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Every computer user needs a solid file compression program. Not only are they mandatory for opening downloaded software, they offer several other useful features for tasks like creating e-mail attachments, performing backups, and saving space on your hard drive. Most people use WinZip because it comes pre-installed on a lot of Windows PCs, but WinZip isn't the only program available for file compression.

There's certainly nothing wrong with WinZip, but some programs offer better file compression or features that may be more in tune with what you need. For instance, some apps make efficient compression their focus, while others concentrate on the strongest encryption to keep your files safe. If you're looking for an alternative to WinZip, here are some programs I recommend.

Big buttons and an intuitive interface make this popular utility easy to navigate. (Credit: CNET Networks)

WinRAR is a popular choice for file compression for good reason: It's a great program. This shareware app ($29) using the RAR format (with support for several others) boasts the ability to compress your archives at rates 8 percent to 15 percent better than regular ZIP files. As an old standby in the file compression category, WinRAR offers a polished interface and easy-to-understand wizards that help you create manageable e-mail attachments, quick document backups, and encrypted archives. It's the only shareware program in this group of apps, but it is well worth the price. You'll be able to access most features without registration.

Though not as pretty, 7-Zip has plenty of power under the hood. (Credit: CNET Networks)

7-Zip is a free alternative that is not as pretty as WinRAR or WinZip, but like WinRAR, offers its own highly efficient 7z compression method (they claim compression rates 2 percent to 8 percent better than regular ZIP files, but in our tests it was much better) so your backup archives take up less space. You'll be able to create self-extracting archives as well as provide password protection for added security. 7-Zip doesn't offer the polish and ease of use found in the paid apps, but it easily makes up for it with functionality.

This quick to compress alternative works as great as it looks. (Credit: CNET Networks)

PeaZip is a newer discovery for me, but I definitely like what I see so far. This open-source (free) compression program supports a huge list of formats and is incredibly easy to use with a well-designed and skinnable interface. A solid file browser with search and history features makes finding your archives easy, and PeaZip can handle multiple archives simultaneously. Complete with a number of different solid encryption methods, PeaZip is a great choice for anyone looking for a flexible WinZip alternative.

More than just the key to opening downloads, file compression utilities have a lot of uses. Choose one of these alternatives if you want something other than what's preloaded on your hard drive. As always, let me know if you use something better so I can check it out!

Jason Parker has been at CNET for more than 13 years. He is the Senior Editor in charge iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.