things can be tricky.

Not only do you need the original media, you also need the drive, not to mention a way to connect it to your current PC. For 3.5 inch hard drives, this could simply be a case where you plug in a USB floppy drive. With older devices and media, you need to look for the right cables (and associated software) to effectively restore them. In most cases these can be bought on eBay.

As a rule of thumb, the older the media, the more difficult it is to copy data from it.

Create a disk image

I recently copied an old CD-ROM onto my 64-bit laptop and ran the software. All I needed was an optical drive and software to create an ISO from the disc. This disc image then ran on the computer without the need for the original media.

Depending on what operating system you are using, there are numerous ways to create a disk image ISO file. Instructions for each are listed below.

First, make sure the DVD or CD is inserted in the optical drive.

Create a disk image on Windows

The easiest way to create a disc image on Windows is to download BurnAware, a disc copying tool for Windows 10 and 11 with a free option good enough to create an ISO.

Download: BurnAware Free

With software installed and running:

  • Choose Disc Images > Copy to ISO
  • Make sure the correct optical drive is selected
  • click search to find a location for the ISO
  • Give the file a name and click Save on computer
  • Choose Copy

Wait while the file is created. Windows can open ISO files, so once complete, verify that the contents of the final disk image are as expected.

Create an ISO disk image on macOS

If you are using macOS, disk images can be created in Disk Utility, but must be converted from CDR to ISO format for Windows or Linux software, or to DMG format for Mac software.

For more detailed instructions, see our guide to creating ISO disk images on Mac.

Create an ISO of your CD or DVD in Linux

Linux users can use the terminal to create an ISO file.

Begin by unmounting the disc:

sudo umount /dev/cdrom/

or

sudo umount /mnt/cdrom/

Now the disc can be copied to a disc image ISO file:

sudo dd if=/tmp/cd-image.iso of=/home/[username]cdrom

change [username] for your own profile username.

Wait for the ISO file to be created, then double-click to open and browse the file. You can remount the original disc and compare the content if needed.

Run your data or software

You retrieved the data as a disk image file, but how do you run it? You have four options:

  • emulation
  • Virtual machine
  • Open source API
  • Windows Compatibility Mode

Each option is explained in more detail below.

Install an emulator

All kinds of old (and some current) operating systems and platforms can be run on modern hardware with emulators.

Finding the right emulator can be tricky, and this is where a tool like RetroArch comes in handy. This gathers the best emulators for classic computer and console platforms under one user interface. See our guide to running RetroArch on Windows; The software also runs on macOS and Linux.

RetroArch can also be installed on all of your favorite gaming consoles, from an Android tablet to a Raspberry Pi.

Download: RetroArch (free)

However, RetroArch can be considered overkill in some cases. If you want to run old PC software from the MS-DOS era, games and applications can be run in DOSBox.

Like RetroArch (which it comes with), DOSBox runs on Windows, macOS, and Linux.

Download: DOSBox (free)

Set up a virtual machine

A virtual machine creates a virtual hardware environment where you can specify processor speed, memory, disk space, and a few other factors. This can then be used to install a different operating system than the one you are using.

Virtual machine options are plentiful, with the ability to run any guest OS on any host OS—virtually, of course.

So you can:

Choose the right option for your needs, copy the disk image to the virtual machine and run it.

Use PlayOnLinux or PlayOnMac

If you use Linux or a Mac and want to run old Windows software, there’s a good chance you can get it working with PlayOnLinux or PlayOnMac.

These tools are based on an open-source implementation of the Windows API, which allows Windows software to run. They are also developed together, and therefore the steps to use them are almost identical.

If you have created an ISO file from an old Windows CD-ROM and want to run it on Linux, you can install Wine and PlayOnLinux, which you can find in your distribution’s usual software library (e.g. in Ubuntu’s Software Center).

Once installed, run PlayOnLinux and then do the following:

  • click Configure > New
  • Choose Install a program in a new virtual drive then Next
  • Click now 32-bit Windows installation and click Next
  • Choose systemthen Next
  • Enter a name for the virtual drive and click Next to create it
  • In the Wine configuration window on the applications tab, select the Windows version that fits the software
  • click OK
  • When it appears in the left menu, click on the virtual drive
  • In which Other tab, click Run a Windows executable
  • Look for the .exe file in your mounted disk image
  • Work your way through the Windows installation wizard
  • Create a shortcut when prompted
  • In the PlayOnLinux/PlayOnMac main window, select the installed software and click To run

The software is now open and ready to use.

Run old software with Windows compatibility

Old Windows software can run in compatibility mode in current versions of the software. This is available in Windows 10 and 11.

To use this:

  • Look for the executable (this is the EXE file)
  • Right-click and select Properties > Compatibility
  • Check Run this program in compatibility mode for
  • From the drop-down box, select the version of Windows you want the software to run on
  • click OK
  • Double-click the EXE execute file

In some cases, you may need to try some versions of Windows in compatibility mode.

Compatibility mode is not a reliable way to run old 32-bit software on a 64-bit system. Likewise, 16-bit software (ie intended for Windows 3.x) is unlikely to run.

Don’t lose your old data

When the software runs successfully, you can use it to open relevant old files, export the data to formats with modern compatibility, and retrieve the data you need.

Old-fashioned text files, graphics projects, video games and their backup files, or special applications can all run on modern hardware. All you need is a way to get the data from the storage media and a proper environment to run it.

If your archiving was part of a downsizing process, be sure to safely recycle the old hardware and media.

About Willie Ash

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