What is an executable file? An executable is a program file that you can run with a set of instructions or options to make it do something on your PC. Executable files can be found on almost all modern operating systems, but most people associate them with the Windows EXE file format.
You usually see an EXE file when you install new software or run a program on your computer that uses the EXE extension. If you create your own software, you can even create your own executable to run, install, or distribute. If you’re interested in learning more about executables and how to create an executable, here’s what you need to do.
Executable (EXE) File Risks
When you run an executable, you give it permission to execute the instructions it contains. This is how any software works, from simple scripts with a few lines to complex programs with millions of lines of code.
Before you run or create an executable file, you should be aware of the potential risks. Executable files may contain instructions in their source code that can damage your computer.
It can tell your computer to delete other files, or it can instruct your computer to send information to an external source. This is the definition of malware designed to do harm at your expense.
Before running any executable file, especially if it asks for administrative permissions in the User Account Control pop-up window, you should scan the file for malware with Windows Security or your own third-party antivirus software such as Malwarebytes. You should also only install or run software from sources that you absolutely trust.
If you are building your own startup software, you must ensure that the code is not designed to access any important files. While Windows usually prevents unauthorized access to system files by using UAC, double check your code before starting to make sure the software can’t harm your computer.
Open Executable (EXE) files in Windows
If you want to open an executable file in Windows, there are several ways you can do it. Windows automatically recognizes the EXE file format as an executable file, so you can usually open it from your desktop, from Windows Explorer, from the Windows Start menu (for installed software), or from the Run command window.
- Double-click the file to open the EXE files on the desktop or in Windows Explorer. This will instruct Windows to open it.
- The list of installed software in the Windows Start menu is a shortcut to EXE files for that software (for example, Chrome.exe for Google Chrome). Click the start menu icon (or press the Windows key on your keyboard), then click one of the entries to launch the program.
- To use the Run command window to run the EXE file, press the Windows + R keys on your keyboard. Alternatively, right-click on the Start menu icon and select Run.
- In the Run command box, locate the executable file by clicking Browse, or enter the file location directly. If you want to run the EXE file, click OK.
- If the EXE file requests administrative access, you need to enable it to run in the UAC popup. Click “Yes” to allow this.
- If the executable does not start (for example, it might be developed for an older version of Windows), Windows will stop it from running. You can also see the error message. In this case, click Close and find an alternate version of the file that you want to run.
How to create an executable file on Windows
If you want to create your own executables on Windows, you can, but it’s not as easy as renaming the file and adding the .exe to the end of it.
You will need to code the software you want to run in the programming language of your choice and then compile it as a runable file. However, most users will want to create simpler executable files, such as installer files for installing software.
You can use the built-in IExpress wizard to do this on Windows, but this software is very old and hasn’t been updated for a while. Your best bet is to use open source Inno Setup, or, for basic self-extracting EXEs, you can use 7-Zip
The EXE file created with 7-Zip is actually an SFX archive file. This EXE archived file will automatically extract all included files to your computer, making it ideal for easy software deployment.
If you want to share files with multiple users without worrying that they have the correct software installed, creating such a file is a good option.
- To create an EXE file using 7-ZIP, place the files in a folder in Windows Explorer. Right-click the folder, then click 7Zip> Add to Archive.
- In the Options box, select the Enable SFX Archive check box. You will also want to set the archive format to 7z, the compression method to LZMA2, and the compression level to normal. Click OK to create the file.
While not a real EXE file, it looks and acts like one, making it easy to create an executable file that can distribute software or files that you create along with others.
Otherwise, if you want to create a “real” executable, you will need to learn how to program
Run executable files on Mac or Linux
The way executables work on Windows is completely different from how programs work on other platforms such as Linux or macOS. There are executables on these platforms, but they are not in EXE format.
On Linux, for example, any file can be executable, but a special permission flag is required to run it as a program using chmod. For example, chmod + x file will give the file named file execute permission.
MacOS has a slightly different method of launching software. If the app was not installed from the App Store, and it is not owned by a developer they know or trust, the app will not run. You will need to enable this in System Preferences> Security & Privacy.
However, as a Unix-based system, macOS supports the chmod command, which allows more basic scripting to be executed using the Terminal application. If you have developed a Python script, for example, you can use the chmod + x command to run it.
You can also use the WINE emulator for Linux and macOS to run and install Windows EXEs on those platforms. Designed to emulate specific Windows instructions and libraries, using WINE to run an EXE will have varying success rates.
You can see how well popular software will work with WINE by checking the WineHQ database
Run executable files on Windows 10
There is nothing stopping you from creating your own software, especially if you combine it with Windows Installer packages to make installation easier. However, for most Windows 10 users, EXE files are needed to run, not build. As long as you only run software from sources you trust, the executables should be relatively safe.
Make sure you run malware scans regularly, and if you’re really not sure if it’s safe to run an executable, you can use Windows 10 sandbox mode to run software in an isolated container to check it. If EXE is dangerous, it won’t damage your basic Windows installation.