compressed folder

It’s time to compress some files, so what format do you use? Zip, RAR, 7z, or something else? We performed some benchmarks to determine which format gives you maximum compression.

Compression ratio isn’t the only factor, of course. Some of these formats are just easier to use because they’re integrated into desktop operating systems, while some require third-party software.

File Compression Benchmarks

This is more complicated than it seems. How much compression you achieve will depend not only the on the archive type you create, but on the application you use to compress it and the settings you use. We stuck with popular applications at their default compression settings to simplify things.

Rather than messing with some of the usual file types here — like Word DOCX documents, which already use a form of Zip compression, and JPG images, which also use a form of compression — we decided to compress a few installed PC games. Games incorporate graphics, music, text files, executables, and various other different types of files, so they’re a good real-world dataset with various different types of files.

First, we installed Bastion and compressed its folder — about 863 MB in size of music, graphics, executable files, and various different types of documents:

  • Zip (Windows 8.1): 746 MB (86.4% of the original size)
  • Zip (WinZip): 745 MB (86.3% of the original size)
  • RAR (WinRAR): 746 MB (86.4% of the original size)
  • 7z (7-Zip): 734 MB (85% of the original size)

Next, we compressed Hotline Miami, which is 654 MB of data:

  • Zip (Windows 8.1): 316 MB (48.3% of the original size)
  • Zip (WinZip): 314 MB (48% of the original size)
  • RAR (WinRAR): 307 MB (46.9% of the original size)
  • 7z (7-Zip): 301 MB (46% of the original size)

And the Winner Is…

The winner by pure compression is 7z, which isn’t surprising to us. We’ve seen 7z come on the top of file compression benchmarks time and time again. If you want to compress something to use as little space as possible, you should definitely use 7z. You can even crank up the compression settings to save even more space, although it will take longer to compress and decompress.

Overall, Zip and RAR came pretty close to each other. WinZip also didn’t beat out the integrated Windows support for creating Zip files by that much. In short, we recommend:

  • For Maximum Compression: Create 7z archives with 7-Zip.
  • For Ease of Use and Maximum Compatibility: Create Zip files with the feature integrated into your operating system. For example, on Windows, select some files in Windows Explorer or File Explorer, right-click them, point to Send To, and select Compressed (zipped) folder.

Operating System Support

If you’re just compressing files for your own use, you can use whatever file format you like. However, some archive formats are more interoperable and work out-of-the-box on various operating systems without installing third-party software. If you’re sending the archives to someone else, or you’re posting them online, you’ll probably want to use a format that the recipients can access with less fuss.

Here are the formats integrated into popular operating systems:

  • Windows: Zip only. This feature was added back in Windows XP, so practically every Windows user can create and extract zip files.
  • Mac OS X: Zip is supported, and so are other archive types like .tar.gz and .tar.bz2. .7z and .rar will require third-party software.
  • Linux: Zip is generally supported out-of-the-box. 7z and RAR files will work in standard programs like File Roller, but you’ll have to install the appropriate command-line utilities from your package manager first. Tar formats like .tar.gz and .tar.bz2 are supported out-of-the-box on Linux, too.
  • Chrome OS: Zip and RAR are both supported. Tar.gz and tar.bz2 can also be opened in the Files app, and the contents can be extracted.

Windows is the biggest stick-in-the-mud here — it only supports Zip files, so Zip is the most universal format. If you work with Mac or Linux, you could use a .tar format instead. 7z is the least supported — it’s not integrated into any operating system, so you’ll have to install an application to open .7z archives. But, if you want the best compression ratio possible, 7z is the way to go.

All compression benchmarks are rough.  You’ll get different results with different data and types of data. We’re happy with our overall results, but you might see different results when compressing different types of data.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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