Monthly Archives: August 2007

Open Source CD Recording in Windows

Just last year I was lamenting about the lack of good open source CD recording software for the Win32 platform. I’ve been thrilled with k3b for Linux and was hoping that someone would come out with something similar for Windows. As the formally great Nero Burning ROM software has become more and more a bloated piece of junkware there have been several interesting developments on the CD recording software front.

First, the very unofficial “Nero Light” and “Nero Light Micro” setups of the Nero software have become increasingly popular with people “in the know”. Not produced by Ahead Nero Software these are slimmed versions of the Nero trial version from the Ahead software page which can be activated with a regular Nero key but which contain far less bloatware (13-35MB instead of 170+). While I haven’t tried them myself I hear they provide the most used functionality without throwing in the kitchen sink. Nero has grown far beyond simple disc burning software which is all I ever used it for and which has caused me to leave it behind.

Second, there are now two open source contenders for CD recording in Windows. Both are technically frontends to a Windows port of the command line cdrecord engine but so is k3b (requires Linux) which has been my favorite since dumping Nero. Even though I do most of my burning with k3b in Linux these days it is occasionally useful to burn something in Windows so I’m testing these as replacements for Nero on that platform.

Both cdrtfe and InfraRecorder provide basic CD burning capability on the Win32 platform though there are a few advantages and disadvantages to each. Cdrtfe is a bit more mature software but is also more complicated, has a less familiar interface and, let’s face it, not the best name in the world. On the other hand InfraRecorder is a lot easier to remember, has a clean, slick interface and is quickly gaining momentum but is quite a bit newer and has fewer configuration options at the moment. Personally, I really like the way InfraRecorder looks and feels which does count for something in software design and I’ve heard great things about the primary developer Christian Kindahl so I look forward to watching this product mature. Both packages allow for basic CD/DVD creation as well as ISO image burning and should already serve the majority of users’ needs, best of all they are both free and open source solutions.

Booting DOS from a USB flash drive

**UPDATE 2014/02/21: Times have changed and you might want to check out the Rufus utility I mention here as an alternative to these technical instructions.**

USB flash drives also called USB keys, pen drives and an assortment of other names can make quite handy reusable boot disks. Today I found myself in need of a DOS boot disk to upgrade the firmware on some hard drives and CD/DVD drives but didn’t want to burn a bunch of bootable CDs or try to find a USB floppy disk drive. I remembered that most newer BIOSs including the one on this system support booting from USB drives so I thought I would investigate that as an option. Unfortunately I found that, being an afterthought, boot support is not an easy thing to do and presents several challenges.

First and foremost is that while there is some information on how to accomplish this on the Internet, there is comparatively little and what information does exist is not as clear or definitive as would be useful. Secondly, there are a number of different methods and tools for accomplishing this and not all methods work with all BIOS implementations of bootable USB. For example, USB flash drives may be booted as fixed disks, floppy drives or USB-Zip drives each of which requires different methods of preparation and the requisite support in the BIOS. Both of the methods I will describe hear treat the flash drive as a fixed disk which seems to be the best method if your BIOS supports it and appears to be becoming the standard for new BIOSs. While these methods are based on readings of other guides and howtos I was unable to find something as simple as I describe here so this method was developed on my own though research based trial and error (and lots of reboots) over the better course of a day.

In its simplest description booting from a flash drive as a fixed disk works almost exactly like booting from a hard disk does. The BIOS invokes the boot sector and master boot record (MBR) on the flash drive which loads the operating system kernel. It would initially seem that it should be no problem to make this work, after all DOS based operating systems worked this way for years. The trick is getting the boot sector and MBR on the flash drive. In ye old DOS days when you wanted to install DOS from a floppy disk onto a fixed disk it was common to invoke the FDISK and SYS commands to create a MBR, boot sector and copy the required system files. The problem is that in most cases the USB flash drive is being prepared from within a recent copy of Windows such as Windows XP which no longer has these commands available for this use. On the other hand if you booted DOS from a floppy disk or bootable CD and had access to FDISK and SYS you would not (normally, without drivers) have access to the USB flash drive to install the files.

After reading the information that was available on the Internet I determined it would be reasonably easy to create a bootable DOS USB flash drive in Linux and possible, yet convoluted and confusing to do so from Windows. I wanted to avoid requiring the use of Linux because the average user of such a drive may not have access readily available to a Linux system. Most of the solutions for creating the drive in Windows either used a creation utility from HP (questionable availability and suitability) or a slew of command line utilities and requiring a floppy drive (or emulator) which seemed like an unnecessary and complicated hack to me. The solutions I present may require you to download a few software packages from the Internet but each only requires one command line utility and should be fairly straightforward. As an added bonus all of the software is free and open source.

