How to Make Old Programs Work on Windows 10

By Chris Hoffman on September 22nd, 2015

windows 10 battlestation

Most of your Windows applications should just work on Windows 10. If they worked on Windows 7, they’ll almost certainly work on Windows 10. Some older PC applications won’t just work, but there are many ways to get them working again.

These tricks cover a variety of applications, from Windows XP-era applications and old PC games that require outdated DRM to DOS and Windows 3.1 applications.

Run as Administrator

Many applications developed for Windows XP will work properly on a modern version of Windows, except for one little issue. During the Windows XP era, average Windows users typically used their PC as an Administrator account all the time. Applications were coded to just assume they had Administrator access and will fail if they didn’t. UAC fixed this, and there were some teething problems at first.

If an older application isn’t working properly, try right-clicking its shortcut or .exe file and select “Run as Administrator” to launch it with those permissions. If it requires administrator access, you can set it to always run as administrator with the compatibility settings below.

Compatibility Settings

Windows includes compatibility settings that can make old applications functional. To access these, right-click an application’s shortcut or .exe file and select Properties. In Windows 10’s Start menu, right-click a shortcut, select “Open file location”, and then right-click the shortcut and select “Properties”. Click over the Compatibility tab. You can click the “Use the compatibility troubleshooter” button for a wizard interface or just adjust the options yourself.

For example, if an application doesn’t run properly on Windows 10 but did run properly on Windows XP. click the “Run this program in compatibility mode” for checkbox and select “Windows XP (Service Pack 3)”.

Try a variety of other settings, too. For example, very old games may benefit from “Reduced color mode”. On high DPI displays, you may have to check the “Disable display scaling on high DPI settings” to make a program look normal.

Unsigned Drivers or 32-bit Drivers

The 64-bit version of Windows 10 uses driver signature enforcement and requires all drivers you install have a valid signature. 32-bit versions of Windows 10 normally don’t, but 32-bit versions of Windows 10 running on a newer PC with UEFI do require signed drivers. This helps improve security and stability, protecting your system from drivers that are malicious or simply unstable. You should only install unsigned drivers if you know they’re safe and have a good reason to do so.

If old software you want to install does need unsigned drivers, you’ll have to use a special boot option to install them. If only 32-bit drivers are available, you’ll have to use the 32-bit version of Windows 10 instead — the 64-bit version of Windows 10 requires 64-bit drivers. Use this process if you need to switch to the 32-bit version, downloading the 32-bit version of Windows 10 of the 64-bit version.

Games That Require SafeDisc and SecuROM DRM

Windows 10 won’t run games that used SafeDisc or SecuROM DRM. These digital rights management schemes can cause quite a few problems. Overall, it’s a good thing that Windows 10 doesn’t allow this junk to install and pollute your system. Unfortunately, it does mean that some older games that came on physical CDs or DVDs won’t install and run normally.

You have a variety of other options for playing these games, including searching for a “no CD” crack (which are potentially very unsafe, as they’re often found on shady piracy sites), repurchasing the game from a digital distribution service like GOG or Steam, or checking the developer’s website to see if it offers a patch that removes the DRM.

More advanced tricks include installing and dual-booting into an older version of Windows without this restriction, or attempting to run the game in a virtual machine with an old version of Windows. A virtual machine may work fine, as games with these DRM schemes are quite old now.

Virtual Machines for Older Software

Windows 7 included a special “Windows XP Mode” feature. This was actually just an included virtual machine program with a free Windows XP license. Windows 10 doesn’t include a Windows XP mode, but you can still make your own Windows XP mode.

All you really need is a virtual machine program like VirtualBox and a spare Windows XP license. Install that copy of Windows in the virtual machine and you can run software on that older version of Windows in a window on your Windows 10 desktop.

It’s a heavier solution, but it should always work properly — unless the program needs to interface with hardware directly. Virtual machines have limited support for hardware peripherals.

DOS and Windows 3.1 Applications

DOSBox allows you to run old DOS applications — primarily DOS games — in a window on your desktop. Use DOSBox to run old DOS applications rather than relying on the Command Prompt. DOSBox will work much, much better.

Windows 3.1 was basically a DOS application, too. This means that you can install Windows 3.1 in DOSBox and run old 16-bit Windows 3.1 applications in DOSBox.

16-bit Software

16-bit programs no longer function on 64-bit versions of Windows. The 64-bit version of Windows just doesn’t contain the WOW16 compatibility layer that allows 16-bit apps to function. Try to run a 16-bit application on a 64-bit version of Windows and you’ll just see a “This app can’t run on your PC” message.

if you do want to run 16-bit applications, you’ll need to install the 32-bit version of Windows 10 instead of the 64-bit version. But you don’t really have to reinstall your entire operating system — instead, you can just install a 32-bit version of Windows inside a virtual machine and run the application there. Or, you can even install Windows 3.1 in DOSBox.

Websites Requiring Java, Silverlight, ActiveX, or Internet Explorer

Windows 10 uses the new Microsoft Edge as its default browser. Edge doesn’t include support for Java, ActiveX, Silverlight, and other technologies. Chrome has also dropped support for NPAPI plug-ins like Java and Silverlight.

To use older web applications requiring these technologies, fire up the Internet Explorer web browser still included with Windows 10 for compatibility reasons — it still supports ActiveX content. You can also still run Java and Silverlight in Mozilla Firefox.

Internet Explorer can be launched from the Start menu. You can also open the menu in Microsoft Edge and select “Open with Internet Explorer” to open the current web page directly in Internet Explorer.


In general, if an older application doesn’t function on Windows 10, it’s a good idea to try to find a modern replacement that will work properly. But — especially for old PC games or business applications — it may not be possible to replace them. That’s where tricks like the above ones come in.

Image Credit: Brett Morrison on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 09/22/15
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