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How to configure FreeDOS with FDCONFIG.SYS

The main configuration file for FreeDOS is a file in the root directory called FDCONFIG.SYS. This file contains a series of lines, each setting a value such as LASTDRIVE=Z or FILES=40. For example, the default FDCONFIG.SYS in FreeDOS 1.3 RC4 looks like this:

SET DOSDIR=C:\FDOS

!COUNTRY=001,858,C:\FDOS\BIN\COUNTRY.SYS
!LASTDRIVE=Z
!BUFFERS=20
!FILES=40
!MENUCOLOR=7,0

MENUDEFAULT=1,5
MENU 1 - Load FreeDOS with JEMMEX, no EMS (most UMBs), max RAM free
MENU 2 - Load FreeDOS with JEMM386 (Expanded Memory)
MENU 3 - Load FreeDOS low with some drivers (Safe Mode)
MENU 4 - Load FreeDOS without drivers (Emergency Mode)

12?DOS=HIGH
12?DOS=UMB
12?DOSDATA=UMB
1?DEVICE=C:\FDOS\BIN\JEMMEX.EXE NOEMS X=TEST I=TEST NOVME NOINVLPG
234?DEVICE=C:\FDOS\BIN\HIMEMX.EXE
2?DEVICE=C:\FDOS\BIN\JEMM386.EXE X=TEST I=TEST I=B000-B7FF NOVME NOINVLPG
34?SHELL=C:\FDOS\BIN\COMMAND.COM C:\FDOS\BIN /E:1024 /P=C:\FDAUTO.BAT
12?SHELLHIGH=C:\FDOS\BIN\COMMAND.COM C:\FDOS\BIN /E:1024 /P=C:\FDAUTO.BAT

But what do all those lines mean? Why do some have a question mark (?) or an exclamation point (!), while other lines do not?

A simple configuration

Let's start with a simple configuration, so we can see what does what. Assume this very brief FDCONFIG.SYS file:

LASTDRIVE=Z
BUFFERS=20
FILES=40
DEVICE=C:\FDOS\BIN\HIMEMX.EXE
SHELL=C:\FDOS\BIN\COMMAND.COM C:\FDOS\BIN /E:1024 /P=C:\FDAUTO.BAT

This configuration file contains only a few instructions:

  1. LASTDRIVE=Z
  2. BUFFERS=20
  3. FILES=40
  4. DEVICE=C:\FDOS\BIN\HIMEMX.EXE
  5. SHELL=C:\FDOS\BIN\COMMAND.COM C:\FDOS\BIN /E:1024 /P=C:\FDAUTO.BAT

The first instruction tells FreeDOS how many drive letters to reserve in memory. (DOS uses letters to represent each drive attached to the system, and LASTDRIVE=Z says to reserve drive letters from "A" to "Z.") LASTDRIVE affects the number of logical drives that your system can recognize. You probably don't have any logical drives; the FreeDOS installer doesn't set these up by default. In any case, it is safe to set LASTDRIVE=Z on any FreeDOS system.

The BUFFERS line reserves memory for file buffers. A buffer helps to speed up certain processes that require storage, such as copying files. If you set a larger value for BUFFERS, FreeDOS will reserve more memory - and vice versa for smaller values. Most users will set this to BUFFERS=20 or BUFFERS=40, depending on how often they need to read and write files on the system.

The FILES setting determines how many files DOS will allow you to open at one time. If you run an application that needs to open many files at once, such as a Genealogy database, you may need to set FILES to a larger value. For most users, FILES=40 is a reasonable value.

DEVICE is a special instruction that loads a device driver. DOS requires device drivers for certain hardware or configurations. The line DEVICE=C:\FDOS\BIN\HIMEMX.EXE loads the HimemX device driver, so DOS can take advantage of expanded memory beyond the first 640 kilobytes.

The last line tells the FreeDOS kernel where to find the command line shell. By default, the kernel will look for the shell as COMMAND.COM, but you can change it with the SHELL instruction. In this example, SHELL=C:\FDOS\BIN\COMMAND.COM says the shell is the COMMAND.COM program, located in the \FDOS\BIN directory on the C drive.

