Thursday, January 21, 2021

This tool can help bulk install software, making setting up a new PC easy

This tool can help bulk install software, making setting up a new PC easy

A web tool called Winstall can make it super easy to set up a new PC by helping you create a list of software to bulk install via the Windows Package Manager.

If you read that and found it a bit confusing, you’re not alone. I’ll break it down for you, but that means you’ll have to bear with me through some hardcore nerding out. In short, we’ll look at what a package manager is, how to get the Windows Package Manager and how to use the Winstall tool to bulk install apps on your PC. If you already know about package managers, skip down to the section about setting up the Windows Package Manager.

To start, a package manager is a collection of software tools that automates the process behind installing, upgrading or removing computer programs. For most people, downloading a program means looking it up in their browser, clicking the ‘Download’ button and then running the installation software to add it to their computer. A package manager automates this process — instead of the user looking up software, the computer goes and finds, verifies and installs it.

Think of it like the app store on your smartphone, except instead of scrolling through a list of available apps, you just tell the store what you want and it finds and installs the software for you. (Truthfully, that’s an overly simplified explanation, but you get the gist of it.)

Package managers are popular on Linux distributions and have been around for some time, but not on Windows. However, Microsoft has been working on one. It’s worth noting the Windows Package Manager is still in a public preview state and it could change significantly before it officially launches. That also means there are a few steps involved in getting it working on your PC.

Setting up the Windows Package Manager

Since the Windows Package Manager is still in public preview, it’s not exactly available for the masses. The easiest way to get it would be to submit a request to gain early access through the Windows Package Manager Insiders Program. That’s the process I used. It’s worth noting you’ll need a Microsoft Account. Follow the steps there, which involve downloading the Windows App Installer through the Microsoft Store once your request receives approval. You can learn more about the process in this Microsoft documentation.

In my testing, the App Installer applied across a few Windows devices I tested, but not all of them — your mileage may vary.

Once you’ve completed that process, you should be able to use the ‘winget’ command in the Windows Terminal, Powershell or Command Prompt. For example, typing ‘winget install [app name]’ tells the Windows Package Manager to look up the app, download it, verify the installer and install it. You can learn more about using winget here (but it’s not necessary for using Winstall).

Those interested in learning more about the Windows Package Manager should check out Microsoft’s documentation here. It’s worth noting that it pulls from the Windows Package Manager repository, a public-facing collection of package manifests submitted by developers. These manifests describe applications and detail the process for installing and validating software.

Unfortunately, many developers have yet to add their software to the repository, which means the selection of packages available for install via the winget tool is limited for now. However, the repository should grow as Microsoft nears a public release.

Making use of Winstall to bulk install software

If all the scary, nerdy talk about package managers and ‘winget’ hasn’t scared you off yet, here’s where things get exciting. Winstall helps build out scripts to bulk install software via winget. It’s made by the developer behind desktop Tweetdeck client Tweeten, Mehedi Hassan.

Winstall is a free tool available on the web (you can check it out here). Users can leverage existing ‘packs’ — lists of apps installable via winget — or build their own. To build one, you’ll need to sign in with a Twitter account. Building a pack is as simple as clicking the ‘+’ icon beside an app you want to download, or looking it up via the search tool.

Once you build a pack, or find one you like, Winstall generates a PowerShell or Command Prompt script you can copy-paste into the respective interface. The script executes multiple ‘winget’ commands that direct Windows to find and install every app listed in your pack via the Windows Package Manager. Alternatively, Winstall can generate ‘.bat’ or ‘.ps1’ files that users can download and run by double-clicking them.

Some apps available through Windows Package Manager and Winstall include Edge, Teams, Zoom, Notion, Slack, Firefox, Chrome, OBS Studio, Gimp and Spotify. But that’s just a fraction of the over 1,100 apps Winstall lists as available to install this way.

Winstall is a handy tool for people who switch between Windows PCs often and want a way to quickly set up software they use. In my case, it’s handy since I review various laptops for MobileSyrup and any tool for batch installing the programs I use often makes my life easier. To make switching between PCs easier, I moved most of my workflow to the web, but there are still some apps critical to my workflow that I need to install each time I set up a new PC.

While Winstall and winget likely won’t be useful for many people, hopefully some of you enjoy this useful tool.

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