How to pick the best gaming laptop for MS-DOS games.

The other day, I was reading this old Compute! ‘s Gazette magazine from 1983. And I saw this card you could send off for more information.

It said, “No Postage Necessary if Mailed in the USA.” So I wondered, “What would happen if I filled it out and sent it off?” Well, stick around ’til the end and I’ll show you the result. Most of the time, getting into Retro Gaming can be quite a challenge. Even the old Atari 2600 her, for example, it can be very challenging to find a modern TV or monitor that you could actually connect this up to.

On the bright side, the games are pretty easy to deal with. All you have to do is find them online, or thrift shop, or whatever and you buy the game, and you know, you stick the game in the console, and it works. But, things get even more difficult when you start looking at old computers. For example, the Commodore 64 uses a disk format that’s essentially foreign today. It has no means to connect to the internet, and even if you have a pile of blank disks, getting the games copied over to them from the internet might be a nightmare. Now, if you fast forward just a few years to the era of 3½” disks, you might think you could easily copy games over to a disk using a USB floppy drive.

So, all the systems from that time period used proprietary file systems and formats, and these modern drives are just simply not capable of reading or writing to those disks. And, you know, and that just scratches the surface of the problems that you’re going to have to overcome if you want to get into using an old computer. However, if you were to ask me: I would have to say MS-DOS computers. These are the ancestors of modern computers and so share far more in common with systems today than any of these older systems. For example, I can actually use this USB floppy drive to copy files onto this disk and can actually be read in this computer. Or, even this really old one!

If I pull the hard drive out of one of these laptops, I can connect it to a USB hard drive adapter, and read or write files to it. I can even connect it to a modern ethernet network and transfer files that way. If your machine supports CD-ROM, you can burn those yourself. Another bonus is that it’s still easy and cheap to find modern peripherals that will connect to these things.

Such as this PS/2 optical mouse, or a VGA monitor. So, the question I’m here to answer is: Well, I think it’s first sort of important to find out what kind of games you want to play. MS-DOS was in common use for at least a good 15 years spanning from 1981 to the latter part of the 1990s. Now, I’m going to try and break this up into three different eras of games, so in the early part of the ’80s, you had your CGA and EGA games, typically running on anything from 8088 to 286 and these computers had no sound card, just the internal PC speaker.

The latter half of the 80’s were mostly VGA games supporting the Ad-Lib sound card. And the 1990’s was mostly dominated by S-VGA and Sound Blaster Card. Now, of course this chart is not exact, there are plenty of games that overlap these boundaries. For example, The Monuments of Mars! is a neat little game that I enjoy playing, and it only supports CGA graphics and PC speaker sound, despite it being released in 1991.

Now, I would think most people would not be interested in a desktop computer from this time period. The main reason being these things can be enormous! And they’re gonna take up a lot of space for something that you’re just gonna use for occasional retro gaming. So, a laptop should be the perfect solution.

But there are still some considerations. The first generation of MS-DOS compatible laptops didn’t start showing up in the market until the late 1980s. And back then, laptops were always a generation behind on technology. So these first laptops tended to have CGA graphics and older processors, and definitely no sound card.

So, they were really only capable of playing the really old games, plus the screens are horrible low resolution contrast monochrome screens definitely not well-suited to games. I suppose you could connect one up to a CGA color monitor and it might be better, but then you’re back to having the bulky things around. Oh, and then there’s the even bigger problem. These early laptops are highly sold after by collectors and can go for hundreds of dollars. So, I think we can safely rule these out.

The next generation of laptops is where things start to get interesting. For example, this 486 laptop here can run the vast majority of DOS games. I really like this laptop too. Um, it actually has a built-in power supply, which is pretty cool. So you don’t have to carry one of these around, instead, just a standard 2-prong cable.

And, it has a VGA Active Matrix Color Screen. Which is very important and I’ll show you why here shortly. And, it has a removable hard drive tray that doesn’t require a complete disassembly to get to it. In fact, I would go so far is to say that this is the perfect MS-DOS gaming laptop. Except for one problem: It has no sound card.

