Best Free Setup Builder

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Introduction

Developing your own software is one thing, distributing it is another. Once the product is finished you have to think about how to get it to the end user. If it is just one executable file you might get away with zipping and providing it but as soon as more files like DLL's and other dependables are involved you need to have a setup routine for it. But simply for creating shortcuts on the end users PC a setup routing of some kind is required if you do not want to have your users do that manually.

The commercial and expensive flag ship InstallShield is probably one you have seen already and surely have run setups created with it, but interestingly there are also very capable free products out there that will serve your needs as well. I have selected four of them for this article that I think will cover the different approaches you might have, from text based configuration to GUI based click and run tools.

Discussion

InnoSetupAfter looking at several other free products in this category, InnoSetup remains to be my top recommendation. It is not a tool for users looking for a GUI-based simple setup creator, it is more addressing those developers that want to have full control over their setup routine and are not shy of working with a text based configuration file. InnoSetup was originally released in 1997 and has developed immensely since then. It surely beats many commercial contenders in this area and has proven to be very capable and stable. InnoSetup's GUI is basically an editor/compiler for the configuration file that contains all your settings for the setup routine you are creating. The text file format is very similar to that of an INI file and thus less cumbersome to work with than with an XML file like in Ghost Installer Free. The help file is excellent and well structured and makes it much easier to learn about the available settings. The editor supports color coding, making it more convenient to work with. I don't think I have to list all the features of a professional setup project but I did not find anything yet that InnoSetup wouldn't be able to support. Source files, target files, shortcuts, dialogs, license acceptance, signed uninstaller, custom forms and much more. I have used it for several projects over the last years with great success (and no costs). If you like a GUI for this excellent compiler you can find several third party add-ons for that on InnoSetup's home page as well.

 

NSISNSIS - If you can live with even less than a script editor but favor much advanced capabilities over a user interface then the NullSoft Installer System (NSIS) is the right choice for you. It is the most capable of the reviewed products here but lacks a user interface completely (not counting the compiler window). Like you create the HTML code for a webpage with a separate program and display it in your browser, you need to create the NSIS script with any editor of your liking and just compile it in the end with the NSIS compiler. You can find links to editors (PSPad, Notepad++) and IDE plugins (e.g. for Eclipse) supporting NSIS scripts with syntax highlighting and other helpers on the NSIS home page. This is surely targeting professional developers more than those who seek for a quick and more basic GUI controlled setup builder. The products in this review are addressing both of these users and it is a little difficult to pick one top recommendation only. Even though NSIS is more capable than InnoSetup I chose the latter over NSIS due to its balance between the included editor GUI and features (learning curve).

The NSIS shortcut just displays one small window with textual links in order to get you started with learning about it's endless capabilities. The small menu window (that is too small to show all text but not resizable, duh - see screenshot) provides links to the compiler itself, script examples, to online support sites, documentation and plugins. The plugins are a real treat and offer many extended possibilities, e.g. splash fade in/out or custom dialogs. NSIS also offers the creation of the more modern installer UI's. You are free to create own icons, banners and backgrounds and put them into your compilation. The user community is quite large and many resources and forums are available to support you with your NSIS setup project. Creating a setup file is as easy as dragging and dropping your script file into the compiler window. The window displays all compiler messages and reports success or errors. The setup files created are small compared to other setup builders which manifests a very effective overhead management. There would be much more to say about NSIS but I leave this up to their well organized homepage. It is the more capable tool here but addressing professional developers and requiring an environment of other tools around it to use it effectively.

 

Ghost Installer Free Ghost Installer Free - Similar to InnoSetup, if you want to have major control about your setup routine and are not afraid of just dealing with an XML configuration file, then Ghost Installer Free might be a good choice for you. While the commercial version comes with a GUI (Ghost Installer Studio), the free version just offers the so-called gEditor to edit the XML file that the compiler of the setup routine uses. This product requires a high learning curve but once you get a hang of it and know about all the settings you can use you have a mighty powerful tool here. The help file is pretty good as well and lists all keywords and settings you can use. When you start a new project a wizard will create a basic or advanced template that you can start to work with and that provides the appropriate XML tag structure for you. I found this tool a little tougher to learn compared to InnoSetup but I am sure it is as powerful as my top pick. In the end gEditor is just an XML editor with a build button to compile what you have created. If you find this appealing you should surely give it a try.

