Updated: August 24, 2012
Linux users have it easy - when they want to update their system and all of its software, they just need to power up the resident package manager, approve their choice and wait until the updates are downloaded and applied. In Windows, things are a little trickier.
Because of various legal, licensing and distribution issues, Microsoft can afford to offer updates only for its own set of programs, which includes Windows, Office, Silverlight, and alike, some firmware and drivers, but never third-party stuff. As a result, most Windows users are forced to run manual updates on their boxes, meaning most if not all run some outdated and buggy versions of software on their machines. To make things even messier, there is no standard format to how programs should be installed, when, where or how, adding to the confusion. But what if you had a package manager?
Introducing Windows package managers
While maintenance is less of an issue with self-service apps like most browsers, the vast majority of tools written for Windows does not have the capability to smoothly upgrade. Usually, it's download manually, uninstall, install, fight over registry leftovers, and all that drama. However, there are several programs out there designed to help Windows users get on top of their software by providing a bundling framework for updates. We will focus on two of them.
Ninite is a combo one-click installer for a limited number of programs, most of which are cross-platform and portable solutions. To use Ninite, you merely need to check the boxes for listed programs on their site and download the bundle. The installer will automatically retrieve the software from their respective websites, automatically configure all required choices and strip away third-party adware and such. If programs are already installed and up to date, the installer will skip them, if they require updates, the installer will perform the required task.
This sounds like a very neat idea, although you will still need to periodically execute the installer to get the latest software. However, you will be saving some one hundred mouse clicks or so, which is a blessing. You will get support for 32-bit and 64-bit versions of software, and there's an offline mode in the pro edition. All in all, it looks like a very nice piece of software.
The one small problem with Ninite is that it offers a limited menu of programs. To name a few, you get four browsers, yes you guessed which ones, nine instant messaging and telephony clients, including Skype, Pidgin, Trillian, AIM, Yahoo!, and others. There are some fifteen media players available, like VLC, Songbird, Winamp, foobar2000, plus several codec packages. You also get all of the popular browser plugins. Both LibreOffice and OpenOffice are offered, plus the trial version of Microsoft Office 2007. There are also several security programs, eMule and uTorrent for P2P sharing, Steam, Dropbox, KeePass, Google Earth, RealVNC client, TrueCrypt, InfraRecorder, FileZilla, Notepad++, Putty, several archiving programs, and even Python. All in all, more than enough for the average user. But then again, most of these programs are available as portable apps, anyway.
When you launch your newly installed programs, you do not know or care that they might have been retrieved by Ninite. It all looks the same. There's no evil branding. In fact, all extra stuff, like suggested homepage changes, toolbars and such are stripped away silently.
Bottom line, Ninite is simple, fuss free and works well. It's a solid edition to a happy geek's carefree computing. Combined with aforementioned portable apps and a system auditing program like Secunia PSI, you can almost enjoy the Linux style of work.
Npackd is an application package manager for Windows. Unlike Ninite, it has to be installed on your system to work. The setup is fairly simple and painless.
When you fire up the program, you will see a long list of available programs, some with icons and descriptions. You will also see several outdated entries. Searching is not easy, but you can use the free text box on the left side to narrow down your hunt to desired content. Once you find the relevant program, you can hit Install to get underway.
I must admit this procedure did not go all smoothly for me. Programs would install properly, but the software would always hang at the 95% step and never complete. At this point, the downloader could not be closed, nor the program exited save for a forced death through the Task Manager. Upon next start, it would list the earlier downloaded programs, but upon every subsequent install or update, the package manager would stall at that last step.
Overall, the program worked, but it was a clumsy experience. Npackd is essentially a one-use program, after which you must terminate it by force before you can launch it again, see the updated list of installed software and perform additional maintenance.
I really do not know why the program would hang, as the result was identical whether it was started with or without administrative rights. Likewise, the overall action flow feels somewhat unnatural. Npackd feels less like a proper package manager, more sort of a secondary add/remove applet.
Discipline still remains the key element. And you will still suffer from ten different installer versions and separate updates for most of your Windows. If you stick by the cross-platform genre of programs, your work will be easier. Ninite and Npackd blend here well and can improve the overall experience.
In terms of pure usability, Ninite seems like a better candidate - it's faster, lighter, more elegant, less buggy, easier to understand and operate overall. However, it has a smaller choice of available programs. Npackd offers a lot, but you will struggle with freezes and hangs that will force you to restart the program to be of any great use.
Still, the big question is, are they any good in the grand scheme? Well, overall, neither solution is perfect, nor can they fully leverage the awesome super-lazy ease of a complete Linux system package management. However, with some extra hard work and several other helper utilities, both Ninite and Npackd can make Windows use that much more bearable. If we must grade, then Ninite gets about 8/10, Npackd something like 6.5/10.
Well, I guess that would be all. Enjoy your new toys.
P.S. Package icon on homepage licensed and modified under GPL.