Tighter ties with Windows Explorer
WinZip 8.1 still gives you a choice between two interfaces, Wizard and Classic, and now it's integrated more closely with Windows. The Classic interface presents files in the traditional Windows app display, with a toolbar, menus, and a preview pane that shows the contents of a compressed file. Simply drag and drop files onto the display to build an archive, a group of related but infrequently used files compressed together to save space. To extract files from an archive, drag the files out of WinZip's preview pane and drop them onto the desktop.
Wizard mode is even easier. Simply choose a task--zip a file, unzip archives, or add files to existing archives--and WinZip performs all the work for you. The wizards walk you through several screens, one for each step. Even a first-timer can get going in no time.
If you're a zipping whiz, just skip both interfaces and work from within Windows Explorer itself. You can select multiple archives within Explorer (or the My Computer view), regardless of which Windows version you own, and extract all the files in all your archives with a single right-click. You can even extract files from an archive and dump them directly into the current folder or into any of the nine folders most recently accessed by WinZip. Or, configure the WinZip menu that appears in Explorer to display only those commands you want. The bottom line: thanks to tight integration, you can accomplish about 80 percent of WinZip's tasks from within Explorer--no need to launch WinZip separately. (For password-protection and scanning archives for viruses, you must run WinZip the old-fashioned way.)
Fast as ever
WinZip can extract archives in formats other than the standard ZIP file format. It pulls files out of UUencode, BinHex, TAR, GZIP, MIME, and CAB archives (the last is the format Microsoft uses to install most of its software). WinZip handles older archive formats, such as ARC, ARJ, and LHZ, with aplomb, but only if you download and install helper apps. Unfortunately, WinZip still doesn't support some newer formats, such as RAR and ACE, which are gaining in popularity because they compress files into even smaller archives. Note to the folks at WinZip: Get on the ball.
WinZip 8.1 has some nifty new features. It allows you to create self-extracting archives, or files that recipients can decompress without a separate app. You can also protect zipped files with passwords, streamline e-mail archives by automatically opening your e-mail client after you zip a bunch of files, and temporarily unzip a document for editing without opening the archive with WinZip. Our favorite addition is the new Split command, which lets you break Zip archives into smaller chunks (you specify the size). This is a godsend if your ISP limits the size of e-mail attachments you can send or receive, because you can divide a large file and send the smaller pieces separately.
WinZip is superfast. Version 8.1 compresses files just as quickly as its predecessor and does it just as well. We compressed single files and entire folders with both 8.0 and 8.1, and the two versions took almost exactly the same amount of time. More important, WinZip still beats Netzip in timed tests. WinZip 8.1 runs from 34 to 45 percent faster than Netzip and works like a charm under Windows XP. Version 8.1 runs as a native XP application, so you don't have to fiddle with XP's compatibility modes to get WinZip to run correctly.
Some things haven't changed much, though, including WinZip's distaste for other download utilities. Unlike its main competitor, Netzip, WinZip doesn't include a download assistant to help you manage a heavy volume of file transfers or reconnect you when your link to an FTP server is lost. Instead, WinZip tries to get by with a browser plug-in that moves Zip archives to a designated folder on your drive when you click a Zip icon on a Web site. And, unlike Netzip, WinZip 8.1 still makes you open archive files to view contents, which show up as compressed files in folders.
Still, these are minor beefs. WinZip's generous, open-ended trial (you can use Netzip for only seven days before you must pay for it), superior speed, intuitive operation, and extensive integration with Windows Explorer make WinZip a clear WinNer. You're crazy if you download files or handle file attachments without it.