 

CreateInstall Free CreateInstall Free is a treat for those who do not want to spend much time on sophisticated setup routines and text based editing. Very similar to Clickteam Install Creator it presents itself in a simple and effective interface where you can quickly find and configure all important features of your setup project. You can pick a custom bitmap and icon for the setup dialog and also specify whether you want to display a fullscreen gradient background. You can configure six dialogs for the setup and also define a run-after program. The files and shortcut configuration is easy enough as well and as an advantage over Install Creator (see below) you can also specify registry entries to be made and DLL/OCX/TBL files to register. Some advanced features are also available of which the macros make a good impression. With them you can alter certain features of your setup like redefining languages or setup path settings. I found some issues when changing the font for the dialogs. For some fonts, e.g. Tahoma, I had no display at (empty dialog). The freeware version is fully functional but displays the string "CreateInstall Free" in the lower left corner of each dialog. You can register (buy) the software and change that string to your liking then.

 

Clickteam Install Creator Clickteam Install Creator is probably the fastest and most convenient setup builder from the ones I reviewed. It has a basic yet very effective GUI and the wizard takes you through the major steps quickly. My first project was done in minutes and it worked like breeze. When the wizard finishes you still have all the options you picked available for change through the tabbed program interface. In case you want to distribute several executables you have to add the start menu and desktop shortcuts anyways because the wizard can only create one. But this task is as easy as selecting the file on the left and enter the shortcut info on the right. I specifically like the option to easily change all texts of the setup, even the one in the Welcome dialog. The setup window itself can be set to dialog or full-screen mode (a gradient background fill like in the old Windows days) and bitmaps and icons are freely selectable. Install Creator is missing more professional features like adding registry entries, different setup packages or languages. But that was not the goal of this software and it perfectly balances simplicity and necessity. It is a great choice for quickly distributing files if you do not want to run through a high learning curve for setup building. The freeware version is fully functional, however, each setup you create shows an advertising dialog at the end with a link to the developers website.

 

Advanced Installer Advanced Installer is a good choice when you want to create a quick MSI based setup package. Caphyon offers this freeware version of its setup builder embedded in the commercial product. You can download and install the full product for free but only the "Basic" setup option works without purchase registration. But that's quite enough for a quick and simple MSI setup. With the user-friendly wizard you have entered all the basic configuration in no time. Via the nice GUI you can then tweak and fine tune your package and publish it as an MSI file. There are quite a few setup options that you can play with, e.g. target folders and shortcuts, reboot behaviour, launch conditions, registry settings and more. My only disappointment was that you can't define different setup types like "Full Install" and "Minimum Install". All or nothing is all the Basic setup allows. I'd rather have a less featured launch condition dialog but a setup type option instead. However, I was very fond of the ease of use and the minimum amount of time it took me to create a setup. If you need an MSI file for a simple setup then Advanced Installer will surely make you happy.

Related Products and Links

A product that uses a different approach is INF-Tool. INF-Tool offers 6 setup methods which are based on Windows' INF technology. Thus, they are 100% Windows integrated and only need incredibly small overhead of just a few KB's. Check it out here.

Another install builder that came to my attention recently is InstallJammer. I have tested it on a 32Bit Windows system but was not very fond of it. It was very slow and stopped to respond. It seemed to be a bit complicated too. You might want give it a try though. Maybe it behaves better on your system.

If you are familiar with the Windows Installer details (*.msi) you might wanna give InstEd a try. It requires detailed knowledge about the Windows Installer and is primarily a table editor but offers many advanced features.

