Linux compress command

Updated: 04/26/2017 by Computer Hope

About compress

compress compacts a file so that it becomes smaller. When compressing a file it will be replaced with a file with the extension .Z, while keeping all the same ownership modes.


The compress utility reduces the size of files using adaptive Lempel-Ziv coding. Each file is renamed to the same name plus the extension .Z. A file argument with a .Z extension will be ignored except it will cause an error exit after other arguments are processed. If compression would not reduce the size of a file, the file is ignored.

As many of the modification time, access time, file flags, file mode, user ID, and group ID as allowed by permissions are retained in the new file.

If no files are specified or a file argument is a single dash ('-'), the standard input is compressed to the standard output. If either the input and output files are not regular files, the checks for reduction in size and file overwriting are not performed, the input file is not removed, and the attributes of the input file are not retained in the output file.

The compress utility uses a modified Lempel-Ziv algorithm. Common substrings in the file are first replaced by 9-bit codes 257 and up. When code 512 is reached, the algorithm switches to 10-bit codes and continues to use more bits until the limit specified by the -b option or its default is reached.

After the limit is reached, compress periodically checks the compression ratio. If it is increasing, compress continues to use the existing code dictionary. However, if the compression ratio decreases, compress discards the table of substrings and rebuilds it from scratch, which allows the algorithm to adapt to the next "block" of the file.

The amount of compression obtained depends on the size of the input, the number of bits per code, and the distribution of common substrings. Typically, text such as source code or English is reduced by 50-60%! Compression is generally much better than that achieved by Huffman coding (as used in the historical command pack), or adaptive Huffman coding (as used in the historical command "compact"), and takes less time to compute.

compress syntax

compress [-fv] [-b bits] [file ...]
compress -c [-b bits] [file]


-b bits

The code size is limited to bits, which must be in the range 9..16. The default is 16.


Compressed or uncompressed output is written to the standard output. No files are modified. The -v option is ignored. Compression is attempted even if the results will be larger than the original.


Files are overwritten without prompting for confirmation. Also, files are compressed even if they are not actually reduced in size.


Print the percentage reduction of each file. This option is ignored if the -c option is also used.

compress examples

compress -v bigfile.exe

Compress bigfile.exe and rename that file to bigfile.exe.Z.

ln — Create a link, or a symbolic link, to a file or directory.
uncompress — Extract files from compressed archives.
zcat — Print the uncompressed contents of compressed files.
zip — A compression and archiving utility.