Win31/DOS question for you history fans


In the early ’90s I got my first Windows computer, a Leading Edge 386 running Windows 3.1. Out of the box it booted into Windows, presumably courtesy of a win.exe command in autoexec.bat.

I was in college and I mainly used computers to write papers with WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS. I was still pretty new to the DOS world and I didn’t fully understand that you run DOS programs by typing in an executable name at the prompt. So I created a WordPerfect icon in the Program Manager. The PC booted into Windows and I used the mouse to start WordPerfect. I think you could run DOS programs in a window, but I always ran WordPerfect full screen.

In retrospect this seems insane. Windows 3.1 consumed a lot of resources and I was basically using it as a glorified launcher for DOS programs. If I were using Win31 now I think I would boot to the DOS prompt and start win.exe if I needed to do something in Windows. On the other hand, DOS computers were still pretty impenetrable to me in those days and Windows was a great help getting started.

Family, if this were 1993, would you boot to Windows and start DOS programs using icons, or would you boot to a DOS prompt?

Comments (16)

16 responses to “Win31/DOS question for you history fans”

  1. mattbg

    Circa 1993, I would boot to a DOS prompt and load Windows when needed.

    However, there was a point around that time when it evolved that most of the apps I was using were Windows apps, so I likely switched to having it auto-boot into Windows between 1993 and 1995. I am not old enough to have needed DOS word processors, so my first word processors were Windows (Word 6.0, probably).

    Also, some Windows advantages started to creep in, such as modem terminal apps that were able to work in the background under co-op multitasking, which was a big deal given the modem transfer speeds at the time, and with DOS tying up the whole PC while a file downloaded.

    I would never launch DOS games from Windows.

    By the time Windows 95 came around, I never looked back, so I guess whatever problems coming from running DOS inside Windows were solved by then.

  2. Greg Green

    I can’t remember how I went from Windows to DOS. Was there a shutdown to DOS option?

  3. erichk

    In my Windows 3.1 days, I had a 486 at the time. If I recall correctly, I never had Windows boot automatically via the AUTOEXEC.BAT file. I was adept at DOS and typing, so I felt that was the most efficient way to run DOS applications. And whenever I needed Windows for multitasking or to run Word or whatever, I just fired it up myself by typing "win" at the command line. Usually before I shut down the machine though, I would exit Windows and go back to the DOS prompt. It probably didn't matter in those days, but better safe than sorry I guess.

    It's funny, around that time was when I hired in to my current job, an A/V technician at a local community college. A coworker of mine, who is still my coworker today, would get quite annoyed at my tendency to use the DOS prompt to accomplish tasks when there was a perfectly good mouse sitting on the desk. I kept explaining to him, when you grow up without a GUI on machines like the Apple II or C64 or whatever, it's hard to break those habits.

    • kenneth_burns

      Haha, at every job where I've had a Windows machine I've used a command prompt instead of Windows Explorer for basic file and folder tasks. And every time a coworker saw the DOS prompt they were like "What the eff are you doing????" I prefer keyboarding to mousing 1000% percent of the time.

  4. ruivo

    Funny thing that I just recreated my first PC in 86Box - a 486 DX-100 with 4mb of RAM. It brought back so many memories, like how I used to boot to DOS and manage everything from there. I specifically remembered how I would add special characters to my personal directories, so my little brother couldn't mess up my documents or savegames - for instance, UFO - Enemy Unknown directory was UƒO - I did that by typing ALT + 159, if Wikipedia can be trusted. The poor kid couldn't type the special character in DOS, but I'll be damned if I remember how I prevented him from accessing it from Windows ;-)

    So, no, I didn't boot directly into Windows. In fact, I remember I was so used to the command line interface that in the Windows ME days I was able to find out how to boot into "true" DOS when I needed more punch for my games.

    It is rather curious that nowadays I hate all kinds of command line interfaces (save for Python, but that is a different circumstance). I guess that my divorce from DOS on the NT days was rather traumatic...

  5. hrlngrv

    I began with a Compaq DeskPro in 1984 with Compaq MS-DOS 2.11, the Compaq-specific version which supported Compaq's 2-mode monitors. No Windows then. I got used to booting to the command line. I installed Windows 2/286 on the work PC I had at the time (back in the wild old days when there was no IT, only MIS/DP, which didn't give a damn about PCs) to use Excel in the late 1980s. Bought a 386-based Dell at the end of the 1980s and installed Windows 3.0, 3.1, 95, and 98 on my own. The first PC I bought with Windows preinstalled was another Dell in the late 1990s with NT4.

  6. beckoningeagle

    My first Windows install was on the Amiga 386 Bridgeboard, by the time that product came out the writing was on the wall for the demise of Amiga. I remember playing with QEMM and other extended memory managers to squeeze every last drop of low ram so that Windows would not have any issues. I would run most DOS programs in a small window (being 20 something years old at the time helped to actually see what was inside those windows) except games. Once Windows versions of office suites came out I stopped using DOS mode for anything but sysadmin scripts.

    If this was 1993 I would probably boot to Windows by default.

    One small detail, if you typed win.exe and didn't get an error, check you PC for viruses, as the correct command was ;-)

  7. christianwilson

    Until Windows 95, I always booted to DOS and started Windows when I needed something from it.

    The main reason for doing that was that I learned how to use a computer with DOS only and had some familiarity with it. The second reason is that I mostly played games on my computer back then and Windows was no bueno for that.

  8. navarac

    Always DOS. Windows was a new-fangled thing that took memory sitting on top of DOS. Most programs run under DOS anyway, so why bother with Windows? A lot of the time I ran CP/M anyway.

    • jimchamplin

      You were still running CP/M in 1993? Dedication right there.

      • erichk

        The way the market shifted to IBM and Microsoft and kicked CP/M to the curb throughout the '80s must have been amazing to witness. I didn't see that happen because I got my first IBM compatible computer in 1988.

  9. leoaw

    Even though I had WP51 at the time, most of my computer work in 1993 was using PageMaker and FreeHand. I forget if I automatically loaded Windows at boot or just typed "Win" once the prompt came up. I suspect I had it autoloaded to save time and then exit out if I needed to use a memory intensive DOS program. I only had a handful of games I played and they were all DOS based. At that point I didn't have a sound card, so the 640K section of RAM usually had plenty of room to load what I needed, even through Windows.

  10. Brazbit

    I still have my Digital HiNote Ultra 486/50 laptop from 1994. I kept it as it is an interesting time capsule for this era. It's Autoexec.bat and config.sys files were a thing of nerdy beauty.

    I booted to a menu that presented me with a list of configurations to boot to. The default went to Windows, Seconds was Dos will full hardware support. Then I had a configuration with maximum conventional memory. Another gave me maximum Extended Memory. I had a choice for maximum memory with multimedia support. My last general purpose selection created a maximum RAM drive, moved the command interpreter to the RAM Drive and presented me with a list of games to copy to the RAM drive and run directly from there for maximum performance. And finally I had two dedicated configurations for playing Dragon's Lair or Space Ace that would only enable what was required to support the selected game and launch it directly.

    Most of the time I would run as you described above going directly to Windows and using Windows to easily launch both DOS and Windows programs. But when I had particularly demanding programs to run I made just about every option I could think of available to me at boot. There wasn't a single piece of software I couldn't run at the time.

  11. kenneth_burns

    I loved the Windows 3.1 screen saver with the trippy swirling line like in the old Qix videogame. If I ran WordPerfect for DOS full screen in Windows, would the Windows screen saver still kick in? That would have been a reason to launch DOS apps from Windows.