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AppImages let Linux developers wrap their applications into a single file that installs on any Linux distribution. That simplifies things tremendously. Here’s how to use them, and integrate them into your desktop.

Installing Software on Linux

Installing software should be simple and convenient. How simple and how convenient that turns out to be is largely down to the package manager of your distribution. Package managers are software applications that let you download other Linux programs, and install them.

Derivative Linux distributions tend to use the package managers of their parent distribution. For example, the many Debian variants and derivatives use apt, the RedHat and Fedora distributions use dnf, and the Arch family of distributions use pacman. So, thankfully, there are not as many package managers are there are distributions.

Even so, from a developer’s point of view, supporting all the different package formats means wrapping your application into a DEB file for the Debian family, into an RPM for the RedHat family, and so on. That’s a lot of additional overhead.

It also means that if neither the developers nor anyone else has created an installation package for your distribution, you can’t install that software. At least, not natively.

You might be able to shoehorn a package from a different distribution onto your computer, but that’s not a risk-free method nor is it guaranteed to work. If you know what you’re doing you can download the source code and build the application on your computer, but that’s a far cry from being simple and convenient.

Projects such as Snap and Flatpak were designed to overcome the problem of wrapping applications for each distribution. If you can wrap a package into a single file so that it comes bundled with the appropriate libraries and any other dependencies it has, so that it makes (virtually) no demands on the host operating system, it ought to be able to run on any distribution.

The AppImage project is just such an initiative. AppImage is the name of the project, and AppImages are the name for the wrapped applications.

How AppImages Work

AppImage files are not installed in the traditional sense. The component files that make up the application package are all contained inside a single file. They are not unpacked and stored in different directories in the file system.

An application installed by your package manager will have its executable copied into the appropriate “/bin” directory, its man pages will be stored in the “/usr/share/man” directory, and so on. That unpacking and copying step doesn’t happen with AppImages.

There’s a file system inside an AppImage, usually a squashFS file system. The files needed to run the application are stored inside this file system, not in the main file system of your Linux installation. When the AppImage is executed, it launches one of its internal helper programs that mounts the squashFS file system in “/tmp/mount” so that it is accessible from your main file system. It then launches the application itself.

This is why launching applications from Snaps, Flatpaks, and AppImages is slightly slower than running a regular application. For all of this to work, the host file system must have something called “filesystem in userspace” installed. This is the only dependency AppImages places on the host. FUSE is usually pre-installed on modern Linux distributions.

Using an AppImage file

The first thing you need to do is download the AppImage for the application you want. These won’t be in your distribution’s repository. Usually, you find them on the website for the application itself.

We’ll download and use FreeCAD, an open-source 3D computer-aided design package. Browse to the FreeCAD download page and click the “64-bit AppImage” button.

The FreeCAD download page

When it has been downloaded, locate the file in a terminal window. Unless you’ve changed the defaults on your web browser it’ll probably be in your “Downloads” directory. We need to make the AppImage executable. We’ll use the chmod command to add the -x (executable) permission.

chmod +x FreeCAD-0.20.0-Linux-x86_64.AppImage

making the AppImage executable using the chmod command

We’ve downloaded our file and made it executable. To execute it we can call it by name.

./FreeCAD-0.20.0-Linux-x86_64.AppImage

Launching the AppImage file

That’s all we had to do on Fedora and Manjaro. On Ubuntu 22.04, we had to install a library file. FUSE is already installed on Ubuntu 22.04, but it is a version more recent than that used by the majority of AppImages. Installing the library file doesn’t affect the installed version of FUSE.

sudo apt install libfuse2

Installing the libfuse2 library file

That solved the problem straight away, and we could launch AppImages without issue on Ubuntu Jammy Jellyfish 22.04.

The freeCAD application running from an AppImage

All that’s great. But what if you want to have your cake and eat it? Imagine if there was a way to use AppImages that didn’t require you to launch them from a terminal window. It would be much more convenient to be able to launch AppImage applications just like regular, native applications.

There’s an obvious contradiction here—the whole point of AppImages is that they don’t install themselves in the traditional sense, including they don’t integrate into your desktop. But it’s possible nonetheless with AppImageLauncher.

AppImageLauncher

AppImageLauncher monitors a nominated directory. It scans the directory, looking for AppImage files. For each one it finds, it extracts the application icon (if there is one) and integrates the AppImage into the desktop, like a regular application.