In fact, no computers from this time period have an internal sound card. So give that just a moment to let that sink in, and then we’ll have to ask the question: That’s a tough call. Now, most MS-DOS games were designed to give you at least some sound using the internal PC speaker.

Take Prince of Persia here for example. So you can hear that it does have sound even without a dedicated sound card. And then take a game like Ultima VI.

It supports a sound card, but only for the music. All of the sound effects are still generated by the PC speakers. So the sound effects would sound exactly the same whether you have a sound card or not. But then some games like Duke Nukem 3D will not give you any sound at all without a sound card. Total silence… It’s actually kind or eerie playing a game like this in total silence.

Of course, there’s always the option of a Disney Sound Source. This was a sound device that connected to the printer port and produced digital sound. So let’s go back to Prince of Persia now. Or how about Duke Nukem 3D? So this thing changes everything. Unfortunately, they are darn near impossible to find.

And when you do find one, it’s not likely to be cheap. The other problem is, it only supports digital sound effects so it doesn’t have any kind of music synthesizer in it so your games still won’t have any music. I think a lot of it depends on the specific games you intend to play, and some people might even consider he PC speaker sound to be part of the charm of playing older MS-DOS games. So ultimately, I think you’ll have to be the one to decide whether your MS-DOS gaming laptop will need a sound card or not. So that leaves us with the Early Pentium laptops of the late 1990s. These machines can play most games from all three eras.

I got this one from eBay recently for $25. And it needed a hard drive and a little maintenance work and a serious cleaning but it came out great! So this is really similar to the 486 I just showed you, but it has stereo speakers and an internal sound card. It also has a CD-ROM drive that can swap out with a floppy drive, making data transfer between modern PCs even more versatile. But let’s talk LCD screens for a moment.

During the DOS era, there were several types of laptop screens. Gas Plasma is so rare, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about coming across one. For gaming, I encourage you to stay away from anything STN or what might also be called Passive Matrix.

These screens have have several disadvantages. For one thing, they have poor contrast compared to TFT. On these screens, it was actually common to move your mouse and then actually lose it on the screen because it essentially disappears when in motion. You can already see a huge difference in contrast and color saturation, even on the still image. But the difference is even more apparent when things start moving. So any games that have fast-moving objects will almost seem to disappear.

Of course, if you plan to connect to an external monitor, then this will be less of an issue. If you’re looking on eBay, one easy way to determine which kind of screen you’re looking at is by the number of slider controls. TFT screens will have just a single slider control for brightness. Where STN screens will typically have 2 sliders: One for brightness and one for contrast. So if it has a contrast control, avoid it. As for the TFT monochrome, those are really rare and you’ll probably want color anyway.

I would also encourage you to stay away from SVGA screens when possible. The main issue is the number of pixels on the screen. Most DOS games ran in a resolution of 320 × 200 pixels. A typical VGA laptop screen would have a resolution of 640 × 480. Or four times the resolution of DOS games. So, the image has to be scaled.

But back then, LCD screens had very primitive pixel scalers. Notice that 640 is exactly double the resolution of 320. Scaling was easy, they just doubled up on the pixels, both horizontally and vertically, and it fit perfectly on the screen.

And so DOS games run great on a VGA screen, as you can see. But, what happens when you move up to a higher resolution like 800 × 600? Well, 320 will not evenly divide into 800.

So, the solution was just to leave a black area around the screen like this. So, let’s take a look at the Compaq LTE 5000 series, which is what I have here. You can see the different configurations it came in. I would definitely rule out these top two because of the STN screen. And I would recommend against these due to the high resolution. Leaving this as the one perfect configuration for DOS games.

Of course, finding the exact one has been quite a challenge. I ended up getting one of these and one of these. And, they’re acceptable. Another laptop I recommend is the Toshiba 400 series.

It came in several configurations as well. I would definitely rule out any of these because of the STN screen. And this is the one perfect model if you’re lucky enough to find it. Now here’s another question you might ask: Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it. The vast majority of DOS games were designed to work on less than 1 MB.

