The answer is both yes and no.
Assuming you’ve run the set up to install the programs they contained then yes, you can delete setup files safely. The programs will continue to work without them.
However, the answer is also no: you don’t want to delete them. You want to do something else instead, for reasons that aren’t always obvious.⋅
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Downloaded setup files are like installation media
In a very real sense, set-up files and packages that you download from the internet are almost exactly like the original installation media you might have received when you purchased software in some physical form.
It used to be almost all software was sold or packaged and distributed on CD or DVD media (or floppy disks, if you go back in time far enough). On those discs were the set-up files for the program you’d purchased. You ran the set-up program, and the software was copied onto your computer. After set up was complete, you removed those discs and began using the new software on your machine.
While the distribution model is different – downloading a file rather than receiving a disc – the actual method hasn’t changed much at all. When you run the downloaded set-up program, it copies the software onto the appropriate locations onto your hard disk. After the set-up program is done, it’s no longer required for the installed software to run.
If it were on a disc, you would eject it.
Yes, you could just delete set-up files. But don’t. Not yet, anyway.
You want to save that downloaded setup program before you delete it.
The issue is very simple: if you ever need to set up the program again, you’ll need the set-up program to do so.
When you have physical media – like an installation DVD – you can simply keep that somewhere and pull it out when needed. However, if you routinely delete set-up files before saving them somewhere, when it comes time to set up that program again, you might be out of luck.
The most common scenario for needing that download again is getting a new machine. You’ll probably want to install that software on your new computer.
The second most common scenario? Reinstalling an existing machine from scratch because of a bad malware infection, or because the hard drive died and you didn’t have a backup. The instructions for a complete reinstall are pretty simple: reinstall Windows, and then reinstall all your applications. If you don’t have the download, you might not be able to do that second step for some programs.
Download it again
The most common objection to needing to save downloads is simply that you can always download it again.
Always? I don’t think so.
Besides assuming you have an internet connection, there are several scenarios where that’s just not something you can count on:
- Software that you purchase in download form can often only be downloaded for a limited time.
- You may have need for the specific version of the software that you have installed – something you may not even realize until that version is no longer available for download.
- The vendor can go out of business. (This happens more often than you think.)
The safest thing to do is to save or archive those downloaded programs somewhere.
What I do to delete setup files
I keep my Downloads folder clean. In fact, as I type this, it’s completely empty.
When I download software to my machine I:
- run the set up to install the software
- copy the download to a backup drive, replacing any previous copy for that same software
- delete the download from the Downloads folder
That way, I always have a copy of the most recent set-up program for all the software I use.
In my case, since I have several computers, this practice also allows me to avoid downloading the same thing multiple times. Each of my networked computers can simply now run the set-up program from the copy I archived after the first download.