How do Zip Files Work? The Ultimate Guide to Zip Files

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ZIP files are a special type of computer file that can group multiple files together while saving a ton of space for storage, data transfers, or sending files quickly and easily over the internet. Whether you're using a ZIP file in a work setting, on your home computer for personal file storage, or you've received one from a colleague or friend (and you're unsure how to open it), knowing what this file type is and how to use it is an incredibly useful piece of knowledge to have handy. Read on to learn what zipping a file does and how it works, and soon you'll be able to create, use, and extract files from a zipped folder with ease.

What is a zip file?

So what exactly is a ZIP file? This file type functions much in the same way as a normal folder would on your computer, with some added features and benefits. It will even appear to have a similar icon to a normal folder or file — on Windows, you can identify a ZIP icon by a folder with a large zipper across it, and on Mac OS, a file icon will appear with a large zipper running down it and the word "ZIP" on the icon. Besides the easily recognizable icon, ZIP files will also have a .zip extension on the file name.

Just as you can add or group multiple files into a folder on your computer, you can group various file types within a ZIP file, as well. One of the main differences and benefits of storing files within a ZIP format is that the grouped files will be compressed to use less data from your computer without harming the original format of the files contained in the zipped folder.

Additionally, placing files into a ZIP format will not remove any of the files from their original locations on your computer. Instead, adding your files to a zipped folder will simply make a copy of each file to compress within the ZIP.

How do zip files work?

Now you know the basics of what a ZIP file is, how does it actually work?

What's happening behind the scenes when you create a zipped folder is that the files you placed within the ZIP are encoded to eliminate any redundant information to avoid taking up unnecessary space while the files are being stored or archived. Your computer is essentially creating a special code that it can read to shrink the files down to use the space within the ZIP as efficiently as possible. It can do all this while maintaining the original file formats when the zipped folder is "unzipped" to extract the files inside it. This is possible because of lossless compression, which is how your computer can seamlessly compress the files inside a ZIP and then reconstruct them to their original form after extraction.

To open a ZIP file, all that needs to be done is a simple right-click and then "extract" the files to access them in their original format. 

When should you use a zip file?

ZIP files are incredibly convenient to use in a variety of scenarios, such as:

  • Storing backup files without taking up unnecessary space on your hard drive
  • Archiving files that are no longer actively in use, but that you don't want to delete
  • Sending multiple files via email, to avoid the need for sending files individually or receiving an error message for trying to send too many files that exceed the upload limit
  • Transferring or sending multiple files more quickly, since they take less time to upload and download in the compressed ZIP format
  • Encrypting data within your ZIP file to safely transfer multiple files over the internet

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