The Best File Extraction and Compression Tool for Windows

If you’re a Windows user, you probably need to install a tool for creating and extracting archive files. Windows only features built in support for ZIP files, but third-party tools add support for other common types of archives like RAR and 7z. They also offer built-in encryption features, allowing you to securely protect archives you create with a passphrase.

7-Zip: The Best For Most People

WinZip and WinRAR may be household names, but we recommend against using them. These tools are commercial software applications that nag you to spend money rather than just doing their job and getting out of the way. WinZip costs a minimum of $30, while WinRAR costs $29. We recommend the open-source 7-Zip tool instead.

7-Zip isn’t the shinest, most modern looking application. It doesn’t have a big marketing department behind it, so you won’t see advertisements for 7-Zip online. Instead, it’s just a completely free to use, open-source application that does its job without complaints. It works on all modern versions of Windows, from Windows XP through Windows 10.

7-Zip supports a variety of different archive types. 7-Zip can create and extract 7z, XZ, BZIP2, GZIP, TAR, ZIP, and WIM files. It can also extract (but not create) AR, ARJ, CAB, CHM, CPIO, CramFS, DMG, EXT, FAT, GPT, HFS, IHEX, ISO, LZH, LZMA, MBR, MSI, NSIS, NTFS, QCOW2, RAR, RPM, SquashFS, UDF, UEFI, VDI, VHD, VMDK, WIM, XAR and Z files. That’s probably more formats than you’ll need.

This program’s own 7z format offered the highest compression in our benchmarks, but gives you the freedom of choosing the 7z format for maximum compression or creating ZIP archives for maximum compatibility. And, when you encounter an archive file online, 7-Zip can probably open it.

7-Zip includes its own file manager, which you can use to navigate your file system and extract files. However, it also integrates with File Explorer or Windows Explorer, allowing you to easily right-click files and use the 7-Zip menu to extract or compress them in various ways.

When compressing to a ZIP or 7z file, 7-Zip allows you to set a password that encrypts the file with secure AES-256 encryption. This makes for an easy method of quickly and securely encrypting your files, too. For example, you may want to encrypt your tax returns or other financial documents before storing them somewhere.

Some people think 7-Zip’s icons look old, outdated, and just generally ugly. If you don’t look the way 7-Zip looks by default, you can replace the icons and make 7-Zip look better with the 7-Zip Theme Manager.

PeaZip: The Best If You Want Something Prettier or More Powerful

Some people just can’t get over 7-Zip’s interface, even after using the 7-Zip Theme Manager to pretty it up. If you find that 7-Zip looks too dated and are considering reaching for your wallet to pay for a WinRAR or WinZip license, don’t. Instead, give PeaZip a try. Like 7-Zip, it’s completely free and open-source.

PeaZip has a more modern looking interface out of the gate. It also includes a lot of advanced features most people won’t need, but some people will appreciate. For example, PeaZip allows you to create a scheduled task that automatically compresses the files of your choosing in an archive on a schedule, which could be useful for backups. It has a plug-in system that allows you to install plugins like UNACE, which allows you to open WinAce’s ACE archives. PeaZip also offers support for archive formats like ZIPX and ARC, newer archive formats you probably won’t encounter in the wild, but which aren’t supported by 7-Zip.

PeaZip is a great tool, but we still recommend 7-Zip overall. If you need PeaZip’s more powerful features or prefer the way its interface looks, however, we encourage you to try this tool instead.

Windows’ Built-In ZIP Support: The Best If You Can’t Install Software

Not everyone can install software, or even download portable apps like 7-Zip Portable. If you find yourself needing to create and extract archive files with just the software that comes installed on Windows on a locked-down system, you can do it.

There are some major limits, though. First up, you can only work with ZIP files. Windows can create ZIP archives and extract ZIP archives, but that’s it—no other formats. You also can’t encrypt your ZIP archives with a passphrase or do anything else fancy.

This feature is easy to use if you need it. To view the contents of a .zip file, double-click it. Windows opens it as if it were a folder. You can copy-and-paste files or drag-and-drop them to or from the ZIP file to extract files from the ZIP file, or to add new files to the ZIP file. You can also delete or rename files here and they’ll be removed from the ZIP file or renamed inside it.

To quickly extract a ZIP file, right-click it and select the “Extract All” option. Windows pops up a box that lets you choose where the files will be extracted.

To create a ZIP file, select one or more files or folders in your file manager, right-click them, and then select Send to > Compressed (zipped) folder. Windows creates a new ZIP file containing the files you selected, and you can then rename it to whatever you like.

This built in feature isn’t the most powerful or convenient tool, but it will serve you in a pinch—assuming you just need support for ZIP files and no fancy features.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Twitter.