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Text Editors for the 8088

This page, which is a perennial work in progress, chronicles my journey to find a decent text editor for 4.77MHz 8088 DOS.

Table of Contents

  1. Background
  2. Test System
  3. Results For The Impatient
  5. Results in Detail


I increasingly find myself wanting to write more and more on my IBM PC/XT. No doubt some of the reason is due to nostalgia, with the sound/feel of the keyboard and the look of the screen, but mostly it's because I'm still coding 8088 assembler for fun and it's a pain in the ass, even with a network card, to transfer code/text/whatever between the 8088 and my other systems.

While most of my code is written in the Turbo Pascal 7.0 IDE (including my assembler -- don't ask), I have become slightly frustrated with the speed of the IDE. It's pretty fast, but it's not fast enough for me. Since I don't like having my editor slow me down, I've tasked myself to find the best editor for writing code, text, whatever on a 4.77MHz 8088. I am not a picky person; I only need a few basic things:

  1. Instant response to user input (typing, screen paging, scrolling)
  2. Functional undo (ie. able to undo any action at least 10 actions deep)
  3. Search and Replace
  4. Block copy/move/delete
  5. Basic CUA movement, most notably CTRL-LEFT/RIGHT to go to next/previous word

The above is hardly an exhaustive list, and yet you wouldn't believe how many editors cannot provide #1 (instant user response) on 8088, even ones that are touted as programmer's editors (which you would assume was written by actual programmers!) and claim DOS compatibility. Maybe I'm jaded because I'm an assembler programmer and fully aware of what an 8088 system is capable of, but come on -- it's a text editor, not rocket science.

Test System

My 4.77MHz 8088 test system was an IBM PC/XT (Model 5160) with:

Environment configuration

Results For The Impatient

Best for systems without a hard disk: Terse. You can't beat a basic command-set in a 4K .COM file.

Best for systems WITH a hard disk: Aurora. Aurora was, hands down, the best editor I've ever worked with and met every single one of my expectations flawlessly. It has one annoying quirk (see below), but since I'm used to CGA snow I was able to live with it. Best of all, the author has released his product for free. I've put together an 8088-friendly distribution of it that you can download from this page in the Downloads section below.


My entire C:\UTILS\EDITORS directory test suite is available for download if you'd like to check out what I was running to evaluate things yourself. Keep in mind that this is a test suite; if you are looking for full installable configurable versions of the software, you may not find them in this distribution. Also available is the custom patched version of Sprint 1.01 (SPEDIT.EXE) that I did to remove all CGA snow checking for a mild screen update speedup. Finally, if you'd only like to download the winners, the Terse and Aurora editors are available in separate downloads.

Results in Detail

Here are the results in as much detail as I care to write at this time. Keep in mind that I primarily edit source code and need general-purpose wordwrap text as a secondary concern. I need speed, familiar controls, and an UNDO function that isn't broken. Also keep in mind that, on any other speed machine (such as an 8MHz 8086 or 80286), speed is probably not going to be an issue -- these are my impressions running on an original XT. With that in mind, here are my impressions:

Lugaru's Epsilon Programmer's Editor 10.03 (UNABLE TO EVALUATE)

Pros: clean interface, extremely powerful

Cons: Wouldn't work with actual Intel EMS AboveBoard and LIM 4.0 spec: Got "EMS function mapping error 0x95 -- press any key..." from the application and had to reboot. I then exhausted all available EMS memory with a disk cache to see if it would come up without EMS, and it aborted with "Sorry, not enough memory." Finally, I loaded the system without any EMS driver at all and got the same thing.

Comments: The one time I got it to run (with an empty screen, ie. starting a new file only) it had the curious effect of only updating the screen after I stopped typing. Most likely this was for speed/processing reasons, and I certainly could have gotten used to if it the program ran on 8088. Considering that this editor has a copyright date of "1984-2001" you'd think that a 200KB .exe would be able to work within the constraints of a 640K system. I'm disappointed I wasn't able to actually get to take this for a drive.

Borland Sprint 1.01

Pros: Less of a text editor and more of a word processor, Sprint is very configurable and handles word processing tasks, large or small, with flexibility and power.

Cons: Screen updating isn't as speedy as its namesake would have you believe. I went so far as to patch the spedit.exe binary to remove all CGA snow checking (which you can download here) and I still couldn't get it up to the speed that I require. Still, if you have a need for using the same editor for word processing as programming, you could do a lot worse.

VIM v3.0, Elvis v1.8, Calvin

Comments: I love VI, but I haven't found a single VI clone for 8088 that runs at a respectable speed. All three of these VI clones are very capable editors -- they're just not fast enough for me.

QEdit 3.0 and The SemWare Editor v2.5

Pros: Mature editors; instant screen updates; very configurable; large user community; responsive author/company.

