Computers may come pre-loaded with software, but it is rare to find a computer with no additional software installed. Installing new software is a process that takes a minimum of thought and mostly relies on clicking buttons in an installer.
Two file types are in common usage on Windows, and you may have seen or used both at some point. These are “.exe” and “.msi,” and you may feel hard-pressed to spot any differences, but it is no surprise to find they differ.
.exe vs. .msi
Before tackling their differences, it is worthwhile to assert their similarities. They are both application installersm and the goal of their development is the same – straightforward software installation via a straightforward installer.
Unsurprisingly, the three-letter file type expands into the word “executable,” which is a straightforward explanation of how installation works. The installer features options such as associating it with file types or allowing it to start with Windows.
The .exe file type can also request additional plugins and background software which is something you are likely to have noticed installing games or particular programs. They may require Microsoft’s .NET framework in order to operate properly, and the installer will allow you to begin the download by clicking a button.
During installation there may also be prompts to choose an install language. This is something the .exe file type can accommodate readily while it is seemingly more challenging to accomplish the same goal with .msi installers. While not impossible to do, the increased simplicity may aid in choosing an .exe installer.
However, .exe does not relate solely to installation of software. Windows uses the same file extension elsewhere, and Task Manager only serves to evidence this. Windows processes, including those vital to the operating system and your software, all end in .exe. Another example is if you need to restart Windows Explorer, the command in the “Run” window is not “explorer,” but “explorer.exe.”
MSI: Microsoft Installer
The appearance of the installer is usually very consistent within the .msi file type. Their layout is clearly defined when they are compiled, meaning aesthetic variation is not as easily found as with .exe files for games and software.
As a result, it may be easier to follow the layout of an .msi installer, and less experienced users could find themselves more acclimatised to it more quickly. The associated complexity with achieving certain functionality under .msi guidelines could, in theory, result in a simpler installation for a sub-set of their likely user base.
Installation on demand is the other feature that .msi is notable for, and it is one .exe cannot replicate. Initial installs can be very quick as little takes place – the main process takes place after software launch. Microsoft itself states that this can “shorten the installation and configuration phase;” in other words, the .msi installer could be faster in some situations.
One final fact clearly divides the two file types, and that is their intended usage. The .msi file type is simply better for network deployment. System administrators can use it to push software across numerous computers at once. While articles explaining how software deployment works exist, they all point to this one file type.
Which installer to use?
The concern raised in this question is so minor it’s negligible. Both will work fine with single computers, and they both function without issue. It is easier to decide based on what installer is available instead of allowing outside factors to complicate the issue. The choice could be made by a factor outside of user control such as download speeds compared to file sizes.