What Is File Compression?

April 22, 2024

File compression is widely used in everyday activities, such as sending emails, streaming video and audio, and creating backups. Compression algorithms make IT storage and data transmission efficient and cost-effective.

What Is File Compression?

File compression is a process that reduces the size of one or more files so that they consume less storage space and can be transmitted more quickly over networks. This process is achieved using various algorithms and techniques to identify and eliminate redundant data within the files.

How Does File Compression Work?

File compression minimizes file size without necessarily losing the content’s integrity. The techniques vary depending on whether the compression is lossless or lossy. The choice depends on the use case—whether perfect fidelity to the original data is necessary or if some loss of detail is acceptable in exchange for a significantly reduced file size.

Below is an overview of how the two main compression methods work.

Lossless Compression

Lossless compression algorithms reduce file size while allowing the original data to be perfectly reconstructed from the compressed data. They work by removing redundancies in data.

Here are the standard methods used in lossless compression:

Run-length Encoding (RLE)

Run-length encoding is a simple form of data compression in which sequences of the same data value (repeated characters, pixels, etc.) are stored as a single data value and count. This method is most effective on data that contains many such runs. For example, the string "AAAAA" can be compressed to "5A," which indicates that the letter 'A' appears five times consecutively. RLE is particularly efficient with images like simple bitmaps and other files with many sets of contiguous, repeated data.

Dictionary Compression

Dictionary-based compression algorithms such as Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW) and LZ77 operate by scanning the data for repeated sequences and storing these sequences in a dictionary structure. Each entry in the dictionary is assigned a short code, which replaces occurrences of that sequence in the data. For example, if a document contains multiple instances of the phrase "lossless compression," after the first occurrence, subsequent appearances could be replaced with a shorter reference code pointing to the dictionary entry. This method is highly effective in text and data files where certain patterns and sequences repeat frequently.

Huffman Coding

Huffman coding uses a frequency-sorted binary tree to assign codes to characters. Characters that occur more frequently are given shorter codes, while less frequent characters receive longer codes. This method results in a prefix code system where no code is a prefix of any other, allowing simple and efficient bit-by-bit decompression. Huffman coding is often combined with other compression methods, enhancing overall effectiveness by optimizing the encoding of each piece based on its frequency.

Lossy Compression

Lossy compression reduces file size by permanently eliminating less important information, often based on the limits of human perception. This compression type is commonly used for media files like images, audio, and videos. Key techniques for lossy compression include:

Transform Coding

Transform coding is a powerful method used primarily in image and video compression, such as the JPEG image format. It involves converting the original data from its spatial domain (the layout in which pixel data is visually presented) into a frequency domain (where the data is represented as a range of frequencies). The transformation highlights which parts of the data are less perceptually important to the human eye. These less important details, often subtle changes in color or brightness, can then be discarded to reduce the file size.

The most common transformation used in this technique is the Discrete Cosine Transform (DCT), which effectively distinguishes between significant and insignificant visual information. After transformation, many frequency components may be near zero and can be quantized or omitted in the compression process, greatly reducing the data needed.


Quantization is a process applied to audio and visual data to reduce the precision of a signal's representation. Significant compression can be achieved by modifying an image's range of colors or sounds in an audio file into fewer bits. This form of compression is based on the principle that certain subtleties in shades or sounds are imperceptible to humans. Therefore, their precise representation isn't necessary for a satisfactory reproduction.

In visual data, quantization might reduce the depth of color from 16 million colors (24 bits) to just 65,536 colors (16 bits) or fewer, significantly decreasing the file size without a drastic change in visual quality perceived by the average viewer. In audio, similar reductions in data size can be achieved by lowering the bit depth used to represent each sample.

Psychoacoustic Modeling

Psychoacoustic modeling is primarily used in the compression of audio data, such as in the MP3 format. This technique leverages the human auditory system's characteristics, particularly its inability to hear quiet sounds in the presence of louder, similar frequencies (a phenomenon known as auditory masking). Psychoacoustic models simulate the hearing process to determine which sounds are audible and which can be masked.

The model allows the encoder to discard or heavily compress frequencies less likely to be perceived by the ear, depending on the auditory context (other surrounding sounds). For example, in a loud orchestral passage, subtle notes played by a single instrument may be imperceptible and thus can be omitted in the compressed file. This omission results in a much smaller file but still delivers an audio experience that appears nearly unchanged to the listener.

