Saturday, July 11, 2009

Free WinZip alternatives

Summary: Comparison of several free file archivers.

WinZip is a classic file archiving tool. It is a nice utility, but it has a major drawback: it is not free. If your budget for a file archiver is short of $30 (the current price of the cheapest version of WinZip), you can try a number of FREE alternatives, such as:I recently checked these tools looking for the following features:
  • Standard archiving algorithms: the tool must work with archives produced by other archivers, generate archive files that can be opened by other archivers.
  • Encryption: the tools should allow encryption of the new archives and it must be able to decrypt archives generated by other tools.
  • Self-extractor: the tool must be able to generate a self-extracting executable archive file.
  • Filename Unicode support: the tool should correctly handle Unicode characters in file names.
  • Multilingual interface (Russian wanted): not a requirement, but is nice to have.
  • Installer: is also nice to have.
  • Documentation: help file, or at the very least online help, could be handy.
  • Command-line operation: I do not need it now, but being able to compress, update, and decompress files via a command-line interface is a plus.
In short, all of the programs I tried (or considered trying) failed in one or more areas; however, some came closer to my ideal than the others. Before I describe how the tools compared, let me briefly explain my testing strategy.

To test the tools' capabilities, I used a (legally purchased) copy of the Cabo Verde album by Césaria Évora. The album folder contained 13 MP3 tracks. Almost all file names included Portuguese characters. I encrypted the files in the archive using the AES encryption algorithm with a 256-bit key and compared the results with the archive generated by WinZip (I used WinZip v. 12). I tried to open the archive generated by each tool in WinZip and extract a single file from it (the file had to be decrypted). I also tried to open the encrypted WinZip archive in each of the tested tools. I ran the tools on Windows XP SP3. This is what I found.

First, based on the information from Wikipedia and some preliminary test, I determined that some tools on my list did not support Unicode file names. Because these archivers cannot handle Unicode file names, I excluded them from my test (which is unfortunate, since some of these programs looked promising):Among the tools supporting Unicode file names, I still noticed a problem related to Unicode characters. For example, file Cesaria Evora - Mãe Velha (Old Mother).mp3 often appeared normal in the archives opened by the programs that produced it, but its name was corrupted when I opened the same archive in other tools. This is how the archive generated by WinZip appears in WinZip (click to display the original -- bigger -- image):


But look how 7-Zip displays the archive:


Notice the extra folder that appears at the top of the file list. When I expand this folder, I see the file, but the name appears corrupted (letter ã turns into π):


In some tools, Unicode characters appear corrupted only in the GUI, but they were fine in the extracted files; however, most tools -- especially the ones built on the top of the 7-zip compression engine -- actually did corrupt the file names (e.g. name of the file extracted from a WinZip archive in 7-Zip was corrupted). This was a common problem (with slight variations) among the tools.

Now, let me summarize how the tools stacked up for me.

7-Zip (v. 4.65) is considered a classic free file archiver. I've read lots of praises to 7-Zip, but I did not like it. The interface is not intuitive. It took me a while to figure out the workflow which differs from WinZip-like programs. For example, in WinZip you select File - New to create a new archive, to which you can then add files and folders. In 7-Zip, there is no File - New menu: you first need to select files or folders, and then click 7-Zip - Add to archive in the context menu. The purpose of some menu options and features is unclear (for a novice). For example, what's the point of two-panel view? 7-Zip also does not use standard Windows dialog boxes, such as File Open or File Save. Navigation in the file manager is awkward: there are no shortcuts to standard folders, such as Desktop or My Documents. There are many quirks like these. The interface of the program is really outdated. I would probably tolerate 7-Zip after more frequent use, but it is rather irritating for a beginner. On the positive side, 7-Zip is very capable. It can use many archiving algorithms. The interface is available in many languages. Command-line version offers many options. Help file covers available features (especially command-line options) very nicely.


Summary:If you get used to the 7-zip workflow, can tolerate the ugliness of the GUI, and keep in mind the possible issues with Unicode file names in the archives generated by other tools, 7-Zip is worth considering, but I'll pass.

DesktopZip 2008 does not have an installer. It looks simple enough but I quickly dismissed DesktopZip once I realized that it does not support encryption. I did not find an option to encrypt the archive. DesktopZip also did not prompt me for the password/passphrase when I tried to extract an encrypted file from the WinZip archive and promptly failed.


