What’s the Difference between ZIP and RAR?

difference zip rar

If you are looking information about this, you’re probably using a compression software like WinRAR. You see these two options available, and don’t know which one to choose
Or maybe you have files in these two formats, and don’t know the difference. No problem, I’ll help you

What’s the difference between ZIP and RAR?
They are both archive file formats
ZIP is an open format, available and even built-in in most operating systems
RAR is a proprietary format, created by the WinRAR software developer

In this post, I’ll explain to you more details about the story of each format, their performances and help you to choose the one you should use
I’ll also do a quick overview of the other compression solutions

ZIP format

Definition

As it’s not (yet) in the dictionary, I will quote the Wikipedia definition here:

ZIP is an archive file format that supports lossless data compression. A ZIP file may contain one or more files or directories that may have been compressed.

Wikipedia

This definition doesn’t help to make the difference with other formats, but we understand the concept
We can note than ZIP is a file format (.zip), allowing us to create archive files
The goal is either to save disk space, or to send 200 files in only one compressed file

Origins

Zip is an old file format, created in 1989 by the PKWare company
In the computer history, it’s ancient, Windows 3.1 was not yet available at this time 🙂

Since then, the file format has been slightly modified and normalized
Now, it’s available in any operating system
On Windows, you can use it with the “Extract” and “Compress” options in the contextual menu (right click on a file or folder)
You have something similar on Linux, macOS and other graphical systems

Usage

With the growth of Internet, this file format became more and more useful (and used)

  • At the beginning of the Internet story, bandwidth was very limited, so it was important to reduce the file sizes (mostly by compressing them when possible)
  • To send 200 files to someone is not convenient. So we often compress them in one ZIP file with everything inside

We still use zip files now, for the same reasons

Performances

I’ll not give you details now, as I’ll talk about the ZIP format performances later in this post (compression level and speed)

RAR format

Definition

RAR is a proprietary archive file format that supports data compression, error recovery and file spanning

Wikipedia

No big news in this definition, the only interesting thing is the “file spanning”

To make it simpler for non-techies, RAR is basically similar to ZIP
It allows you to archive and compress files into one big file

But it adds an exclusive feature, it also allows you to create an archive in multiple files
What’s the goal of compression multiple files into multiples files? 🙂
This will free yourself from certain constraints

Which constraints?
At the time, the limit was the storage supports (CD, DVD, etc.)
But today you can also have this kind of issue. If you want to send a 5G file with WeTransfer (a website to send big files on Internet), it’s not possible. You are limited to 2G
WinRAR allows you yo split this big 5G file in 3 smaller files

Origins

The RAR file format was invented in 1993 by Eugen Roshal (Russia)

Usage

Unlike the ZIP file format, RAR is a proprietary format
So you need a software to use it, operating systems can’t read them without this software

For example, you can download WinRAR on Windows
WinRAR is probably also available on macOS
On Linux, rar and unrar commands are available in the non-free repositories of your distribution (install them with your favorite packages manager)

Performances

The overall performances of the RAR format are better than the ZIP format, no matter what kind of files you want to compress
According to some studies, it can even generate files two times lighter than the ZIP equivalent, when compressing HTML or WAV files

But RAR is slower to compress. You’ll need more times to compress the same files with RAR than with ZIP

So it all depends on what you want to do
If you want to compress files in automatic workflows with a high intensity, RAR is probably not the best choice
But for a personal usage, if the receiver can read RAR files, it’s probably the best option

But generally, the difference is minimal, and the choice is rather made depending on the receiver possibilities
As ZIP is available on any computer, we often prefer to use it to be sure anyone can open it and get the files correctly
Without taking the risk to send a RAR file that someone may not be able to open

Other formats

ZIP and RAR are not the only compression formats available, far from that
I’ll talk a bit about the two main alternatives, but you can find many others

7z

7z is the default file format from 7zip
Created in 1999 by another Russian developer (Igor Pavlov), with almost the same goal as WinRAR
That is to say, to improve compression performances of the existing ZIP format

Since that time, the 7z file format has become open source
So much software are offering it, not only 7zip
By the way, WinRAR can read and extract 7z files

7z is currently one of the best compression format on the market, whatever the files types you try to compress (Tom’s Hardware has a benchmark post about it if you want to read more)

tar & variants

Finally, the most used compression format on Linux is tar and its other variants:

  • tar: Create an archive without compression
  • tar.gz: Compressed files with the GZip algorithm
  • tar.bz7: Create an archive, compressed with BZip2

On Windows, you can use these formats with WinRAR
So don’t panic, you can use them too

On Linux, many applications can manage them, they are often built in with your system
However, if you don’t have a graphical environment, there are many commands to know to create or extract files which use these file formats
As it’s not the goal of this topic, I’ll refer you to the LinuxQuestions wiki about this

Related questions

How can I choose the right compression format or software for me? Most of the time, it doesn’t matter. I recommend to use zip for small file sizes, this will guarantee to have a format compatible with everyone. If you have bigger files, you probably need to try WinRAR or 7zip, to see which one is the best depending on the files types you want to compress.

Conclusion

That’s it, you now know the differences between Zip and RAR
You also learn a bit of culture about file compression in general, and discover other good alternatives

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