Cons: QEdit and TSE are both cut from the same cloth; they were made by the same company (TSE is the much later, upgraded version). They would have taken top prize in this comparison if not for the completely useless undo functionality (you can only undo changes to the line the cursor is resting on). It is rediculous that both editors, then and now, have gotten as far as they have without a functional undo. It really boggles my mind.

Aurora v3.0

Pros: VERY Fast, configurable, functional. A winner in every single need and category.

Cons: For some crazy reason, it repaints the screen after every keystroke, even if you're just moving the cursor around. On a true CGA system, this produces crazy-ass snow all the time.

Comments: Very fast, extremely configurable, wins on all counts. Better yet, while it used to be shareware, the author has given permission to distribute for free. While the website has a windows version key, the 8086 DOS version was very hard to get working -- but I've done it, and now you don't have to go through the trouble. You can download the 8086 fully-functional Aurora 3.0 from here. I've taken the liberty of configuring this particular download to be similar to WordStar and/or the Borland IDE, but you can easily modify anything about the editor at all, just check the STYLE directory and copy one of the pre-made files over the KBD.AML and MENU.AML files provided if you want to change the style.

Microsoft Word 4.0 for DOS

Pros: While there's certainly nothing wrong with WordStar, WordPerfect, or Sprint, Word for DOS feels very polished and written with all user skill levels in mind. Lets you switch into graphics mode so you can actually see a quasi-WYSIWYG display with italics, bold, and underline actually shown -- and you can edit in this mode.

Cons: Can only edit one file at a time. Screen updates not nearly as fast as I remember them. One curious thing is that the speed of the text updates equal the speed of the graphics updates!! Which means the graphics routines are incredibly optimized, and the text routines are incredibly... NOT.

Comments: MSWord for DOS 4.0 (and later 5.0) was my word processor for over half a decade so I have a soft spot for it. That aside, the lotus-style menus truly were the correct choice for text editing, as they only took up 2 lines at the bottom of the screen and yet were completely functional. Mock Microsoft all you want, but they certainly know their office apps. A little part of me died with version 5.5 where they introduced pull-down menus.

VDE 1.94b

Pros: Cross between a text editor and a word processor. Still mainted by the author! As of 2002 in version 1.93D, now freeware.

Cons: Cross between a text editor and a word processor, which may not be exactly what you want. Screen only moderately fast. Long load times for longer documents. Undo somewhat broken; text data is undone but not the formatting (appears to be re-wrapped as it comes back).

Technical Editor (TDE) v2.5, 1990, Superior Soft

Pros: Designed and performs as a high-performance programmer's editor. Instant screen update; follows the same "start repainting after keystroke accepted" model as WordStar but does it MUCH faster.

Cons: Takes over the keyboard interrupt and does keyboard repeat on its own -- slowly. Keyboard commands are non-standard and cannot be remapped.


Tested versions:

Version 5.0, 1988, MicroPro International Corporation

Version 3.30, 1983, MicroPro International Corporation

Pros: It's friggin' WORDSTAR. The command keystrokes are known by anyone who ever edited anything in DOS or CP/M.

Cons: Screen updates too slowly. On hitting pageup/pagedown, the screen immediately starts repainting from the top down, so you have to wait for it to stop painting to see where you are. I'm sure that decision made sense in the CP/M world when you were connected to a terminal, but when the install program asks me "true IBM?" it had better well use it. Oh well.

Terse, Ver 1.5 (Yossi Gil's rewrite of Tom Kihilken's TED/TEDPLUS from PC Magazine)

Pros: 4K editor, so it's perfect for a floppy disk system. (In fact, I usually copy it to all of my boot disks.) Has most basic functionality.

Cons: Undo limited to a single character, ie. useless. Also, more importantly, the editor is limited to files 64K or less in size.

Slickedit v2.3, 1993, Microedge (UNABLE TO EVALUATE)

Comments: Couldn't evaluate due to's version being irrepairably damaged and I was unable to download even a trial version of this editor. A shame, since it came highly recommended. Oh well.

Brief version 3.11, 1992, Borland

Pros: Brief is a true programmer's editor, having hooks into compilers, error messages, and a powerful macro capability. It's also configurable along those lines. Has a rabid following for nearly 20 years.

Cons: Hard to evaluate without a keys/command-list, but right off the bat the screen updating was too slow. Brief claims to support turning off CGA snow but all attempts to do so didn't have much impact. Brief appears to repaint a hidden video page, checking for snow while it does it, then switches you immediately to that page. Only problem is, there was a good 1/3rd of a second between pageflips so right off the bat it failed the screen/input response test and I didn't bother to continue to evaluate it.


"VEDIT REQUIRES AN 80386 OR BETTER CPU". Oh well; sucks to be me.

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