Quick Selection Guide

InnoSetup
4.5
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
very powerful - several years of experience - easy file format
file based editing required - no GUI
http://www.jrsoftware.org/
5.5.3
1.3 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
Windows 98 - Windows 7

A GUI front-end is available from a third party vendor: http://www.jrsoftware.org/is3rdparty.php

NSIS
4.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
large amount of features - small setup files - custom dialogs - plugin system
no GUI - high learning curve - external editors required - last release from 2009
2.46, 3.0a0
1.5 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
Windows 95 - Windows 7
Ghost Installer Free
4
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
powerful features - based on XML
file based editing required - no GUI
http://www.ethalone.com
4.8
6 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
Windows 98 - Windows 7
Create Install Free
3.5
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
effective easy interface - advanced features available
no professional setup settings - product name in each setup dialog
5.19
1 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
Windows 98 - Windows 7
Clickteam Install Creator
3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
effective easy interface - quick results
no professional setup settings - advertising screen at the end of each setup routine
2.0
2.48 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
Windows 95 - Windows 7
Advanced Installer
2
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Very easy to use - good wizard and GUI - quick results
Large file - free feature embedded in full product - no setup types possible - creates MSI files only
http://www.advancedinstaller.com/
10.2
50.6 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Feature limited freeware
Windows XP Service Pack 3 or higher, Windows Installer 2.0 or highr

Author

This article is maintained by George

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Comments

by DM on 16. October 2013 - 15:57  (111521)

Can you tell me which installer allow me to create installer with the serial asking for free. (I like fully free)
please...

by Anupam on 16. October 2013 - 17:24  (111523)

All the software listed in the review are free.

by Free User on 17. October 2013 - 14:07  (111538)

But all of them does not ask for the serial.
me too want to create the installer which can generate/add 50 - 100 serial and while installation it ask for the serial: if available in the listed serial the installer will go for further steps...

by George on 17. October 2013 - 18:36  (111541)

Hi there,
sorry, we misunderstood your question. InnoSetup can actually be configured to ask for a serial number during setup. Here is a description how it can be done:
http://stackoverflow.com/questions/10385319/custompage-for-serial-number...
Best regards,
George

by maguzo on 9. January 2013 - 12:47  (104351)

Hi, very interesting article, as always...
I'm looking for a way to deploy/update some web apps on our servers, so I need something that can replace swf files as well as _edit_ xml configuration files to add some new nodes or change some values... All I can find is software that propose modification of ini files only, and would overwrite any other kind of files...
I'm afraid I'll have to write my own installer (e.g. in python), unless you know a setup builder that can modify ascii files?

thanks,
maguzo

by George on 10. January 2013 - 6:35  (104368)

Hi maguzo
at this point I am not aware of a general setup builder for web applications. I also wrote my own for one of my web apps. Usually such setups consists of copying files to a web server, setting up a database and creating configuration files in the app directory. The environments are usually very different, thus it is difficult to create a general setup routine I guess.
Best regards,
George

by gab (not verified) on 15. November 2011 - 19:03  (83340)

Learn windows installer and choose InstEd

www.instedit.com

Sincerely,
Gabriel

by Anthonus (not verified) on 28. May 2012 - 4:54  (94071)

This is a great site. Got me out of a fix. I like Inno Setup, the associate GUI and the scripts http://www.albartus.com/issi/

Thank you.

by George on 15. November 2011 - 21:17  (83345)

Thanks, Gabriel, for the tip.

I have looked at InstEd too and decided not to list it here in the review as one of the recommended candidates because of its steep learning curve. The tool is completely non-intuitive if you have no knowledge about msi. You correctly siad "learn windows installer" and that is absolutely required when you want to use InstEd.

There is no effective help available for InstEd itself on top of it. InstEd itself only offers a link to Microsofts Windows Installer SDK Help (an outdated link btw) and the online help on InstEd's website is not really helping to get along with it either if you dont know msi.

I am sure, however, that InstEd is a powerful tool once you master the msi details. I will put it in the related links section.

Best regards,
George

by BobT (not verified) on 3. August 2011 - 17:41  (76844)

One tool I found invaluable is "War Setup" which is a front-end for WiX. I did a lot of searching and testing and this is my freeware tool combination of choice for this task. Here's the info from the tools 'about' box. It looks like the website is having an issue at the moment.

War Setup is an application to make .msi software installation packages. It uses the free Wix toolset from Microsoft to build the .msi files.

War Setup is designed to be /very/ easy to use. It's the perfect install tool for the lazy Open Source developer. With bullt in support for Visual Studio C++ integration and the ability to add directories recursively, it's very easy to add software libraries and generated documentation to the install package.

War Setup is also well suited to handle most install requirements for commecial software. At least for companies who want their install packages to be predictible, robust, easy to make and manage.

