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I know that an IPSW is an iOS firmware restore file. When you want to install a beta firmware, Apple ships these. This website stores all old iOS versions in that format.

What exactly is in an IPSW file and in what format?

Can I view the files in it? Do I use a hex editor, or something else? Is an IPSW like a zip file (like .app or .bundle), or is it binary encoded or encrypted?

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IPSW is a ZIP file. Rename it and unpack its contents. It contains a few DMGs and other files. The DMGs are encrypted and you'll have to decrypt them to see their contents. They contain things like the root iOS file system, the ram disk, etc. –  cksum Jan 17 '12 at 4:03
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The IPSW file type is primarily associated with 'iPhone/iPod' by Apple Inc.. This is a firmware update file for the iPhone. The file is a renamed .ZIP file. If you unZIP it you will see a file called MANIFEST.PLIST and a file without an extension but with a version number in the name, e.g., Firmware-14.5.3. This file is the firmware image.

Source http://filext.com/file-extension/IPSW

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