Imaging Old IBM/PC Disks
So that you can have an archival copy stored on your hard drive/USB flash drive/CD-R, that you can use for installing the program in DOSBOX; without having to touch the original media, which is likely to be over twenty years old at this point.
This is particularly important if you’re going to be installing a lot over and over – there are some older games which require incredibly specialized install procedures (Star Trek Judgment Rites for one) – which require a lot of trial and error to discover something that works.
For the best results, you should have a separate computer for imaging; so that you can set it to image things like CD-ROMs or DVD-ROMs at an extremely low read rate (5x for Audio, 5x for Data) for accuracy and just leave it alone, with only the imaging program running.
Also, a separate computer makes it easier to set up the specialized hardware/software necessary to read old floppy discs – you won’t run the chance of messing up your main computer through a botched hardware install, or making something Not Quite Right [tm]; something that might arise from the specialized way that some disk authoring/imaging software interfaces with your hardware/software.
For CD-ROM/DVD based media, I use IMGBURN (Link) at an extremely low read rate (5x for Audio, 5x for Data). My disc images are stored as BIN/CUE files; which preserves a lot of the original track data – a lot of older PC games in the early era of CD-ROMs used audio tracks separate from the data tracks for game audio, and also as a copy protection scheme.
SSI was very well known for this – for example, the Steel Panthers 1 disc uses this scheme, which results in the following CUE file:
TRACK 01 MODE1/2352
INDEX 01 00:00:00
TRACK 02 AUDIO
INDEX 01 27:36:15
TRACK 03 AUDIO
INDEX 00 30:38:55
INDEX 01 30:40:54
TRACK 04 AUDIO
INDEX 00 37:28:61
INDEX 01 37:30:60
If you try to make a copy of the Steel Panthers 1 disc as an ISO image, it will only capture the Mode 1/2352 binary data; and not the Audio data – and thus, you won’t be able to play the game from that ISO copy.
I’ll be honest with you.
If you have a choice, go find a CD-ROM version of the program you want, as CD-ROMs will have lasted the test of the last 20 years a lot better if they haven’t been scratched up badly by poor users. Only go for the floppy versions if there was some unique version that was only released on floppies – for example, SSI’s Fantasy Empires:
The Floppy version was released in 1993 with the CD-ROM version in 1994; and the CD version had the following differences (from the CD-ROM Data Card that came with it)
There are nearly double the Dungeon Master's digitized voice samples.
In the introductory screens, the Dungeon Master moves and speaks.
An extra step has been added to the character generation. You can select a design for your shield markers. Cycle through the shield designs and click OK when you find one you like.
There are three new terrain types: broken lands, black sands, and swamp.
Three new strategy spells have been added to the game:
1.) Dispel Evil (Cleric)
2.) Obscure (Druid):
3.) Timestop (Magic User)
Six new spells have been added to aid a player in battle:
1.) Disintegrate (Magic User)
2.) Transmute Flesh to Stone (Magic User)
3.) Resist Fire (Cleric)
4.) Striking (Cleric)
5.) Metal to Wood (Druid)
6.) Warp Wood (Druid)
Likewise, LucasArts’ Monkey Island 1’s EGA version was only released on floppies. Additionally, the CD-ROM versions of Wing Commander II don’t include the install files, so there’s no way to play the EGA version of it with the CD-ROM version, just the VGA version on the CD.
So you’ve decided to image floppy disks anyway.
BE PREPARED FOR LOTS OF BAD DISKS!
You might get lucky and manage to perfectly image a seven-disk game (Wing Commander II) with no read errors.
This...does not happen very often. You likely will have to buy multiple sets of a software item that shipped on floppies in order to get a complete clean image of every disk – e.g. Set A had a bad disk #3, while Set B had a bad disk #1, and so you combine the disk images from Set A and B to get a working installation image set.
This...gets expensive fast.
What’s more; you’ll need to avoid the $20-$40 USB floppy drives like the plague.
First of all, they are extremely slow. Secondly, they’re built very very cheaply. The primary ways the manufacturers achieve this cheapness is via omitting two important features:
A.) The ability to read 3.5” 720k media. Most cheapie USB floppy drives can only read 3.5” 1.44MB media.
B.) The ability to encounter bad sectors on the disk and gracefully recover. I once destroyed a $35 USB floppy drive that could read 720k/1.44MB media by trying to image a King’s Quest V disk that had a bad sector. When it hit the bad sector, the floppy drive destroyed itself, and simply would not read any disks again, ever.
Yeah, I told you this would be expensive.
The only real solution is to find a used PC shop in your area and stock up on actual 3.5” internal floppy drives from older computers – now that they’ve been out of production for a while, they’re getting expensive.
Back to bad disks – the likelihood of encountering a bad disk goes up exponentially, if the disks have been written to.
For example, if the game disks were just straight read-only install to hard drive disks like early 1990s games, you will get a much higher recovery rate.
If however, the game disks were also used to play the game via writing saved game files to the disk; the chances of a bad disk skyrocket. Why?
Because of misaligned read/write heads in floppy disks.
Over time, floppy disk drive heads can become misaligned and out of spec – they will still write/read, but the disks they write to will only be able to be read/written to by that specific floppy drive and it’s misaligned heads.
If you’re in your late twenties or thirties, you probably encountered this during your misspent youth in school computer labs, swapping disks through five or six copies of The Oregon Trail until you found a set that worked with the computer you were at.
So for those older games that wrote user data to the disk, your best chance is to find a New In Box (NIB) sealed copy. That can get...expensive fast as they’re becoming collectors’ items pretty fast.
I did tell you before that this would be an expensive hobby, no?
So you’ve got your game fresh off eBay, it just arrived in the mail; and your imaging rig with it’s internal floppy drive is all set up, and you’re itching to image the game so you can play it...
Remember, these are old floppy disks, made out of magnetic media – that means they are made out of media susceptible to expansion/contraction due to temperature.
This...is not good for something that relies on actual physical contact between the disk drive and the disk itself to read the disk.
So a good rule of thumb to follow is:
If the disks have been in some sort of non climate controlled environment during transit for an appreciable period of time (package in the mail or the trunk/boot of your car for several hours) put them next to whatever computer you use for imaging, and let them sit for 20-24~ hrs to adapt to the temperature/humidity of that area.
Yeah, this takes time. But it’s better to add in that safety factor before you attempt to physically touch that aging media with your drive’s read/write head.
So, what program should we use to image floppy disks after all these lengthy explanations?
Currently I use the built in imaging of D-FEND Reloaded (LINK)
Where the D-FEND Reloaded Disk Imaging Feature Is
It works really well, but it has one drawback – it doesn’t recognize when it’s encountering a bad sector like the payware floppy disk imagers; so you have to basically sit at the imaging computer, and watch the progress bar for any unusual halts or stuttering in the data-read rate that indicate bad sectors.