The other text at the end of the SHELL indicate the options to the COMMAND.COM shell. The FreeDOS COMMAND.COM supports several startup options to modify its behavior, including:

C:\FDOS\BINThe full path to the COMMAND.COM program
/E:1024The environment (E) size, in bytes. /E:1024 tells COMMAND.COM to reserve 1024 bytes, or 1 kilobyte, to store its environment variables.
/P=C:\FDAUTO.BATThe /P option indicates that the shell it is a permanent (P) shell, so the user cannot quit the shell by typing EXIT (the extra text =C:\FDAUTO.BAT tells COMMAND.COM to execute the C:\FDAUTO.BAT file at startup, instead of the default AUTOEXEC.BAT file)

With that simple configuration, you should be able to interpret some of the the FDCONFIG.SYS file that's installed by FreeDOS 1.3 RC4.

Boot menu

FreeDOS supports a neat feature: multiple configurations on one system, using a "boot menu" to select the configuration you want. The FDCONFIG.SYS file contains several lines that define the menu:

!MENUCOLOR=7,0

MENUDEFAULT=1,5
MENU 1 - Load FreeDOS with JEMMEX, no EMS (most UMBs), max RAM free
MENU 2 - Load FreeDOS with JEMM386 (Expanded Memory)
MENU 3 - Load FreeDOS low with some drivers (Safe Mode)
MENU 4 - Load FreeDOS without drivers (Emergency Mode)

The MENUCOLOR instruction defines the text color and background color of the bootmenu. These values are typically in the range 0 to 7, and represent these colors:

0Black
1Blue
2Green
3Cyan
4Red
5Magenta
6Brown
7White

So the MENUCOLOR=7,0 definition means to display the menu with white (7) text on a black (0) background. If you instead wanted to use white text on a blue background, you could define this as MENUCOLOR=7,1.

The exclamation point (!) at the start of the line means that this instruction will always be executed, no matter what menu option you choose.

The MENUDEFAULT=1,5 line tells the kernel how long to wait for the user to select a boot menu entry, or what default menu entry to use if the user did not select one. MENUDEFAULT=1,5 indicates the system will wait for 5 seconds; if the user did not attempt to select a menu item within that time, the kernel will assume boot menu "1" instead.

boot menu
The boot menu waits for 5 seconds before assuming menu item 1

The MENU lines after that are labels for the different boot menu configurations. These are presented in order, so menu item "1" is first, then "2," and so on.

menu select 4
Use the arrow keys to select a boot menu configuration

In the lines that follow in FDCONFIG.SYS, you will see numbers before a question mark (?). These indicate "for this boot menu entry, use this line." For example, this line with 234? will only load the HimemX device driver if the user selects boot menu entries "2," "3," or "4."

234?DEVICE=C:\FDOS\BIN\HIMEMX.EXE

There are lots of ways to use FDCONFIG.SYS to configure your FreeDOS system. We've only covered the basics here, the most common ways to define your FreeDOS kernel settings. For more information, explore the FreeDOS Help system (type HELP at the command line) to learn how to use all of the FreeDOS FDCONFIG.SYS options:

SWITCHES Boot time processing behavior
REM and ; Comments (ignored in FDCONFIG.SYS)
MENUCOLOR Boot menu text color and background color
MENUDEFAULT Boot menu default value
MENU Boot menu entry
ECHO and EECHO Display messages
BREAK Sets extended ctrl-c checking on or off
BUFFERS or BUFFERSHIGH How many disk buffers to allocate
COUNTRY Sets international behavior
DOS Tell the FreeDOS kernel how to load itself into memory
DOSDATA Tell FreeDOS to load kernel data into upper memory
FCBS Set the number of file control blocks (FCBs)
KEYBUF Reassign the keyboard buffer in memory
FILES or FILESHIGH How many files to have open at once
LASTDRIVE or LASTDRIVEHIGH Set the last drive letter that can be used
NUMLOCK Set the keyboard number pad lock on or off
SHELL, SHELLHIGH, or COMMAND Set the command line shell
STACKS or STACKSHIGH Add stacks to handle hardware interrupts
SWITCHAR Redefines the command line option switch character
SCREEN Set the number of lines on the screen
VERSION Set what DOS version to report to programs
IDLEHALT Activates energy saving features, useful on certain systems
DEVICE and DEVICEHIGH Load a driver into memory
INSTALL and INSTALLHIGH Load a "terminate and stay resident" (TSR) program
SET Set a DOS environment variable