This is repeated for each new AppImage that is added to the directory. When it detects that an AppImage has been deleted, it removes the integration. So, just by dropping your downloaded AppImage files into the monitored directory, they’re integrated into your desktop environment.

If you’re using Ubuntu or Fedora, go to the AppImageLauncher Download page and click on the “Assets” link in the “Release Build (Latest)” section.

Click on the “appimagelauncher-XXX.x86_64.rpm” link for Fedora, or the “appimagelauncher_XXX.bionic_arm64.deb” file for Ubuntu. The “XXX” represents the version number of the software.

The AppImageLauncher RPM and DEB download links

Note that there are links for AppImageLauncherLite and for AppImageLauncher. Use the AppImageLauncher links.

Navigate to your downloaded file, and double-click it to start the installation. On GNOME, this will start the “Software” application.

The AppImageLauncher DEB file opened in the Ubuntu Software program

On Manjaro, you can install AppImageLauncher with this command:

sudo pacman -S appimagelauncher

Installing AppImageLauncher on Manjaro

You can launch AppImageLauncher by pressing the “Super” key. On most keyboards, it is located between the left-hand “Ctrl” and “Alt” keys. Type “appim” into the search bar.

The AppImageLauncher icon will appear. Click it to launch the application.

The AppImageLauncher main screen

There’s a tiny bit of configuration to do. We need to tell AppImageLauncher which directory we want it to monitor. Click the “folder” icon and browse to the directory you usually store your AppImages in. We selected our “Downloads” directory. You could choose a subdirectory if you like, perhaps “/Downloads/apps.”

The AppImageLauncher application with /home/dave/Downloads set as the monitored directory

If you want AppImageLauncher to offer to move AppImages it finds in other directories into your monitored directory, make sure the “Ask Whether to Move AppImage Files Into the Applications Directory” checkbox is selected. But if AppImageLauncher is only monitoring a single directory, how will it find AppImages anywhere else?

The answer to that lies on the “appimagelauncherd” tab. Click “appimagelauncherd” tab and you’ll see that it is possible to have AppImage monitor more than one directory.

The appimagelauncherd tab of the AppImageLauncher application

Click the green “Plus” icon to add more directories. Make sure the “Auto Start Auto-Integration Daemon” checkbox is selected. Click the “OK” button when you’ve made your selections.

Wait for a few minutes, then press the “Super” key and type the first part of the name of an AppImage that is in your monitored directory. In our case, we only have one.

As soon as you type “free” you should see an icon for FreeCAD. Clicking it launches the application. If the AppImage file doesn’t contain an icon, a generic cogged-wheel icon is used, which was the case with FreeCAD.

To test things further, we downloaded the AppImage file for the Subsurface application. We waited about 30 seconds to make sure it had been discovered and integrated, then pressed the “Super” key, typed “sub” and the application icon appeared. This time, the genuine icon for the application had been found and used.

Clicking the icon launched the application. We didn’t even need to use chmod to make the AppImage executable.

The Subsurface application running from an AppImage

Another nice touch is that right-clicking the icon lets you delete the AppImage right from the context menu.

The Subsurface context menu

There’s also an option to pin the icon to your launcher, making using AppImages as convenient as native applications.

AppImages Are on the Rise

On our test machines, applications launched from AppImages loaded slightly faster than Flatpak applications, and a lot faster than Snap applications. With AppImages there’s no underlying framework that needs to be installed, so—apart from the space required for the applications themselves—the hard drive footprint of using AppImages is zero.

The optional AppImageLauncher application adds some touches of finesse, but you can happily use AppImages without it.

More and more applications are offering AppImages. If you find yourself trying to install something that doesn’t seem to be in your distribution’s repositories, check out the application’s website. They may well have an AppImage.

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Profile Photo for Dave McKay Dave McKay
Dave McKay first used computers when punched paper tape was in vogue, and he has been programming ever since. After over 30 years in the IT industry, he is now a full-time technology journalist. During his career, he has worked as a freelance programmer, manager of an international software development team, an IT services project manager, and, most recently, as a Data Protection Officer. His writing has been published by  howtogeek.com, cloudsavvyit.com, itenterpriser.com, and opensource.com. Dave is a Linux evangelist and open source advocate.
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