And yes, I’m talking about Megabytes, not Gigabytes like on modern systems. So most likely, whatever amount of RAM came with the system from the factory is probably good enough. And so you might ask: Like a Pentium 2 or a Pentium 3. Theoretically those machines can boot into DOS and theoretically they can run the DOS games. But here’s the problem: Those machines were really designed more an era where the primary design goals were to run Windows. And so, the sound cards are not Sound Blaster compatible and the vast majority of those machines.

So, the DOS games will not support the sound card. So you’re really no better off than you would have been with the 486. Getting a 486 or a Pentium laptop is actually pretty cheap these days.

You can see I only paid $25 + shipping for one of these. So with a little effort and a little shopping around, you can typically find a full system like this for probably less than $50. In fact, they’re so cheap, I actually recommend picking up two of them.

Believe it or not, many DOS games are capable of multiplayer. And the easiest way to do this is with a simple serial cable like this one. You’ll need to make sure the cable is 9-pin male on both sides and is wired up as a null modem, meaning the send and receive wires are crossed. Then you can invite a friend over and you can have hours of fun playing 2-player games!

Oh man, I got the RPG now, you’re going down! *shoots Joey* *laughs* *volcano strikes* Oh man, not the volcano! Another problem is when these hard drives go bad, finding a replacement can be tough. And this computer here for example, will not recognize and drive larger than 8 GB. Even this 40 GB drive which is already 10 years old, is too new to work on this computer because of the size.

But, finding Compact Flash cards that are 8 GB or less is easy! Even 2 GB is considered enormous for running DOS games. That being the case, I recommend replacing the hard drive with a Compact Flash card. The older drives that came with these computers are noisy, slow, and by this point, very unreliable.

You can buy these IDE to Compact Flash adapters for around $12. This allows you to use a Compact Flash card and replace it with the hard drive. Now, this is not a true SSD, and I wouldn’t recommend putting an operating system on this in most situations.

The main issue is the limited read/write cycles. It’s usually the swap file that kill these things. But, if you’re only running DOS, very little writing will be done.

It’s mostly reading 99% of the time and there’s no swap file. And I actually do go ahead and install Windows 95 on these things. But, I configure the MSDOS.sys file so it does not boot directly to Windows. That way when I turn on the computer, it boots straight to the DOS prompt.

If for some reason I want to run Windows, I can just type “win” at the prompt. And you might even ask, what’s the point of even having Windows 95 on a system like this? I mean, it’s virtually impossible to surf the internet, or at least today’s internet on a computer like that. Well, believe it or not, there actually are some good reasons.

For one, it makes it easier to transfer my DOS game over the network by simply browsing to a network share and dragging them over. But, you might even find yourself wanting to play some early Windows games too. And nope, I don’t just mean Solitaire. Now unfortunately, there is no laptop, or desktop for that matter, that is going to be able to play every single MS-DOS game out there to it’s fullest potential. It just doesn’t exist.

For example, some of these really early DOS games were designed with a particular processor in mid, and when trying to play that game on a Pentium processor, you’ll find it runs way too fast. And the truth is, there’s very few games that are gonna actually have that problem. Most of them were designed in the early 80s, like ’81, ’82, and they expected the machine to be 4.77 MHz and no faster.

So, I mean, pretty much anything from 1985 or newer is gonna have the same problem running those older games. Then, there will be other games like Maniac Mansion. It only supports one sound card: The Tandy 1000’s proprietary 3-voice sound chip. So for everyone else, including this Pentium laptop, it will just have PC Speaker sound. Nevertheless, I estimate this machine can probably run about 95% of all MS-DOS games to their fullest potential. Now of course, somebody is bound to ask: For those who don’t know, DOSBox is a fantastic emulator for DOS applications that you can run on modern computers.

Well, the same question could be asked about any vintage system that can be emulated, which is darn near all of them. There’s just something cool about playing the games on the original native hardware. Also, I’m not sure it’s possible to do the dual-player setup, like you can with the real hardware. So, if you’re wondering what happened to that card I sent off, believe it or not, I got it back a week later inside of an envelope. The post office stamped the card saying the permit was expired.

But, it did make it all the way from Fort Worth to Philadelphia before they realized it though. – Subtitles/CC by Carter Janik –