Advantages and Disadvantages of File Compression

File compression offers significant benefits in terms of efficiency and cost reduction. However, it also presents challenges, particularly regarding quality and resource usage. The decision to use file compression typically depends on balancing these advantages against the potential drawbacks in the context of the specific needs and resources of the user.


Here are the benefits of file compression:

  • Reduced storage requirements. One of the primary benefits of file compression is that it significantly reduces the amount of disk or cloud storage needed. This reduction is especially valuable for large data sets or systems with limited storage capacity.
  • Faster transmission. Compressed files require less bandwidth and time to transmit over networks, which is crucial for reducing loading times on the internet, speeding up file downloads, and making remote work more efficient.
  • Cost efficiency. By reducing the amount of data that needs to be stored or transmitted, compression helps save costs associated with data storage solutions and bandwidth usage.
  • Improved system performance. Loading and processing compressed files is faster than dealing with large, uncompressed files, particularly when the decompression algorithm is efficient.
  • Archiving. Compression is essential for archiving data. It allows more files to be stored in backup systems or archival formats and ensures data longevity with less resource use.


These are the drawbacks of file compression:

  • Processing overhead. Compressing and decompressing data requires processing power. This requirement can disadvantage systems with limited computational resources, where the compression and decompression processes may lead to system slowdowns.
  • Quality loss in lossy compression. For formats that use lossy compression, such as JPEG for images and MP3 for audio, some original data is permanently lost, which can reduce the quality of the file. This quality downgrade might not be acceptable for certain professional applications requiring precision and high fidelity.
  • Complexity in file handling. Compressed files must be decompressed before they can be used, which adds an extra step to data access. This complicates file management and access, especially for non-tech-savvy users.
  • Ineffectiveness for some data types. Some data types do not compress well, particularly files that are already compressed. Trying to compress such files might result in a file size that is the same or even larger than the original.
  • Security concerns. Compressed files can obscure the contents, making it harder for security systems to inspect files for possible threats. This lack of visibility is a security risk if the compressed files are hiding malware.

File Compression Tools

File compression tools provide a range of functionalities that can meet various needs, from simple file reductions to complex, secure archival for business use. Whether you are a casual user needing to zip an occasional file or a corporation looking to manage large amounts of data, there is likely a tool that fits the requirement.

Here is a list of file compression tools, categorized by their primary use and features:

General Purpose Compression Tools

  • WinRAR. Known for its high compression ratio and support for a wide range of formats, including its proprietary RAR format and ZIP.
  • 7-Zip. A free and open-source tool that offers high compression ratios using its own 7z format, plus support for several other formats including ZIP, TAR, and GZIP.
  • WinZip. One of the oldest and most trusted compression tools, offering an easy-to-use interface and support for multiple compression formats.
  • PeaZip. An open-source file archiver that supports over 180 archive formats. It’s known for its security features, including strong encryption options.

Specialized Compression Tools

  • Bandizip. Offers fast compression and decompression speeds, and it supports multi-core compression which can speed up the compression process on modern computers.
  • B1 Free Archiver. A simple and user-friendly tool available on multiple platforms, including Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android.
  • The Unarchiver. Primarily for Mac users, this tool can handle many different types of archive files, making it a versatile option for Mac environments.

Command Line Tools

  • gzip. A standard tool for Unix and Linux systems used primarily for compressing single files or streams and typically used in combination with tar for compressing multiple files.
  • bzip2. Offers better compression ratios than gzip but is slower in both compression and decompression. It is widely used in UNIX/Linux environments.
  • xz. Based on the LZMA/LZMA2 algorithm, it is known for providing high compression ratios. It’s becoming more common in Linux distributions for compressing packages.

Enterprise-Level Compression Tools

  • PKZIP. An enterprise solution designed for professional environments, offering robust compression, encryption, and file management features.
  • PowerArchiver. Provides advanced features for business and power users, including strong encryption, automated backups, and virtual drive support.

Nikola is a seasoned writer with a passion for all things high-tech. After earning a degree in journalism and political science, he worked in the telecommunication and online banking industries. Currently writing for phoenixNAP, he specializes in breaking down complex issues about the digital economy, E-commerce, and information technology.