It's not easy being WinZip these days. Windows has been able to open and create Zip files on its own for a while now, and free, powerful compression utilities like 7-Zip are readily available and actively maintained. And yet, the 20 year-old utility soldiers on with version 17, delivering impressive utility and showing a keen awareness of the rapidly evolving cloud storage and file sharing landscape. New integration with cloud storage services and social networks gives WinZip a firm foothold in the online world. It's available in $50 Pro and $30 Standard versions, each with a twenty-one-day free trial.

WinZip 17 isn't the first version to feature the Ribbon interface, that strip of large, bold icons that debuted with Microsoft's Office 2007. Not everyone loves the Ribbon, but WinZip has been traditionally toolbar-based, so the Ribbon works well for it. The UI divides ribbon tabs are according to functionality, with clear labels such as Unzip, Edit, Share, Tools, and Settings. WinZip has done some extra work so that when you start the program fresh, the first tab is Create, letting you quickly put a Zip file together - and when you start the program by opening a Zip  file, the first tab is Unzip, letting you extract it either locally or to the cloud.

Dropbox, Google Drive, and SkyDrive are all deeply integrated into WinZip 17, and their familiar icons show up in several different Ribbon tabs for different operations. The Unzip tab lets you extract files directly into any service without locally browsing for its folder (or even having its client installed). The Edit and Create tabs let you download files from any of the three services and add them to the current Zip, and even shows how much free space you have in each service, so you can better decide where to place the resulting Zip. The Share tab lets you create a Zip file right on a cloud service, as well as quickly email links to any files you already have on the various cloud services.

The only point where this new integration doesn't mesh well with legacy functionality is the Email feature in the Share tab. This feature lets you email a link to your Zip file, but works only using ZipSend, a WinZip service that requires its own account. With other services so well-integrated, there's no reason to make you use ZipSend exclusively for this--but to put a Zip file on another service and email a link to it requires a series of different operations (you can still do it, just not as easily).

WinZip's emphasis on file sharing carries through to several other features. WinZip can now seamlessly convert documents into PDFs so your recipients can't change their contents as easily; it can also shrink image dimensions, so you can feed it with an entire folder of huge camera images and end up with a small Zip containing 800x600 images for quick sharing. And if you'd like to share some files broadly on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, the new ZipShare feature lets you send a status update right from within WinZip with a link to a Zip file hosted on the ZipShare server. The file must be under 25MB, and the link will stop working after a week--but for most social streams, a week is ancient history. This is one of the few features that feel gimmicky to me, but time will tell. Perhaps we'll start seeing ZipShare links pop up everywhere on social networks.

The biggest differences between WinZip's Pro and Standard versions are in the backup and automation features: WinZip Pro includes an automated backup feature that lets you configure WinZip jobs that can run unattended, whereas the Standard version has no notion of backup sets and jobs (but you can still use it to create archives of your important files for backup purposes, of course). Other minor differences include a better image viewing experience on Pro, which includes a built-in image viewer with touch support, and a Photos button for quickly transferring photos from supported cameras.

WinZip tries to do a lot, which can be daunting in some programs. Fortunately, WinZip's interface excels in clear icon labeling. Ribbon tabs and buttons are captioned in simple, unambiguous language, providing complete information. Even the single-click "Unzip" feature for quickly extracting a Zip file shows a detailed caption with the folder name and its location on disk, so you know where to find your files. The resulting interface does require some careful reading, but saves confusion and time spent perusing documentation.

OUR VERDICT

Even after twenty years, WinZip 17 feels like a focused application that's very much in tune with how people share files in today's world. There aren't many things you can do only with WinZip, but it does offer a centralized location for archiving and sharing activities. For users willing to make it a central part of their workflow, it can replace a hodgepodge of free tools with one unified, polished interface.