The interesting case of low-level emulators

by Pete
Published: Updated: 6 minutes read

If you’re a fan of retro computing and gaming, you may be familiar with emulators like DOSBox and 86Box. These programs allow you to run older operating systems and software on modern hardware, bringing back the nostalgia of computing from the past. However, not all emulators are created equal. In this article, we’ll be comparing DOSBox and 86Box, two popular low-level emulators, and exploring what makes them unique and how low-level emulation adds another string to your retro gaming emulation bow.

What is a Low-Level Emulator?


Before we dive into the specifics of DOSBox and 86Box, it’s important to understand what a low-level emulator is. Essentially, low-level emulators emulate hardware at a low level, which means they’re capable of running software that relies on specific hardware features. This is in contrast to high-level emulators, which only emulate the software environment and don’t attempt to replicate the underlying hardware. Low-level emulators can be more complex to set up and use, but they offer a higher degree of accuracy and compatibility with older software.

DOSBox: Emulating the Classic PC Environment


DOSBox is a popular low-level emulator for running DOS-based software on modern hardware. It emulates a classic PC environment, complete with a CPU, graphics card, and sound card. DOSBox is known for its high compatibility with older DOS games and applications, but it does have some limitations. For example, it can struggle with more advanced 3D graphics, and it doesn’t support some of the more obscure hardware features found in classic PCs.

Despite its limitations, DOSBox is a great choice for anyone looking to relive the classic PC experience. It’s easy to set up and use, and it has a large community of users who have created a wealth of guides and tutorials for getting the most out of it.

86Box: A More Accurate Emulator for Classic PCs


86Box is a newer low-level emulator that aims to be more accurate than DOSBox. It emulates a wider range of hardware features found in classic PCs, including support for more advanced 3D graphics and networking capabilities. 86Box is also capable of emulating a wider range of operating systems, including Windows 95 and Windows 98.

However, this increased accuracy comes at a cost. 86Box is more complex to set up and use than DOSBox, and it requires a more powerful computer to run smoothly. Additionally, 86Box doesn’t have the same level of community support as DOSBox, so finding help and resources can be more difficult.

Which Emulator Should You Choose?

So, which emulator should you use? It depends on your needs and preferences. If you’re looking for a simple and easy-to-use emulator for running DOS-based software, DOSBox is a great choice. On the other hand, if you need a more accurate emulator that can handle a wider range of hardware and software, 86Box may be the better option.

Regardless of which emulator you choose, there are a few things you can do to ensure you get the best performance and compatibility. First, make sure you’re using the latest version of the emulator. Both DOSBox and 86Box are actively developed, and new updates often bring improvements and bug fixes. Second, be sure to configure the emulator correctly for your specific hardware and software. This may involve tweaking settings like CPU cycles, sound card settings, and graphics settings.

Detailed comparison

As you can see, both DOSBox and 86Box are capable of emulating CPUs, supporting EMS and XMS, emulating CD-ROMs and serial/parallel I/O, and supporting Windows 3.1. However, 86Box is more accurate in its emulation and supports additional hardware like the Gravis Ultrasound and Roland MT-32 sound cards. 86Box also supports hardware scaling and debugging tools, which DOSBox does not. Additionally, 86Box has better networking support and is also free and open source, like DOSBox.

Emulation accuracyLowHigh
CPU EmulationYesYes
FPU EmulationYesYes
Sound Blaster Pro 2.0YesYes
Gravis UltrasoundNoYes
Roland MT-32NoYes
General MIDIYesYes
PC SpeakerYesYes
Joystick emulationYesYes
CD-ROM emulationYesYes
Serial and parallel I/OYesYes
Hardware scalingNoYes
Dynamic recompilationYesYes
Support for Windows 3.1YesYes
Debugging toolsNoYes
Networking supportLimitedYes
Free and open sourceYesYes

In Summary

In conclusion, low-level emulators like DOSBox and 86Box are powerful tools for running older software and games on modern hardware. While both emulators have their strengths and weaknesses, they offer a unique way to experience computing from the past.