Summary: No encryption - no go.

jZip (v. 1.3.0.67918), which uses the 7-Zip engine, looked nice on the first run. Although the web site claims that jZip is available in multiple languages, I only found an English version. The application UI looks reasonably modern and simple. Basic archiving and dearchiving operations are intuitive, but there are some gaps. When I tried to encrypt the files in the archive, jZip asked me to enter the encryption password (which is expected), but then it asked me to enter the decryption password. This made no sense to me, since in the AES encryption algorithm, which I used, encryption and decryption passwords must be the same. I did not enter the decryption password, and was able to decrypt and extract a file from the jZip archive using jZip and WinZip. Like WinZip, jZip makes it difficult to archive a folder with all its contents (you can archive contents of the folder without the folder info). The program can run from command line, but it does not provide a help file. Development status is unclear. The major problem I encountered in jZip was related to Unicode. For some reason, jZip changed letter ã in the name of the Cesaria Evora - Mãe Velha (Old Mother).mp3 file to a, and it did this with its own archive.


jZip also sneaked a shortcut file Archive created by free jZip.url, which I assume points to the jZip's web site, into the archive. In the spirit of the software trojans, jZip GUI did not show the file in the archive, but I noticed it when I opened the jZip archive in WinZip:


Summary: Sneaky and corruptive - I'll pass.

KGB Archiver (v. 1.2) works as a wizard that lets you perform three operations: compress or decompress archive and change the application settings.


The program offers support for several languages, but not for Russian (and you call yourself KGB Archiver?). Surprisingly, when I opened a WinZip-generated archive in KGB Archiver, it displayed the problematic Cesaria Evora - Mãe Velha (Old Mother).mp3 file correctly; however, KGB Archiver changed the name of this file in its own archive (a'la jZip).


KGB Archiver could not extract files encrypted with a 256-bit AES encryption key from a WinZip archive (it kept popping the Password dialog box even after I submitted the correct password; I assume it would work with legacy WinZip encryption). KGB Archiver cannot create a self-extracting executable archive. Command-line execution is available, but offers just basic options. There is no help file. KGB Archiver does not let you make any changes to an existing archive. I am not sure which encryption algorithm the program uses. The wizard does not provide the back button (to go to the initial screen) and the program closes automatically after performing an operation, which I found a bit irritating.


Summary: Limited capabilities, awkward interface, and shaky handling of Unicode files make KGB Archiver a poor choice.

PeaZip (v. 2.6.2) is another program that uses the 7-Zip engine and therefore suffers from the similar problems with Unicode file names. It's a bit worse, though: when I opened a WinZip archive in PeaZip, it did not show the Cesaria Evora - Mãe Velha (Old Mother).mp3 file at all (it correctly identified 13 objects in the archive -- 12 files and one folder -- but it only displayed 11 files). In its own archive, it showed that it had changed letter ã in the file name to letter a, but when I opened this file in WinZip, the file name appeared correctly (go figure!).


The PeaZip's user interface supports several languages (including Russian), but no matter which language I tried, it seemed confusing. It took me a while to figure out how the interface works, and I'm not sure I got it all. It starts in the Browse mode (showing the file system), but then I clicked the Options button and the screen switched to the Options mode (the Options button transformed to the Browse button). The archive creation operation are relatively straight-forward, but if you want to change the default settings, pay attention to non-obvious clues. For example, to archive a folder, you need to click a down arrow next to the Add file(s) button, and select the Add folder option. When archiving a folder, I did not find any option to show the archived files. PeaZip claims to support creation of self-extracting archives, but I did not try this feature.


I assume that the Layout feature allows making changes in the archive, but I did not understand how to use it. Archiving options support most common capabilities, such as encryption settings, but still, they are a bit confusing (e.g. see the Encryption group: the Encrypt option include None and Content; how bizarre; why not use a simple check box or radio buttons to indicate whether to encrypt contents or not; also once the archive is created without encryption, how do you encrypt it?). PeaZip comes with a PDF help file, but reading a manual to understand how to use an archiver should not be necessary.


Summary: PeaZip has some potential, but in current implementation, it suffers from usability issues and problems related to handling Unicode file names.

SecureZIP Express (12.30.0016) is a free and somewhat limited version of SecureZIP made by PKWare. It looks more professional than most tools in this review. The interface is simple and intuitive with exception of security settings pertaining to certificates, which will probably confuse most users. SecureZIP Express handled Unicode file names in a WinZip archive well, but it corrupted the notorious Cesaria Evora - Mãe Velha (Old Mother).mp3 file name (changed letter ã to letter a). Two other limitations include English-only interface and no support for command-line execution. SecureZIP can create self-extracting archives.


