How to Run Old Software on a Modern PC or Laptop

Need to recover data from old documents or spreadsheets, but can’t open them in modern apps? Want to run old apps or games, but your computer won’t install them? Maybe the media is old or takes up unnecessary space; you want to back up the files before the disks are deleted.

It has been over 40 years since the first personal computers were sold. Many of us have decades of digital data, much of which seems inaccessible. But with the right tools and software, it’s possible to recover old data and run it on today’s operating systems.

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

Running the Software: Your Options

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

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

  • Emulation
  • Virtual machine
  • DLL library
  • Compatibility settings

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

It can also be difficult to extract data from the original media. Old CDs and DVDs can usually be recovered using a USB optical drive. Other older formats are more difficult to manage.

For example, software released between 1995 and 2010 was usually released 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 drives
  • Cartridges
  • Audio cassettes

If you still have the original media, chances are it can be recovered. This may come as a surprise, as you may feel that the media has a finite lifespan that is outdated. For example, there is such a thing as disc rot, which affects optical media. Similar issues can affect magnetic storage (floppy disks, tapes, etc.).

The risks for old storage media are correct, but that doesn’t mean that discs that have been stored in good condition can’t be archived.

Archiving old discs

If you’re looking for a way to extract data from older media that predates optical drives, things can be tricky.

Not only do you need the original media, but you also need the drive, not to mention ways to connect it to your current PC. With 3.5 inch drives, this may be as simple as plugging in a USB floppy drive. For older devices and media, you’ll need to research the appropriate cables (and associated software) for efficient recovery. In most cases these can be purchased on eBay.

In general, the older the medium, the more difficult it is to copy data from it.

Create a disk image

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

There are many ways to create a disc image ISO file, depending on the operating system you are using. Instructions for each are listed below.

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

Create a disk image in Windows

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

To download: Free BurnAware

With the software installed and running:

  • Select Disc Images > Copy to ISO
  • Make sure the correct optical drive is selected
  • Click on Browse to find a location to save the ISO
  • Name the file and click to safeguard
  • Select Copy

Wait for the file to be created. Windows can open ISO files, so when done, verify that the contents of the finished disc image are as expected.

Create an ISO disk image on macOS

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

See our guide to creating ISO disc images on a Mac for more complete instructions.

Create an ISO image of your CD or DVD in Linux

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

Start by unmounting the disk:

sudo umount /dev/cdrom/


sudo umount /mnt/cdrom/

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

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

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

  • Emulation
  • Virtual machine
  • Open-source APIs
  • Windows compatibility mode

Each option is explored further 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, which is where a tool like RetroArch comes in handy. This brings together all the best emulators for classic computer and console platforms under a single user interface. Check out our guide to running RetroArch on Windows; the software also works on macOS and Linux.

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

To download: Retro Arch (Free)

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

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

To download: DOSBox (Free)

Configure 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.

The options for virtual machines 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’re using Linux or a Mac and want to run old Windows software, chances are you can make it work with PlayOnLinux or PlayOnMac.

These tools are based on an open source implementation of the Windows API, which allows running Windows software. They are also developed in tandem, and as such the steps to use them are nearly identical.

If you have created an ISO file of an old Windows CD-ROM and want to run it under Linux, you can install Wine and PlayOnLinux, which you will find in the usual software library of your distribution (for example, the Software Center on Ubuntu).

After installation, launch PlayOnLinux, then:

  • Click on Configure > New
  • Select Install a program in a new virtual drive then Next
  • Now click 32 bit windows installer and click Next
  • Picking out Systemthen Next
  • Enter a name for the virtual drive and click Next to create it
  • In the Wine configuration window, on the Apps tab, select the tab Windows version which corresponds to the software
  • Click on OKAY
  • When it appears in the left menu, click on the virtual drive
  • In the Various tab, click Run a Windows executable
  • Locate the EXE file in your mounted disk image
  • Use the Windows Setup Wizard
  • Create a shortcut when prompted
  • In the PlayOnLinux/PlayOnMac main window, select the installed software and click on To run

The software is now open and ready to use.

Run old software with Windows compatibility

Older Windows software can be run in current software versions using compatibility mode. This is available in Windows 10 and 11.

To use this:

  • Find the executable (this is the EXE file)
  • Right click and select Properties > Compatibility
  • Check Run this program in compatibility mode to
  • From the drop-down list, select the version of Windows in which the software should run
  • Click on OKAY
  • Double click on the EXE file to run

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

Compatibility mode is not a reliable way to run older 32-bit software on a 64-bit system. Similarly, 16-bit software (i.e. intended for Windows 3.x) is also unlikely to work.

Don’t lose your old data

With the software running, you can use it to open relevant old files, export the data to formats with modern compatibility, and recover the data you need.

Old-school text files, graphics projects, video games and their save files, or specialized applications can all be run on modern hardware. All you need is a way to extract data from storage media and a suitable environment to run it on.

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

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