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Windows has a useful feature where files can be transparently compressed/decompressed on the fly. This is activated by right-clicking on a File, directory or Disk, selecting Properties and then clicking on the Advanced... button to check the box "Compress contents to save disk space".

When enabled, files are transparently compressed when written to disk and decompressed when read from disk. This is managed by the file system and OS as needed.

I'd like a Mac OS equivalent of this. There's nothing obvious in the Finder and a preliminary search turns up nothing conclusive.

Is there a macOS option equivalent to this? Either natively or through 3rd party software?

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You can get close to the same functionality by creating a compressed disk image in Disk Utility, mount it and put your files on the new "drive".

  • You can even symlink your files into their old locations, too! Of course this will fail for anything that doesn't follow symlinks, but for most things it should work. – SilverWolf Sep 25 '18 at 23:06
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This is actually a feature of the NTFS file system (I believe...) and hails from the days when disks were more expensive and much smaller. Microsoft has kept this functionality in all versions of windows since the early days of NT.

While you can manually compress files to save space I realize that is not what you are looking for. However I am not aware of a utility or feature of macOS that allows automatic file system level compression of disk contents.

Note that in an article on ArsTechnica it is noted that it sounds like file system compression may be coming to APFS in the (near or otherwise) future.

There may be something in APFS that allows this but so far neither Apple nor any third parties (that I am aware of) has implemented this functionality.

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Short answer

There is no need for users to enable/disable transparent compression in macOS as it's built into the file system.

Long answer

In the pre-Mac OS X days there were a number of products that basically achieved the same thing. Disk Doubler was probably the most popular (because it started the trend), but other options included AutoDoubler and SuperDisk!

These products were very popular at the time (from memory, Disk Doubler was one of the most popular software packages sold for the Mac platform). However, the reason for their popularity was largely due to the small hard drive sizes of that era. As time went by the need (and popularity) for these packages waned significantly - mainly because the HFS+ file system was released in the late 1990s and this allowed much smaller block sizes and much larger disk capacities.

Over time Apple continually improved the HFS+ file system so that by the time Mac OS X 10.6 was launched it actually incorporated AppleFSCompression which is essentially the same feature you're referring to. Any software using Apple's APIs could take advantage of this, however at the time this was not enabled by default due to various reasons - users needed to use the Terminal to take advantage of it.

As time went by and software was updated, the use of Apple's compression technology became mainstream. With Mac OS X El Capitan (10.11) and iOS 9, Apple made further improvements by introducing a compression algorithm known as LZFSE into the operating system. This has since been adopted in watchOS and tvOS as well.

While the LZFSE algorithm is the fastest and most energy efficient option offered by Apple, it's not the only option available to developers. LZ4, LZMA and ZLIB are other options and there are various reasons why one may be chosen over another.

In summary, the operating system uses compression natively and, in the case of Apple and 3rd party software, developers have a number of options in terms of the compression algorithm they opt for. Regardless of the choice, compression is transparently taking place all the time and from a user's perspective there is nothing they need to do to take advantage of it.

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    I have never seen any evidence that supports your assertion that Apple makes extensive use of filesystem compression. Please cite your source. – William T Froggard Sep 18 '18 at 2:35
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    There may very well be kernel-level support for compression, but that doesn't mean the filesystem uses it. – w00t Apr 3 at 7:45

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