Note that these methods were specifically designed for installing FreeDOS, an open source DOS. Similar methods may work for installing MS-DOS, DRDOS or other DOSs; however you will need to obtain the boot sector (probably either from source or via extraction from a floppy disk or disk image) and system files specific to your version of DOS. I recommend using FreeDOS whenever possible as it is generally compatible and provides many additional features not found in vintage DOSs.

The first method described is the FreeDOS direct booting method. The advantages of this method are that the drive boots directly into FreeDOS and requires no files on the flash drive root other than the FreeDOS system files (kernel.sys and The disadvantage is that you must download an additional software package and FreeDOS is the only OS you may boot from the flash drive.

The second method is the SYSLINUX chained booting method. Advantages to this method include more configuration and customization options and the ability to boot floppy disk images and/or other OSs from the same flash drive using a boot loader menu and chained boot loading. None of these enhancements are covered here, this document will only help you get FreeDOS up and running, for information on booting other OSs from the same drive see the SYSLINUX documentation. The disadvantages of this method include three additional files in the flash drive root (can be moved into other directories, see SYSLINUX documentation) and a slightly more complicated (though transparently so) boot process.
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Mounting Floppy Disk Images in Windows

It’s fairly easy to find information on the creation and use of CD images. Many solutions, both commercial, shareware/freeware and open source allow CD/DVD images to be created and or mounted for use without actually burning a disc. A bit more esoteric, especially in the world of Windows based systems is the floppy disk image and knowledge of them is shrinking, not growing.

Back before bootable CDs (and support in BIOSs) were common most Linux distributions distributed a boot disk image to go along with their CD so it was not uncommon for the power user to encounter a disk image. In these cases a DOS compatible utility called rawrite (or in more advanced distrobutions WinRawrite) could be used to write the image to a disk or, conversely, read a disk to an image file. In *NIX based systems such functionality, and the functionality of mounting a disk image without using a physical disk is usually built in to the operating system. Disk images have also been more common among Macintosh users going back many years with the Apple Disk Copy utility but especially in recent years with OS X where “Disk images have become the preferred transport mechanism for downloading files…” Still disk images remain fairly uncommon among Windows users, especially as floppy disk drives themselves become increasingly uncommon.

Because of my interest in vintage computing and vintage software I store much of my old software that originally came on floppy disks in disk images on my server. Creating the images from physical disks is fairly straight forward using WinRawrite but in some cases I have earlier copies of disks done in a proprietary self extracting image format which only can write the image to a physical disk. Obviously I would like to get all my images in the standard raw format but without spending the time to write each image to a physical disk and then reading it back with rawrite. Today I located a handy tool called Virtual Floppy Drive which works similarly to the virtual cd drive tools in that it can mount a disk image or a “blank” image to a drive letter on your system. This allows me to then run the proprietary self extracting image and “write” the image directly to a raw file. The tool is also handy if you want to create an image from scratch for distribution or edit an existing disk image.

Road Sign Fonts and Typefaces

I don’t even remember how it happened anymore but somehow a few weeks ago I ended up reading about the various typefaces (fonts) used on highway and road signs. Traditionally road signs, specifically on federally funded roads but often on on local roads as well, have used a series of Gothic typefaces specified in Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) documents. It’s my understanding that the original specification called for all uppercase lettering but eventually some of the series were modified to provide for lowercase. As an interesting aside I hadn’t ever really thought about it but if you drive around you’ll still find a great many roadsigns that use uppercase lettering only.

A fairly recent and interesting development is that a private company has received FHWA approval for a new typeface which they developed called Clearview and which supposedly allows for better recognition at a distance without increasing sign size. It’s also interesting to note that this new typeface “natively supports” lower case lettering. Although not yet allowed by all states the Clearview typeface does seem to be gaining momentum and may be coming to a sign near you. The Clearview people have some interesting documentation on their website about the research they did to design the font.

While not officially approved for use on signs and some licensing restrictions apply there are some free fonts such as the Roadgeek set which provide an excellent approximation of the FHWA Gothic and Clearview fonts. The same site points out that the Minnesota DNR makes available a font with the recreation symbols often found on state maps and highway signs. Both of these would be handy resources if you were trying to create a road sign graphic for say a web page. Interesting stuff.