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 George on 10. September 2014 - 20:56  (118499)

Hi DM
I haven't had the chance to review InstallForge yet. But it claims to be absolsutely free and also obviously offer serial number creation as far as I can see from their screenshots: http://installforge.net/home/
Best regards,
George

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

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