File compression is not a new concept in computing. In the early days of the internet when bandwidth was not as abundant as it is today, reducing the size of files to share over the web was paramount. It also made for a great way to pack many files together than attaching them to e-mails one by one.
Although ZIP was and remains the most popular file compression format on the web, a number of other formats emerged and disappeared in an attempt to provide the best compression ratio for all kinds of files – and in some cases to bypass the ability of web and e-mail servers to look inside ZIP files.
Most operating systems do a decent job of supporting the ZIP format natively, letting you pack and extract files with ease. Unfortunately, the compression feature in Windows 7 – although perfectly serviceable – leaves a lot to be desired.
Also, if you’re get that elusive RAR or ARC file from somewhere, a dedicated compression app is going to be a necessity. Here’s a quick look at some of the best free compression apps available for Windows. And before you point it out, WinRar is not part of this list because it is a shareware app, not free.
As far as the popularity of free compression apps go, 7-Zip is easily the king of the hill at this moment. It is the most popular open source file compression app out there, and for good measure. It does a stellar job of compressing any file using either the traditional ZIP format or its own 7z format, and supports extracting from a wide range of formats including the popular RAR and ARC.
Although you can get a portable version of 7-zip that doesn’t need to be installed, going the installation route has its advantages in awesome Windows Explorer integration and a super-useful addition to the context menu of all files. The app also supports all the usual bells and whistles like multi-part and self-executable archives, although the interface may feel a bit dated and overly minimalistic to some.
If there’s one free file compression app that I’ve heard about as much as 7-zip in the last year or so, it has to be PeaZip. Apart from its native PEA compression format, the app supports a dozen formats for creating archives and a whopping 150+ formats that it can extract files from.
Add to that a sleek, modern interface, built-in encryption and two factor authentication support, a plugin architecture for extensibility, all features you would expect from a compression app and more. The app is also available on all three major operating systems – Windows, OSX and Linux.
Although I had never heard of Haozip till very recently, it seems to be a pretty popular archiving tool with a huge user base mostly from China. Although the default app interface is pretty good looking and sleek, you can customize it further with a whole bunch of skins.
On the functionality side, the app comes with all the features you would expect, including Windows context menu support, archive splitting, joining, encryption, self-extracting archive creation, etc. A couple of unique features include the ability to mount virtual CD-ROM images, MD5 hash comparison and a built-in image viewer to preview image files without the need to extract them.
If you’ve started thinking that all archive managers look and behave alike – at least based on the three apps above – here’s something that’ll make you think otherwise. Hamster free ZIP Archiver takes a drastically different approach to the traditional archive manager.
To create a compressed archive, you drop files into a sleek, dark interface. Name the archive, select compression level and drop the archive to wherever you need it. To extract files, drag in the archive and drop the extracted files out. Although the app is pretty light on advanced features, the ease-of-use makes it a good choice for those who need a simple archiving alternative for day-to-day use.
Bandizip is another in the series of small and simple archive managers that does as good a job with file compression and extraction as any other app. You get the usual 4-5 packing formats and a couple dozen unpacking formats, encryption, windows context menu support, self-extracting archives, etc.
You can also customize the context menu so that your most used functions are always easily accessible. One standout feature is a “Preview archive” option in the context menu that lets you quickly peek into the archive without having to open it. Although the app is not exactly skinnable, there are multiple button sets available to make the toolbar look the way you want.
Bitser is another app that takes a slightly different approach to the traditional archive manager UI – with tabs for different functions within the app. The “Create” tab contains the familiar folder tree from Windows Explorer where you can select the files and folders to archive.
You can then choose your options and create the archive. In the “Manage” tab, you can edit or extract an archive and check activity logs for each job in the “Reports” tab. One unique feature in Bitser is a password manager that lets you securely keep track of usernames and passwords for website and other services.
Although file compression doesn’t hold the same importance in today’s day and age of terabyte strong hard drives and virtually unlimited bandwidth, file compression has continued to find its place in a computer user’s workflow. Which of these apps fit your work context best is up to you to decide. They all come at the unbeatable price of zero, so there’s really no excuse to not trying them out for yourselves.
As I mentioned before, these are just some of the best compression apps available for Windows. There are tons more, so it’s possible I missed out on some that are worth a mention. Know an app that’s as good if not better, let’s hear about it in the comments below.