WinZip Beta 9

Reviewed by: Jack Reikel, send e-mail
Published by: WinZip Computing, Inc., go to the web site
Requires: Windows 95 or higher through XP, almost any PC will do
MSRP: N/C (beta version); $29.00 (release version)

I have been using WinZip since, well, I can't remember how long ago. I've been using Zip compression to compact files for storage and transmission for longer than that. Zip has been a 'standard' on computers - from Atari ST to Amiga to Apple to Mac to Windows XP - for years and years. And for most of that time, WinZip Computing has been at the forefront with its WinZip product. Start the software, type a name for the Zip file which will be created, select some files, click Zip. It doesn't get much simpler.

Compression on computers is achieved by looking for commonality (in shape or pattern), and then saving the description of that shape or pattern (using tables or mathematical algorithms) instead of saving the whole text or image itself. The simplest example is text compression. We know that an 'A' in any file will look like all other 'A's in that file. So for each character we create an image of that character, and add it to a table (thereby assigning each character a unique index value). Then instead of saving the image for each character, we only have to save its position in our character table (often called a look-up table). When you want to display the image, you just look up the graphic in the table, using its unique index value. Computer processors from the old Motorola 68030 up to the latest PowerMac and Pentium 4 chips have been able to run these sorts of compression and decompression algorithms very quickly.

The current release version of WinZip is v8.1. The beta release of version 9 is best described as a release version in beta clothing. Over the course of 4 days of constant pestering, we never experienced a crash, error message or other problem. And in keeping with our motto of "real reviews by real users" we weren't focused on pure testing so much as backing up large amounts of data to Jaz cartridges and CD-R. WinZip appeared to work flawlessly and our backups were created without any corrupt file entries or unreadable archives.

But is a jump from WinZip 8.1 to version 9 worthwhile? What's so special about WinZip 9? We think that WinZip Computing has made significant and worthwhile changes. We see three major improvements affecting archive capacity, compression ratio and security.

Security first. WinZip 9.0 now fully supports 128 and 256-bit key AES encryption, which provide much greater cryptographic security than the traditional Zip 2.0 encryption method used in earlier versions of WinZip. Thank whatever heathen idols you pray to, because password protection and file encryption in previous version of WinZip were somewhat less than stellar. For the pure techies out there, WinZip 9.0's advanced encryption (FIPS-197 certified) uses the Rijndael cryptographic algorithm which, in 2001, was specified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in U.S. Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) Publication 197 as the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). Deutsche Institut fur Normung (DIN) also approves this stuff so the security rating is very high indeed. The technology fight over security standards has been tough lately too. After a three-year competition, the AES was announced by NIST as an approved encryption technique for use by the U.S. government, private businesses, and individuals. When properly implemented as a key component of an overall security protocol, the AES permits a very high degree of cryptographic security, but is still fast and efficient in operation. The implementation in WinZip 9 is transparent, with no discernable effect on compression or decompression speeds.

Compression ratios have improved slightly. We noticed that quite a few text and graphic files were slimmer by a few kilobytes. The overall improvement isn't huge, but it still makes a difference when it comes to fitting just that one extra file on a backup CD-R.

Capacity has improved dramatically. WinZip used to top out at around 65,000 files and 4 gigabytes per archive. Because WinZip 9 now uses a 64-bit extended file format, those 'restrictions' are effectively eliminated. Why should you care about these enormous file counts and sizes? Well for one thing, anyone who is backing up large file collections (fonts, music, images, etc.) can now rely on WinZip as a very fast and accurate solution. Anyone who has to backup collections of multi-gigabyte video files can also now use WinZip. Considering the fact that your average 25 minute digital video capture is well over 2 gigabytes in size, the enormous capacity in WinZip 9 is a welcome change. It is now easy to compress a 6 gigabyte video so it can fit on a single 4.7GB DVD-R. That means less file splitting (with all its inherent problems). Back up those precious business, vacation and family videos now.

Generally, the software has been received a speed and usability boost too. We use WinZip in Classic mode most of the time - what we feel is the fastest mode - and there are some improvements in version 9. The extract dialog has been reworked to display more folders in the tree view and also provides additional space for entering folder names. Another strong change is the addition of an HTML online help system. Context sensitive information is now much more extensive and easier to find.

Cons: Don't forget that if you encrypt a WinZip 9 file using advanced AES encryption, the people receiving the file won't be able to unZip the thing unless they've also got the same encryption capabilities. So they've either got to be using WinZip 9 or some other software which has been updated to the new standards.

Pros: Strong encryption - say it again - strong encryption. Our sole and longstanding complaint about WinZip has always been the fact that a 'child' could crack the encryption and password protection. Not so with the new routine -it's as safe as can be. The extra security means that WinZip can now be used in situations for which previous versions couldn't be considered including e-mailing confidential documents, storing restricted-access files on company LANs and so on. Fully backward compatible with previous Zip files. Encrypt files in existing Zip archives. Improved tooltip balloons now display much more information when you hover your mouse over the contents of a Zip file. Faster operation, smaller files, more file and archive information displayed, improved workflow (getting from one stage to another). This is an excellent upgrade and a great effort by WinZip Computing. Highly recommended.

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