If you need commercial support, it's available from War Setups homepage.

War Setup is written in C# by Jarle (jgaa) Aase.

by spencerberus on 8. October 2010 - 18:21  (59255)

Regarding the lack of GUI for some of these, I know there are several free GUIs for both InnoSetup & NSIS, and very likely others as well.

I personally use InnoSetup, so I'm most familiar with the third party tools available for that installer. My favorite has long been ISTool, which has a ton of features and has been very stable for me. It makes it very easy to build the setup, but also has a direct script editor for those who need more control. I know there is a section on the InnoSetup website with links to third party GUIs & other tools.

NSIS also has some nice looking GUIs available, though I haven't really used any of them (I was going to switch, but I keep finding all the functionality I need in InnoSetup). Maybe these options could be mentioned or another (sub-)category created. It would be a shame for someone to feel compelled to user a less capable tool simply because it has a nice GUI, when there are GUI options freely available for many installer that don't include one natively.

by George on 9. October 2010 - 8:17  (59297)

Thanks for your comment and the useful information about the GUIs.

by kumar84 (not verified) on 27. September 2010 - 2:35  (58489)

I tried Nvn Installer for few of my applications. It just rocks! It is absolutely free and offers lot of features.

by George on 28. September 2010 - 7:48  (58565)

Thanks for the note. Indeed is NVN Installer now free for commercial and non-commercial use. It also provides quite an amount of options and features to configure for your setup. I do have problems working with it though since the GUI is not well designed. Objects disappear behind the window edges or even behind other objects in the same dialog. The dialog has no scroll bar itself, thus, on smaller screen resolutions you cannot access all options. NVN seems very powerful. I just hope that the developers will redo the GUI.

by Anonymous on 24. February 2010 - 1:29  (44318)

I came across a new tool called Nvn Installer... Looks too good
Moderators comment:
Link removed in response to George's comment below

by George on 14. March 2010 - 17:23  (45561)

Hi,
and thanks for the tip. I checked out Nvn Installer but was a little disappointed that it is not freeware. The website says "Free for non-commercial use", however, that is not true. It started fine but then some of the features are blocked and you need to register (buy) the product. E.g., you cannot set your own dialog or banner image. Considering the great other contenders in this categroy that are real freeware there is no sense in adding this crippled "free" product.
Best regards,
George

by Anonymous on 15. January 2010 - 15:51  (41120)

Hi,
I am completely new to using installers, but am convinced by what I have read about Inno and ISTools. Have downloaded both. But am confused as to the setup between the two. Is there a novice guide tutorial available anywhere as I have not been able to find one myself. I am not a professional programmer, just a keen amatuer using Express Editions of Visual Basic.

by Anonymous on 18. November 2009 - 9:14  (36829)

Have you tried the free version of Advanced Installer from Caphyon ?
It has professional features, a GUI and it produces MSI without advertising.

http://www.advancedinstaller.com/top-freeware-features.html

by mikecorbeil on 13. July 2010 - 15:23  (54204)

Advanced Installer might be an excellent tool, but it's not freeware. There is a free download availalble and the present version is 7.7, which was released in June, and it does seem to have plenty of features for anyone accepting to need to use only MSI installers, which I suppose is an acceptable condition; but I'm not fully knowledgeable about whether using msi is better than .exe for installers, so can't presently say whether this limitation in AI is very acceptable.

It's a large download though, 31.8 MB.

I'm not sure why someone like myself would care to download such a large app. when I usually get by using the small ZipInstaller. I either download executable installers, or those packaged in compressed archives, usually .zip and .7z, and .7z is not recognized by ZipInstaller, so I just repackage the .7z downloads to be installed to make them .zip and then use ZI for the installations.

ZI is not sophisticated, but a user can create a Programs group, includingan uninstall launcher, and a desktop icon. When lucky, then the programs installed have a configuration option for being added to the file context menu. And when that option's not available, then a user can simply add a launcher in the Quick Launch Windows menu for apps or programs that will be frequently (enough) used. That little task has to be done manually, but it's easy and quick to do.

So while it isn't sophisticated, fancy installation, it's usually sufficient for me and the ZI download is greatly tiny. Using it for doing installs also avoids unnecessarily adding to the windows registry.

