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Compression Comparison Guide Rev. 2.0 Parts 1 and 2

Data compression software have been with us for a long, long time. From load-and-forget general compression utilities (Remember Stacker and DiskDoubler?) to the far more popular stand-alone compressors, they enable us to pack and compress data to reduce file size and save hard drive space.

Of course, hard drives now have many, many times more capacity that the hard drives of yonder days. Instead of measuring hard drive capacity in megabytes or even gigabytes, we can now start measuring it in terabytes. The cost per GB has also dropped in the order of several magnitudes. With storage so plentiful and cheap, it's inevitable that the size of media files and other forms of data would expand in response.

It has also bred a new generation of binary addicts - users who love downloading, collecting and sharing all sorts of files. Even armed with fast broadband connections, several factors still prevent them from running rampant and filling up their stupendously large hard drives (and making a bunch of hard drive manufacturers happy in the process!).

First and foremost is the disparate increase in the size of files versus the increase in bandwidth. Although many people now have access to broadband, the fact still remains that file sizes are increasing faster than bandwidth. Graphics card drivers are already coming in at hefty sizes of 50MB and more, and game patches of a hundred megabytes and more are not unheard of. And they are already compressed. Were they not compressed, they would be much larger in size.

As such, data compression is not only a good idea, it is a necessity. Downloading uncompressed files over the Internet would result in much slower downloads, taking up more of your time and money. This would also tie up more connections to the servers supplying the files. Compressing the files allow everyone to download files faster and free up connections to the file servers sooner for others to use.

Next, we have to remember that on the other end of the proverbial infobahn, the websites hosting the files that you download either have limited bandwidth or are paying through their nose for every byte you use. Until the time comes when bandwidth becomes completely free and unlimited, it isn't hard to see why website administrators compress files that will be downloaded from their servers. Data compression helps them reduce bandwidth costs.

Let's not forget that many website hosts and servers provide a limited amount of storage space. Even if you run your own server, you will also be limited by the size of the hard drive in your server. Data compression will allow you to store more files in less space, or at a lower cost.

Although many webmail providers now provide a large amount of storage space, they do have limitations on the size of the files attached to each e-mail. Data compressors not only reduce the size of your attachments, they can also split a large file up into multiple smaller files to meet the attachment size limit.

With data compression a necessary fact of computing life, enterprising programmers have developed several many data compression software. Since the DOS days, we have had ARJ, ZIP, LHA, RAR and a host of other data compressors. Most were command prompt-operated and were thus not user friendly. Although there are still some command prompt stalwarts, most compressors were soon ported over to the Windows platform with slick GUIs and seamless integration.

Of course, the GUI interface isn't the only change in those data compressors. Their developers have continuously worked to improve compression via techniques like larger library sizes and solid archiving. They also made use of newer compression algorithms that can better tackle new file formats. Without continuous work to improve compression performance, a data compression software will quickly fall behind in performance, usability and soon enough, popularity.

This guide will examine the performance of the more popular data compressors for the PC. We will add more data compressors over time. This will allow you to select the best data compressor for your use. Let's take a look at the data compressors currently covered by this guide.