The Basics of Using ZIP Archives

It’s recently come to my attention that the general public has never heard of .zip or any other type of compressed archive. The idea of a compressed archive has been around for many many years. It certainly was a very early part of computer science. This article is intended to help regular people understand why these types of files are useful and how to use them on a very basic level in Windows, Mac OSX and Linux.

This post is not a detailed review of the various types of archive file formats or how they compare to each other. I am talking about .zip because, like the MP3 file format for compressed music, regardless of it being superseded by newer and better technologies it is the most common type of file archive in use today.

What the hell is a ZIP archive?

Archive files, at their most basic, are something like the boxes we put things into for shipping them to other locations. You would never simply write a mailing address on the cover of a book or box of chocolates and drop them in the mail. At the very least you’d wrap them in some tough, opaque brown paper. For something that is soft or fragile you would probably put them in a big brown cardboard box with bubble wrap to protect them on their journey. Of course, you might not be shipping the item at all. You might simply want to put it in a box for safe, organized storage.

For basic purposes all of these uses of a cardboard box are a perfect analogy to an archive file.

Sounds simple. How do I create a ZIP archive?

When it comes to desktop/laptop computers or any computer with a screen, mouse and keyboard there are several different operating systems. In terms of dealing with ZIP archives, however, there’s pretty much only two categories:

  1. Some version of the Windows operating system
  2. Some version or type of UNIX-like operating system
    • Apple Mac OSX
    • UNIX (BSD, Solaris, etc.)
    • Linux (Ubuntu, Fedora, Suse, etc.)

I am making this grand over-simplification because basically every UNIX-like operating system for desktop/laptop use includes software for creating and manipulating .ZIP archives as well as other archive types. Winblows, I mean “Windows,” in my experience never comes with this type of software pre-installed. Okay, maybe sometimes it comes with a free trial version of WinZip, but I find that beginners don’t really understand how to use WinZip. It’s definitely more geared towards advanced users.


Don’t like my snarky comments about Windows, eh? Fine . . .

In order to bring Windows up to par with other computers you can install the free-and-open-source 7zip application. Go to and click on the top-most “Download” link to download the 7zip installer for Windows. Run the installer. Once installed continue reading.

Creating a ZIP Archive

  1. On your desktop create a new folder called “brownbox” (or whatever you want, there’s nothing magical about the title “brownbox”).
  2. Copy some photos or word processor files to this folder.
  3. Right-click on the folder and, from the resulting menu select one of the following:
    • Windows + 7zip: “Add to archive . . .”
    • Mac OSX: “Create Archive of . . . ”
      Note: If right-click is not enabled on your system you can click-and-hold or press the Control/Ctrl key + mouseclick to access the contextual menu.
    • UNIX/Linux: “Compress”
  4. An archive should be created on the desktop with the same name as your folder. Windows + 7zip and UNIX/Linux will probably ask you where you would like to save the archive while OSX automatically saves it to the same location as the original folder.

Opening a ZIP Archive

I’m using the term “open” pretty loosely here. I think that the general public, wanting to access the contents of an archive file, will most likely want to “Extract” or “Decompress” the contents of the archive into a standard “folder” on their desktop. To do that:

  1. Ask your archive software to extract/decompress the contents of the archive like this:
    • Windows + 7zip: Right-click and click “Extract here”
    • Mac OSX: Double-click on the archive
    • UNIX/Linux: Right-click and click “Extract here”

Again, OSX will automatically save the extracted files to the same location as the original file while Windows + 7zip and UNIX/Linux will generally present a Save As dialog.

So archive files aren’t just for nerds!

Exactly. Let me know if you have any questions.