The ability to compress (or "zip") files has become a necessity over the years due to the growing volumes of data stored on computers and devices. Whether you need to unzip an application, archive a set of holiday photos or backup your music collection, the need for a stable, reliable and most of all fast compression tool is a must.

A good compression tool makes it possible to reduce the size of both individual and groups of files, making it easier to transfer them onto removable storage or over the internet. Some go further by adding features such as encryption and use faster compression techniques.

Windows 8.1 has built-in compression support, but it offers little functionality beyond the basic unzipping and compressing of files. If you're on an older operating system, or you're looking for more functionality, there are a number of third-party options out there. One of the most well-known file compression tools is WinRAR, by RARLab, which can self-extract files, split archives into multiple volumes and even repair damaged files.

WinRAR is a popular choice, but it's far from the only one out there. We've served up five alternatives, and it's worth nothing that while the following Windows programs are free, they will attempt to install third-party add-ons that aren't necessary for them to function properly. As such, we recommend that you opt out of installing them when asked.

If you have any suggestions for alternatives to WinRAR that aren't in our list, let us know in the comments below.

1. 7-Zip

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7-Zip is an open-source compression program that that sports a minimal user interface and makes use of space-saving file compression algorithms. It's easy to use and supports a wide range of archive formats - including ZIP, GZ and TAR. Where it really shines, however, it when it's used to compress or unzip files in its own official format, .7z.

7-Zip

Though it isn't as widely used as ZIP, using its .7z format, 7-Zip can pack files even tighter to save more space, shrinking batches of files more than 30% compared to WinZip during our tests. 7-Zip also comes with a command line module, providing more advanced users with method of using it. If you're looking for a fast and free alternative to WinRAR and WinZIP, 7-Zip is one of the more established and functional offerings out there.

2. TrueCrypt

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TrueCrypt isn't a direct replacement for WinRAR as it's not a straightforward zip and compression tool. However, if you're looking for an alternative program to encrypt files with a high level of security (in a similar manner to making an encrypted .zip file), TrueCrypt is one of the best.

TrueCrypt

Instead of creating an ordinary .zip file and encrypting it, TrueCrypt turns them into virtual drives, meaning that each time you open a file inside a .zip archive, it's decompressed and decrypted into a temporary folder on your hard drive. Where a program like 7-Zip would simply delete the file after you've closed it (which can be recovered by those with the right tools), using TrueCrypt prevents it from being traced as the program temporarily stores the .zip's files in RAM, rather than on your hard drive.

3. Winzip

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WinZIP is a true classic and the program that most people associate with when talking about file compression. It's been around since the early days of Windows and has recently been refreshed with a slicker interface and support for social media websites - including Facebook and Twitter.

Winzip

Recentl releases have also added the ability to manage ZIP archives on cloud storage services like Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive. You can also shrink images, convert files into PDFs and apply watermarks to them. Many basic functions - such as compressing files into archives and unzipping them - are free, but you'll have to buy a license to unlock some of its more complicated functions.

4. Chrome (Zip Extractor add-on)

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ZIP Extractor is a useful Chrome browser extension that lets you decompress .zip files to Google Drive, Google's cloud storage service, directly within the Chrome browser. This is especially useful if you have a large amount of ZIP files on your desktop that need unzipping and uploading to the Google Drive Cloud, saving you from clicking on each one to extract and upload the contents manually, which can become a slow and laborious process.

Chrome

Because it's a Chrome extension, there are no files to download as everything is integrated into the browser. It also has the handy ability of allowing you to unzip individual files to extract them from archives, whereas many compression tools make you unzip the whole lot in one go.

5. Daemon Tools Lite

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As with TrueCrypt, Daemon Tools Lite isn't a direct replacement for WinRAR but instead provides an alterantive way of archiving files that you may have stored in encrypted zip files. Daemon Tools Lite lets you add virtual drives to your machine, meaning that instead of archiving files on physical discs - such as CDs or DVD ROMs - you can compress them and keep them stored in an ISO image format on your hard drive until you want to retrieve them.

Daemon Tools Lite

Daemon Tools Lite works with most ISO image formats and comes with a simple graphical user interface that makes creating virual drives and mounting images on them a breeze. If you don't like the idea of archiving data in .zip files or intend to eventually burn it to physical media then backing it up to an ISO image using Daemon Tools Lite would be a quick, simple and effective option.