Summary: I really like the SecureZIP interface, but Unicode file name issues tarnish the tool's reputation (if not for the Unicode problem, I would've overlooked lack of language support and no command-line execution).

ZipItFree (v. 2.10) did not have a good start. During installation, it tried to shove the following programs on to my system: My.Freeze Toolbar, Xobni, SmartShopper, WeatherBug, and Zwangi (I declined every one of these). The tool is kind of a pain to use. For example, to create a new archive, I selected an existing file and changed the name, but the tool asked me if I wanted to override the existing file (the file which I selected first). I had to switch folders to clear the file selection or type in the new file name without selecting a file first. ZipItFree offers several skins, but neither of them makes the application look like a typical Windows program. The dialog boxes and other controls in ZipItFree do not behave like standard Windows controls (e.g. Ctrl+A does not select all displayed files). The windows in the dialog boxes are too small and awkward to use. And you need to pay attention to the instructions (e.g. when archiving a folder, I had to drag-and-drop it from one window to another; I first thought that selecting the folder would've been enough). ZipItFree user interface does not support languages other than English, and I did not find any mentioning of command-line execution. On initial run, ZipItFree displayed a small add in the top right corner of the application window, but after I changed the skin, I did not see the ad (not sure if it is permanently gone or will be back). To my surprise, ZipItFree was the only program that did not have any problem with the Unicode file name. It worked with Unicode file names in both the WinZip and its own archive without a hitch. Wow! After so many disappointments, I'm really impressed. Encryption also worked fine between WinZip and ZipItFree. Unfortunately, ZipItFree cannot make a self-extracting archive.


Summary: I hate the controls, such as file navigation windows, in the ZipItFree user interface, but it appears to be the only free program among the ones I tried that does not have any problems with Unicode file names. If Unicode file name support is important for you, and you understand English, and you do not need a command-line interface or a self-extracting archive, ZipItFree may be a decent option. Just be careful during installation and decline each crapware offer that you do not need.

The bottom line
In the world of free archivers, there is no perfection. All tools I tried had problems, but some were worse than others. Nevertheless, you should be able to pick a tool that is more appropriate for your job, preferences, and tolerance level, as long as you understand its limitations.

If you want to add more pros and cons for the tools that I covered or suggest another application, please leave a comment (just make sure that the tool meets my requirements).

UPDATE (9/1/2010): I recently tried WinMount Free Edition and was quite impressed with its performance. While WinMount is not a full-featured compression utility (it lack such capabilities as file encryption and self-extraction), it does a pretty decent job of basic archiving. It even handles Unicode characters in file names correctly, so if you need a basic compression/decompression tool, I highly recommend WinMount.

6 comments:

Rarst said...

7-Zip often gets bashed for interface but really I find it perfectly usable for daily tasks.

I mostly extract archives so it goes like:

Open archive > drag'n'drop what is needed out of 7-Zip window.

Nothing confusing about that.

Also while it have some display issues with unicode file names, it can extract them perfectly (unlike many other tools). Tested on stuff with japanese file names more than once.

It may not be most fancy tool but I find it adequate, free without strings and with decen portable version.

Alek Davis said...

Well, when I was in college, I used to like vi, but the fact that I was able to master it does not mean that it was friendly for an average user. If "7-Zip often get bashed," it means that it's not very usable, at least for a significant number of people. And I understand that you can learn any program, no matter how bad it is (hey, there are people who do not mind working with SAP on a daily basis). My point is that some operations and most of UI features in 7-Zip can been improved; otherwise, people would not spend time writing their version of UIs on the top of the 7-Zip engine. Regarding Unicode file names, it works fine with its own archive, but as I said, in my test it corrupted one file name during extraction from a WinZip archive, so it's definitely not perfect.

Anonymous said...

jZip works perfectly fine. When encrypting only password is needed twice. Sneaky. No! It works perfectly fine. Fast and reliable.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andy said...

NXPowerLite (www.neuxpower.com) is interesting to try as it reduces file size - quite significantly in some cases! - without changing format or appearance. Only drawback being that it only works with Office and JPEG files.

Fascinating to try though!

Alex said...

One day I unpacked my zip files and unexpectedly the light switched off. My data were lost. I decided to use the Inet. For luck I stumbled across there - how do i work on my corrupt zip files. The software solved my proposition quite hands down and I didn't waste the money.