5 ways to find silent install parameters

Brock Bingham candid headshot
Brock Bingham|Updated August 7, 2023
Illustration of computer desk and monitor with PDQ logo
Illustration of computer desk and monitor with PDQ logo

Applications vary significantly in size and complexity. Some have large storage requirements and take forever to install (thanks AutoCAD), while others are small and install in seconds. Some can even run in a portable mode, which can then be launched from a flash drive. Whether our application is large or small, we’d like it to install hassle free. For that to happen, we need to find some silent installers. There are various ways to locate these glorious beauties, including the manufacturer, command line, and specific apps.

Why do they need to be silent? Great question. There is nothing like sending a nightly deployment to 200 machines only to find out it failed because it needed the end user to accept a licensing agreement. Gah! Not on our watch. By adding these silent parameters, we can forget all that nonsense. Silence is our friend.

What’s the difference between MSI and EXE files?

Regardless of whether you’re installing a massive productivity suite or a small portable application, installations generally come in two forms: an EXE or an MSI file.

Most sysadmins look at an MSI file or an EXE file and instantly know that the file either installs something or runs something. When downloading programs from the web, you’ll often have the choice to download the files as an EXE or an MSI. While they share some similarities in their purpose, there are many differences between them. The key difference I want to focus on is that EXE files are highly customizable by the developer, while MSI installers are standardized.

When you install an MSI file, you can be assured that certain parameters exist, such as the silent parameter /quiet or /qn. You can get a list of the supported parameters in PowerShell or CMD by typing msiexec.exe /?. This command displays the usage statement.

Windows Installer

EXEs, on the other hand, can be configured however the developer sees fit. They may include a usage statement, or they may not. They may have used different silent switches like /silent, /s, or /S, or they may or may not accept installation parameters at all. Because EXEs aren’t standardized like MSI files, deploying them to our users becomes more difficult, especially if we need to ensure the installation runs silently and doesn’t restart end-user computers.

Since we can’t rely on all EXE files using the same installation parameters, we need to do some detective work to ensure our installations go off without a hitch. So grab your deerstalker cap and your gourd Calabash pipe, because the game is afoot, Watson. 

1. Find silent install parameters with the usage statement

Displaying the usage statement is my go-to method for finding silent installation parameters. The problem is that not all EXE files are created equal, and not all EXE files include a usage statement. Thankfully, viewing the usage statement, if one exists, is pretty straightforward. Here are a couple of different methods you can use to view the usage statement.

The first, and my preferred, method is to drag the executable file into the Run window. Open the folder containing the EXE file, and launch the Run window by typing run into the Windows 10 search bar and hitting enter. Next, drag the EXE file into the Open field of the Run window. Doing so brings up the path to the executable. Add /? to the end of the path, making sure to include the space before the forward slash, and click OK.

drag installer

After clicking OK, you may be prompted with a User Account Control window. If a UAC prompt opens, click Yes.

do you want to allow this app to make changes to your device?

After clicking Yes, if the EXE comes with a usage statement, it should display. If the EXE doesn’t come with a usage statement, the application may just start to install. Here is the usage statement for the Silverlight executable.

Installer usage finding silent option

An alternative to using the Run window is to use CMD or PowerShell. If you grew up with Mavis Beacon and love typing, you could launch CMD or PowerShell and type out the path to the executable file followed by /?. If you’re like Lex and don’t like typing, there are easier ways of doing things. Just as with our example using the Run command, you can also drag and drop the file into the CMD or PowerShell window and append the /? to the end of the path.

drag installer to cmd line or powershell console

Make sure you don’t launch CMD or PowerShell with Admin rights, or this won’t work.

Another trick you can use if you don’t like to drag your files everywhere is to hold the Shift key and right-click on the executable, and then click Copy as path. Then you can just paste the path in Run, CMD, or PowerShell, and add /? to the end of the path.

2. Use Google to find silent install parameters

Is there anything Google can’t do? Probably, but the list of things it can’t do gets shorter and shorter every day. Google is a solid source of information for install parameters. Simply search Google for silently install [application_name], and you’ll find loads of information to help you out.

3. Try the Universal Silent Switch Finder (USSF)

Universal Silent Switch Finder (USSF) is about as accurate a program name as I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t guessed already, Universal Silent Switch Finder attempts to detect the silent switch or parameter for an executable. Simply launch the program and point it to an executable file, and it’ll take care of the rest.

Disclaimer: I’ve had mixed results using USSF. Some apps simply don’t have a silent switch option, in which case USSF was never going to find anything. Another possible explanation for my mixed results could be that USSF hasn’t been updated in quite some time. Regardless, when you need to find a silent parameter and you’ve already tried the other resources, USSF is worth a shot.

USSF Universal silent switch finder

4. Extract executables with 7-Zip

One more option when finding silent parameters is to extract the executable using 7-Zip to see if any other MSI or EXE files within the executable can help us get the application installed silently. If you have 7-Zip installed, you can explore the contents of an executable by right-clicking on the EXE file and selecting 7-Zip > Open archive.

right mouse click -> 7zip -> Open archive

5. Use AutoHotkey (if all else fails)

If you’ve exhausted all of your resources and still can’t find a silent install option for an application you need to deploy, there is a last-resort option you can consider. AutoHotkey is an application that can automate tasks by mimicking clicks and button presses. It can launch EXE files minimized and still run through interactive menus without requiring user interaction. This process is scripted in AutoHotkey, after which it can be deployed to end users.

Again, this is a last-resort option. If you’re not familiar with AutoHotkey, things can go south quickly if the script you deploy isn’t perfect. Learn more about AutoHotkey and see this process in action.

Silent parameter FAQs

What are silent parameters?

Silent parameters are command-line switches or options that allow for automated software installations without requiring the end user to do anything. 'Cause, you know, we don’t want them actually speaking to us, right?

What are the benefits of silent parameters?

By leveraging silent parameters, you can deploy applications seamlessly across multiple machines, saving valuable time and effort. This switch isn’t gonna play itself.

Familiarizing yourself with common silent parameters enables you to perform silent installations, prevent disruptive prompts, aka pressing next seven times, and ensure a smooth end-user experience.

Just remember, each software has its own set of secret codes, so unfortunately, there is some work involved in finding the right one. I know, I know. Boo. The good news is, once you find the right one, it’s nap time.

Silent installations with PDQ

Having the ability to install applications silently is necessary for any deployment. I can’t imagine the chaos that would ensue if an interactive application deployment requiring input was pushed out to hundreds of users. PDQ Connect and PDQ Deploy allow silent app installation for that reason.

If you’re tired of tracking down silent parameters and building packages, let PDQ Connect or PDQ Deploy do it for you. PDQ Connect and PDQ Deploy take the guesswork out of deployments by providing prebuilt packages for dozens of the most common applications available today. Check it out with a free trial of PDQ Connect or PDQ Deploy & Inventory!

Brock Bingham candid headshot
Brock Bingham

Born in the '80s and raised by his NES, Brock quickly fell in love with everything tech. With over 15 years of IT experience, Brock now enjoys the life of luxury as a renowned tech blogger and receiver of many Dundie Awards. In his free time, Brock enjoys adventuring with his wife, kids, and dogs, while dreaming of retirement.

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