Installing your NW.js app on Windows

Adam Lynch

December 09th, 2015

NW.js is great for creating desktop applications using Web app technologies. If you're not familiar with NW.js, I'd advise you to read an introductory article like Creating Your First Desktop App With HTML, JS and Node-WebKit to get a good base first. This is a slightly more advanced article intended for anyone interested into distributing their NW.js app to Windows users. I've been through it myself with Teamwork Chat and there are a few things to consider. What exactly should you provide the end user with? How? Where? And why?

What to ship

If you want to keep it simple you can simply package everything up into a ZIP archive for your users to download. The ZIP should include your app, along with all of the files generated during the build; the dynamic-link libraries (.dlls), the nw.pak and the other PAK files in the locales directory. All of these extra files are required to be certain your app will function correctly on Windows, even if they already have some of these from a previous installation of Google Chrome, for example.

When I say you need to include "your app" in this archive, I of course mean your myApp.exe if you've used the nw-builder module to build your app (which I recommend).

If you want to use the .nw method of running your app, you will have to distribute your app in separate pieces; nw.exe, a .nw archive containing your app code and a shortcut which executes nw.exe with your .nw archive. This is how the popular Popcorn Time app works.

You could rename nw.exe to something nicer but it's not advised to ensure native module compatibility.


Giving the user a simple ZIP isn't optimal though. It isn't the most user-friendly option and you wouldn't have much control over what the user does with your app; where they put it, how many copies of your app they have, etc. This is where installers come in. E.g. Inno Setup, NSIS or Install Shield. The applications provided to build these installers can be configured to grab all of your files and store them wherever you choose on the user's machine, pin your app to their start menu and a whole host of other options.

Where to store your app

The first place that springs to mind is Program Files, right? Well, if your app has to add / overwrite / remove files from the directory in which it's located then you'll run into problems with permissions. To get around this I suggest storing your app in C:\Users\<username>\AppData\Roaming\MyApp like a handful of big name apps do.

If you really need to store your app in Program Files then you could theoretically use something like the node-windows node module to elevate the privileges of the current user to a local administrator and execute the problematic filesystem interactions using Windows services. This means though that Windows' UAC (User Account Control) may show for the user depending on their settings. If you were to use node-windows, this also means that you'd have to pass Windows commands as strings instead of using the fs module.

Another possible location is C:\Users\Default\AppData\Roaming\MyApp. Anything stored here will be copied to C:\Users\<new-username>\AppData\Roaming\MyApp for each new user profile created on the machine. This may or may not suit your application or you might even want to let the user to decide (by having this as an option in the installer).

What to sign

If you're digitally signing your app with a certificate, make sure you sign each and every executable; not only myApp.exe / nw.exe but also any .exe's your app spawns as well as any executables any of your node_modules dependencies spawn (which aren't already signed by the maintainers). If you were to use the [node-webkit-updatermodule](, for example, it contains an unsignedunzip.exe`. Make sure to sign all of these before building your installer, as well as signing the installer itself.

That's all folks! I've had to figure a lot of this stuff myself by trial and error so I hope it saves you some time. If I've missed anything, feel free to let me know in a comment below.

About the Author

Adam Lynch is a TeamworkChat Product Lead & Senior Software Engineer at Teamwork. He can be found on Twitter @lynchy010.

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