How to Run Old Software on a Modern PC or Laptop

Need to retrieve data from some old documents or spreadsheets but can’t open them in modern apps? Have some old applications or games you want to run, but your computer refuses to install them? Perhaps the media is old, or taking up unnecessary space; you want to back up the files before the disks are ditched.


It’s over 40 years since the first home computers were sold. Many of us have several decades’ of digital data, much of which seems inaccessible. But with the right tools and software, it is possible to rescue old data and run it on current operating systems.

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


Running the Software: Your Options

You may have already found that running old software on your computer is not easy. Loading the media might be impossible; the app possibly doesn’t 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 run in any of the following methods:

  • emulation
  • Virtual Machine
  • DLL library
  • Compatibility settings

Before exploring how to get the data running, however, you need to know if the original media is readable, and if the data can be copied from it.

Getting data off the original media can also be difficult. Old CDs and DVDs can usually be retrieved using a USB optical reader. Other, older formats are harder to deal with.

For example, software released between 1995-2010 was typically published on CD-ROM or DVD-ROM. (Since that time, downloads have become more popular).

Older software was shipped and stored on other media:

  • 3.5-inch floppy disks
  • 5.25-inch disks
  • Cartridges
  • cassette tapes

If you still have the original media, there is a good chance that it can be retrieved. This may come as a surprise, as you may be under the impression that media has a finite shelf life that has passed. For example, there is such a thing as disc rot, which affects optical media. Similar problems can affect magnetic storage (floppy disks, cassettes, etc.).

The risks to old storage media are accurate, but this doesn’t mean that disks that were stored in the right conditions cannot be archived.

Archiving Old Disks

If you’re looking for a way to get data off old media that predates optical drives, things can be difficult.

Not only do you need the original media, you need the drive as well, not to mention some means of connecting it to your current PC. With 3.5-inch disks this might simply be a case of hooking up a USB floppy drive. For older devices and media, you will need to research the correct cables (and companion software) for effective retrieval. In most cases, these can be bought on eBay.

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

Create a Disk Image

I’ve recently copied an old CD-ROM to my 64-bit laptop and run the software. All I needed was an optical drive and software for creating an ISO from the disc. This disc image was then run on the computer without the original media being necessary.

There are numerous ways you can create a disk image ISO file, depending on which operating system you use. Instructions for each are listed below.

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

Create a Disk Image on Windows

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

download: BurnAware Free

With the software installed and running:

  • select Disc Images > Copy to ISO
  • Ensure the correct optical drive is selected
  • click Browse to find a location to save the ISO
  • Give the file a name and click save
  • select copy

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

Create an ISO Disk Image on macOS

If you use 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.

See our guide to creating ISO disk images on a Mac for more full instructions.

Create an ISO of Your CD or DVD on 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 unmounted, the disc can be copied to a disk 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 contents, if necessary.

Run Your Data or Software

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

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

Each option is explored further below.

Install an Emulator

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

Finding the right emulator can be tricky, which is where a tool like RetroArch comes in useful. This collects all 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 anything from an Android tablet to a Raspberry Pi, via all your favorite game consoles.

download: RetroArch (Free)

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

Like RetroArch (which it features in), DOSBox can be run on Windows, macOS, and Linux.

download: DOSBox (Free)

Setup a Virtual Machine

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

The options for virtual machines are plentiful, with the possibility of running any guest operating system on any host operating system – virtually, of course.

So, you can:

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

Use PlayOnLinux or PlayOnMac

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

These tools rely on an open source implementation of the Windows API, which makes it possible to run Windows software. They’re also developed in tandem, and as such the steps for using them are almost identical.

If you made an ISO file of an old Windows CD-ROM and want to run it on Linux, you can install Wine and PlayOnLinux, which you will find in your distro’s usual software library (eg the Software Center on Ubuntu).

After installation, run PlayOnLinux, then:

  • click Configure > New
  • select Install a program in a new virtual drive then Next

  • now click 32-bit windows installation and click Next

  • choose Systemthen Next
  • Input 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 matches the software
  • click OK
  • When it appears in the left-hand menu, click the virtual drive
  • in the Miscellaneous tab, click Run a Windows Executable

  • Browse for the EXE file in your mounted disk image
  • Work through the Windows installation wizard
  • Create a shortcut when prompted
  • In the main PlayOnLinux/PlayOnMac window, select the installed software and click run

The software is now open and ready to use.

Run Old Software With Windows Compatibility

Old Windows software can be run in current versions of the software using Compatibility Mode. This is available in Windows 10 and 11.

To use this:

  • Browse for the executable (this is the EXE file)
  • Right-click and select Properties > Compatibility
  • check Run this program in compatibility mode for
  • In the drop-down box, select the version of Windows that the software should run in
  • click OK
  • Double-click the EXE file to run

In some cases, you may need to try a few Windows versions in Compatibility Mode.

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

Don’t Lose Your Old Data

With the software running 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 save files, or specialist applications can all be run on modern hardware. All you need is a way to get the data off the storage media and a suitable environment for running it.

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

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