Monday, February 4, 2008

MinGW Starter

This article is targeted toward C and C++ programmers, particularly Windows programmers familiar with other Windows compilers, who would like to use MinGW (Minimalist Gnu Compiler for Windows), the port of GCC, for application development on a Windows PC. I also make few related tool recommendations, keeping in mind that everyone has different tastes or needs. If you don't know what MinGW or GCC is, then you should probably visit the above links first. Most of the resources I describe are listed or linked to on the page, but I have narrowed down the scope considerably to the tools I have found to work best for me.

What we want:
  • A modern C++ compliant compiler with solid Standard Library support.
  • A code editor and makefile tools or an IDE.
  • The ability to build console, Windowed, SDL and DirectX and OpenGL apps.
What to get:
  • Download the latest MinGW release from the MinGW home page. If you download a zip file, be sure to check that there is a root MinGW folder in the zip file before extracting; if there is not you should specify one for extraction (eg: C:\mingw). You can freely rename or move this top-level directory, provided you update your system's path environment variable (on Windows 2000, right-click My Computer --> Properties --> Advanced --> Environment Variables). For our example, we'd insert: C:\mingw\bin, preferrably at the beginning of the path. See the install instructions with MinGW for more.

    Before continuing, you may wish to experiment a little with your MinGW installation. I found Colin Peters introduction invaluable. It shows you a simple HelloWindows.exe and explains how to build various types of binaries. Highly recommended first steps. [Note: Colin's site seems to have disappeared for now, but you can find the content mirrored here.]

  • You will also want a good Text Editor/IDE (unless you're an emacs fiend, in which case you've probably made up your mind already :). An extensive list of free editors and IDEs can be found on Some are definitely better than others. Of note, Dev C++ is an ambitious effort to provide a full development suite for MinGW. There is also a make utility called Jam which greatly simplifies the task of creating makefiles and managing dependencies. It is not an IDE, but it does allow you to create makefiles for large/complex projects with very simple, concise commands. This may appeal to some people better than a GUI tool. Cygwin, which provides a Unix environment on Windows can also be rigged up as an IDE/development environment in a number of ways (Unix is, after all, a developer's platform). See the Cygwin section below for more.

    My favourite editor is TextPad, a fully-functional shareware text editor for Windows, but it is very reasonably priced and is an excellent editor for C, C++, HTML, Perl, Java, etc. One of the better free text editors I've come across is the Programmers File Editor.

    If you don't want to write makefiles by hand, Rainer Schnitker has a simple IDE to work in conjunction with MinGW.

    There's also the general-purpose IDE Eclipse. I actually haven't used Eclipse with MinGW yet, but there is an article on IBM's site with more information.

  • You should also be aware of STLport. (Pure C coders can skip this, as can those who do not wish to use the STL or would rather use the default headers provided with MinGW.) STLport boasts some very efficient statistics and is ported to many different platforms/compilers, so if it's relevant, or if you just like to tinker, give it a shot. If you do, or if you plan to try compiling other 3rd party libraries or applications from source, be sure to read the following section. Some makefiles may require a "posix shell" in order to build with mingw.

  • MSYS is a lightweight posix shell for Win32, also available at the site. This will likely allow you to use makefiles and/or run configuration scripts in order to compile projects ported from Unix (or Unix variants) and allows the posix style path separator character '/' to work with Win32 apps run from the MSYS command line. MSYS's installer will easily allow you to configure it to work with your MinGW installation. Or you can try...

  • If you are primarily a Windows coder and are not very familiar with Unix or Linux but are interested in learning more, I would recommend installing CygWin. CygWin is kind of like a Unix emulator for your Windows machine but it is also capable of running Windows applications (like MinGW) from the command-line. CygWin is often necessary to use in conjunction with MinGW when you are attempting to build libraries from makefiles, typically programs that have been ported from *nix. make is capable of starting other executables, and *nix developers often include *nix-specific calls to programs that don't exist on Windows. Installing CygWin usually makes the required apps available; you simply run 'make' from CygWin's command line.

    In order to get MinGW to work properly with CygWin, you need to make one change to CygWin's own $PATH variable. CygWin's path is prepended your Windows path so CygWin will find its own native executables before Windows (generally, Unix and Windows programs on the path are named differently, but not always). If you installed CygWin into C:\cygwin, open the file C:\cygwin\etc\profile in a text editor. If you installed mingw into c:\mingw, then insert: /cygdrive/c/mingw/bin: at the beginning of the path string (look for the line $PATH="...). 'cygdrive' refers to the root level of your Windows system, outside of the Unix environment. Save this file after making the change. If you have any CygWin windows open, close them. From now on, CygWin will find mingw's binaries before its own. You can test this by starting up a new CygWin command-line window and typing gcc -print-libgcc-file-name. This will output c:/mingw/bin/../lib/gcc-lib/mingw32/2.95.3-6/libgcc.a (assuming you installed mingw to c:/mingw).

    Note: I believe that Cygwin now includes MinGW as an optional install component. You may wish to check to see that it includes the version of MinGW that you want before using it. If you do install Cygwin's MinGW, then take care to distinguish between the Cygwin version of MinGW, Cygwin's GCC and the Win32 standalone MinGW in your $PATH variables, by placing the one you want to use first (and/or omitting the others).

    Cygwin it is a heck of a lot more than just a tool to get GCC makefiles to compile with mingw. It is an entire Unix environment that brings with it editors like emacs and vi which have extensive programming syntax files, as well as various shells like ksh which are designed for coders. Basically, you can tailor your development environment with a myriad of tools.
Linkage Issues:
  • Another point to clear up: .a files are understood as library (actually archive) files by MinGW. This is all explained in the documentation, however it is worth noting that ld, the linker (called implicitly by g++) can link just about any type of file to build a target. However, the naming convention "lib*.a" for static libraries allows you to specify a search path for static link libraries. That is; if your library is named "libfoo.a" for example, then it can exist anywhere in the path specified by the -L flag, and should then be specified as -lfoo. If you are linking to a library named "foo.lib" however, you will need to type the full path and filename for this, and every other .lib (i.e., not .a) file.

Other Notes:
  • Exception handling is enabled by default, which will make your resulting binaries larger. You can turn off exception handling with the -fno-exceptions flag (unless of course you want to use exceptions). You can further reduce the size of your exe (but not by much) by disabling RTTI. Use -fno-rtti, however this prohibits the use of exception handling as well as run-time type identification features like dynamic_cast. There is a lot of other trickery one can do with template instantiation flags as to avoid redundant code generation, however I haven't gotten much into that yet.

  • Finally, remember to use the -s flag to strip symbols from your final exe.

Well, that wraps up my MinGW introduction. You can continue on by reading about using MinGW with SDL or MinGW with DirectX.

originally posted on 2001-06-06
edited: 2001-06-07
edited: 2001-06-10
edited: 2001-06-25
edited: 2001-07-28
edited: 2001-07-31
edited: 2002-07-07
edited: 2002-11-04
edited: 2005-07-04


Timothy McCluskey said...

The Colin Peters introduction link is broken

recieves a 404 not found....

Timothy McCluskey said...

should have kept reading...I checked the mirror site...

Anonymous said...

thank you for your beneficial advices. they were like a pill for beginners