AI looks interesting from just looking over the features listed for the free download of the app., but 31.8 MB seems to be too much for my limited needs. Regular PC users probably don't have any need for an install-creation app of this size.

by Anonymous on 14. March 2010 - 4:48  (45527)

Ditto, I can't say enough good things about: Advanced Installer from Caphyon.
This is the easiest one I have ever used in simple mode. Awesome!

by Anonymous on 25. July 2009 - 8:49  (25734)

I use winrar SFX combined with Batch Icon Extractor for my jobs. Winrar on max compression + solid to compress the files, drop files onto batch icon extractor to get the icons, then use the advanced sfx options in winrar to run something inside the compressed rar file, + use the icon you extracted.

Very professional, very small, & can run silently with the right options selected!

Also can do full setups with shortcuts if you know how to use it. Can edit the comment file to add more files, shortcuts, or even windows commands to run.

P.S. Win Rar waits till the first command is completed before starting the second... etc...

by Anonymous on 4. April 2009 - 11:07  (19257)

Don't forget InstallJammer... http://www.installjammer.com
I haven't actually tried it yet but it's very impressive-looking and I am picking it up today...

Could you do a section with MSI setup builders? Not one of the products listed here can create a MSI setup package... :(
Ideally it would be possible to just convert an Inno Setup script, or an exe, or something similar into an MSI, but I'll be happy with MSI creation at all...

by mikecorbeil on 13. July 2010 - 15:31  (54206)

For an MSI install builder, see the post "Anonymous on Wed, 11/18/2009 - 05:14 (#36829)".

It's about Caphyon's Advanced Installer and the post provides a link to the page describing the features with a free download of this app. that otherwise costs a lot; around $300. One of the features with the free use of the app. is, quote:

"MSI
Create valid MSI setups for your applications respecting all written and unwritten Windows Installer rules".

Free use of the app. limits users to only being able to create and use a "simple" project, instead of being able to create different projects with the app., so this might be something that would turn you away, but maybe not. Some people might find this limitation acceptable for their needs.

by George on 4. April 2009 - 20:26  (19295)

Thanks for the note. For now I have added InstallJammer to the related links section.

Look at WIX, if you want to create MSI files:
http://wix.sourceforge.net/

by Anonymous on 7. April 2009 - 12:23  (19452)

Thanks for the WiX link! I have picked it up and will try it soon... and fwiw, I did get InstallJammer and it seems even more impressive than the web page makes it look. My 2 cents on the topic: Inno is better for making the installers, but InstallJammer can create installers for other platforms as well... I guess it depends on what you're looking for. :)

by Anonymous on 28. February 2009 - 19:06  (16955)

hey installjammer is also a good free installer.
http://www.installjammer.com/

by Anonymous on 14. January 2009 - 7:15  (13857)

Did you hear about IzPack (http://www.izpack.org)?
This is a cross-platform installation builder written in Java.

But there are some tools which convert the final install package (a jar) into an exe for the windows community.

This tool is the greatest I've found in the web. Especially the cross-platform feature was needed in the company I am.

by jackred on 19. June 2013 - 15:50  (108602)

Yes great software!!
There's also DCP Setup Maker (https://sourceforge.net/projects/devcompack/) which is using IzPack to build installers without coding knowledge! ;)

by Jagio on 5. January 2009 - 12:47  (13160)

I a gree with the anonymous comment: is there anything better? It's a great setup tool. I use it for years now too. Tried several others during time, but always returned to InnoSetup. I hopy they keep on doing the very good work on it.
One question: why is the tool InnoScript not Freeware? InnoSetup seems to be developed by a great bunch of developers, all offering there work for free. OK, one can donate. I presume companies will do, but why, as a private developer, do I have to pay for one of the third-party tools? iIt's not a big amount, but although it gives a wrong feeling. The tool itself is good, I would like to use it, bu a three-day trial version is somehow... well... short. Very short.
Please make this tool free too.

by George on 6. January 2009 - 0:28  (13197)

Hi Jagio,

I am not sure what you mean by "why is the tool InnoScript not Freeware?". It definitely is. The first thing said on the home page is:

Inno Setup is a free installer for Windows programs.

Best regards,
George

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