Don’t just think about it, StuffIt

If you want to squeeze the greatest amount of data onto your hard drive, compression is the way to go — and the ZIP format has long been a trusted method that nearly any Windows user can invoke.

SmithMicro’s StuffIt Deluxe 12 is a file-compression utility on steroids: it can archive and compress files of all types (to the Stuffit format and even to ZIP itself).

The real question is: How well does it hold up against a well-known and popular application such as WinZip?

StuffIt runs on Windows Vista, XP, and 2000; a Mac version (US$79.99) supports Mac OS 10.4 and above. I chose to test the $49.99 Deluxe version over the Standard version ($24.99) because of its support for self-extracting archives and Office plug-ins.

What makes StuffIt a pleasure to use is its command centre, where you can pick from a list of the most common functions:

— Compress

— Compress and send via FTP (it can keep track of multiple destinations)

— Compress and e-mail the file

— Create an archive and burn it to CD/DVD (it handles disk spanning and supports HD-DVD and Blu-Ray media, etc.)

All of the functions use an easy-to-follow, step-by-step wizard. Building a self-extracting archive is equally easy, with a five-step wizard that lets you choose the destination of the expanded file (for example, on your recipient’s desktop), specify the text to display in a window before a user opens your file, and so on.

Click on any file in the list and you’ll see the specifics (number of files in the archive, for example), and you can add files or add encryption. Double-click on a single-file archive and the program decompresses the file and displays it (assuming there’s a program associated with the original file).

The second tab on the control center displays all the compressed files StuffIt finds on your system, which you can filter by date, name, or drive (but not folder) location. Click on any file in the list and you’ll see the specifics (number of files in the archive, for example), and you can add files or add encryption. Double-click on a single-file archive and the program decompresses the file and displays it (assuming there’s a program associated with the original file).

A third tab lets you search for an original file within an archive by name, size, date, and drive letter.

SmithMicro says its new release provides improved compression of Microsoft Office documents such as PowerPoint (which tend to be rich in graphics), PDF documents, and MP3 audio files. The company also says that StuffIt uses a variety of specialized compression technologies and picks the one best suited to your source, though there are plenty of options to choose from if you wish. For example, you can encrypt a file in StuffIt format using DES (64-bit encryption), AES (256-bit encryption), RC4 (512-bit), and Blowfish (448-bit).

Unlike WinZip, StuffIt can create and access files in a host of compression formats beyond SIT/SITX and ZIP: TAR, SEA, HQX, GZ, TGZ, LHA, RAR, UU, UUE, LZH, ARC, and CAB. The SIT/SITX format offers one important advantage: these compresrsed files can be read by Windows, Macs, Unix, and Linux systems.

I liked the ability to access StuffIt functions from within Microsoft Office using a plug-in for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. I could open a compressed file directly from within Word, for example. StuffIt 12 also includes a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop CS2 and CS3.

From the main screen you can create an archive to run immediately or use the interface to schedule the same compression on a regular basis (daily, weekly, at power-on, log-on, or shut down). This latter option is what SmithMicro says serves as a backup utility that lets you schedule regular backups using the archive bit to select “changed” files.Although the vendor says “StuffIt can be deployed as an effective backup solution for important documents and projects,” the program doesn’t have the user friendliness of a dedicated backup/recovery program such as Titan Backup.

Performance head-to-head

Of course, the proof is in the compression pudding, and in a match up with WinZip 11.2 (using both program’s default settings and without using encryption), the results were in WinZip’s favor for speed, and slightly in StuffIt’s favor for file size.

For example, both programs did best using files full of white space: a one-page PDF file of a calendar was reduced by 6.2 per cent in WinZip and 5.2 per cent with StuffIt; a 64-page PDF with a few illustrations shrank by 4.8 per cent in WinZip (the process took just 8 seconds) and 28.1 per cent with StuffIt (in 18 seconds). A PowerPoint presentation shrank by 31.1 per cent using WinZip but just 29.5% with StuffIt.

Most day-to-day files took no more than 2 seconds to compress in either program. Larger multimedia files showed little improvement, and took considerable time to achieve no meaningful size reduction. WinZip was zippier, but StuffIt overall has slightly better compression.

When comparing the combined size of all files I tested using each program’s ZIP format, the results were a virtual tie. WinZip ended up compressing the 2,005,700,685 bytes down to 1,979,752,707 bytes; StuffIt compressed them down to 1,979,937,804, only 185,097 bytes more than WinZip . When we factored out the large multimedia files (the two AVI files and the MPG file) which showed miniscule space savings, the totals were 7,305,867 bytes for the original files, 6,546,733 for WinZip (a 10.4 per cent reduction), and 5,509,400 bytes for StuffIt (a 24.6 per cent space savings — a 14.2 per cent point advantage) SmithMicro says you can recompress ZIP archives into StuffIt archives to save more space; I didn’t find the time afforded any significant savings.

If you’re happy with WinZip (or a similar ZIP utility), StuffIt’s extensive options probably aren’t enough to lure you to spend $50. Most business users I know don’t use 99 per cent of the ZIP options available — it’s simply a quick tool to cut down the attachment size for e-mail or to squeeze more bytes on a thumb drive. StuffIt’s clean, simple interface makes easy work of file compression and decompression.


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