# Intro to Binary Numbers & Bitwise Operations - Ultimate Visual Guide

Learn everything you need to know about bit operations in this interactive and visual guide.## A brief intro to binary numbers

In the following article we will start with the basics of binary numbers and common operations. We will build-up from there to more complex masking and iterative functions and even look at underlying representation methods such as IEEE floating-point representation and complement number representation.

A few examples where you might find binary numbers commonly used today:

**Compressed Data**- For example when transferring data between socket connections you'll most likely be dealing with binary data**Encryption/Compression Algorithms**- Encryption and compression algorithms are often built using binary operations (e.g., Huffman coding)**Bit flags**- For example assigning security levels of a user (e.g., User=0001, Admin=0010)**Bit masks**- Very common in image processing and games systems (e.g., alpha masks, collision layers, etc.)

#### Learning Python?

I mostly use Python throughout this blog as I find it to be a clean and intuitive language that is well-suited to teaching core programming concepts.

If you're unfamiliar with Python (or just want to brush up), checkout Best Python Courses According to Data Analysis for course recommendations.

### Base-2 vs. base-10 number systems

Binary numbers use the base-2 numeral system rather than our everyday base-10 system. In base-2 we represent numbers with just 2 digits, 1s and 0s, so the number 2 as a 4-bit binary number is represented as 0010.

Let's look at two examples, the first is in our standard base-10 (decimal) system and the second is in our base-2 (binary) system:

## Base-10 (decimal) number system

*2*

*1*

*0*

Raise each place by powers of 10: `1`

,`2`

,`5`

= `100+20+5`

= `125`

## Base-2 (binary) number system

*3*

*2*

*1*

*0*

We raise each place by powers of 2: `1`

,`1`

,`0`

,`1`

= `8+4+0+1`

= `13`

## Bitwise Operators

Aside from standard mathematical operators such as `+`

, `-`

, `*`

, programming languages also have bitwise operators for bit-shifting and various comparisons.

We'll briefly explore all the standard operations in these next few sub-sections:

### AND operations

**Bitwise AND :** `&`

The `&`

operator when applied to two sets of bits returns `1`

only if both corresponding bits are `1`

.

You can think about this similar to a multiplier symbol on each bit (e.g., `0*1 = 0`

, `0*0 = 0`

, `1*1 = 1`

) .

### OR operations

**Bitwise Inclusive OR :** `|`

If either bit of the two corresponding bits is `1`

then return `1`

.

### XOR operation

**Bitwise Exclusive XOR :** `^`

If both bits are the same, return `0`

. If the bits are different, return `1`

.

### NOT operation

**Bitwise NOT / complement :** `~`

Performs a bitwise inversion which means `1001`

becomes `0110`

.

**Example:**

def not_a():

a = 5 # 0101

return ~a # returns -6 (1010)

The bitwise complement character (~) reverses each bit and returns the twos' complement number, so `~x`

is equivalent to `-(x+1)`

.

#### Important

Notice that if you print a negative number in binary in Python you won't see the flipped/reversed value (e.g., `~1001`

=`0110`

), this is because Python does not print the actual binary bits but instead converts the number to a binary string that returns the signed magnitude method (e.g., `~1001`

=`-1001`

).

### A brief overview of twos' complement

**The important thing to know is that the bitwise complement character reverses each bit (e.g., 1 becomes 0 or 0 becomes 1).** However, if you expected ~5 to be -5, or are curious about how twos' complement works, it may be of interest that behind-the-scenes, Python (and most other languages) implements twos' complement representation*.

***It's important to note that twos' complement is just a storage implementation detail, you'll almost never need to think about this when doing bitwise equations as it doesn't represent the underlying binary values themselves.**

#### Twos' complement wheel (4-bit numbers)

In the wheel diagram below, notice that positive numbers are in the expected binary format (e.g., `3`

_{10} is `0011`

_{2}) that match our outer unsigned representation. However, notice the negative numbers use the remaining bit placements to count down from `-8`

, for example instead of `8`

_{10} as `1000`

_{2} we have `-8`

_{10} as `1000`

_{2}, instead of `9`

_{10} as `1001`

_{2} we have `-7`

_{10}, and so on.

Notice in the center of the wheel we're representing the bitwise complement of `5`

, so when you look at the twos' complement (where all the bits are flipped) of `5`

we get an integer value of `-6`

:

## Binary Left and Right Shifting

**Shift right :** `>>`

**Shift left :** `<<`

Bit shifting simply moves the bits to the left or right by `n`

places. When left shifting we push all bits by `n`

towards the left. When right shifting we push all bits by `n`

towards the right. Bit shifting makes multiplying or dividing by factors of 2 extremely easy.

## Right shift 4-bit number

Shifting right slides our bits over by `n`

to the right. So `1,1,0,1`

(`13`

) after shifting right by 2 becomes `0,0,1,1`

(`3`

).

## Left shift 4-bit number

Shifting left slides our bits over by `n`

to the left. Our original bit array was `0,0,1,1`

(3). After left shifting by 2 we have `1,1,0,0`

(12).

## Bitmasking

Masking is when we flip one set of bits on or off based on another set of bits (called a mask or bitmask).

### Check if a number is odd with a simple bitmask

You might normally use something like `n % 2 == 0`

to check if an integer is even or odd, however, using a bitmask is typically more performant and quite simple:

n = 6

is_odd = (n & 1) != 0

With `1`

being the mask. In this instance we are using the mask to get the least significant bit, for example, 0110_{2} (6_{10}) & 0001_{2} (1_{10}) would return 0 and since 0 **is equal** to 0, we return False (6 is *not* odd). If we look at 0101 (5_{10}) & 0001 (1_{10}) we would get 1 so we return True since 1 **is not equal** to 0 (5 is odd).

We will see several more examples of masks used below in **common bit functions**.

## Common bit functions

### Get bit

Get bit at `i`

position:

def get_bit(n: int, i: int) -> int:

return (n & (1 << i)) != 0

### Set bit

Makes sure bit at `i`

'th place is set to `1`

:

def set_bit(n: int, i: int) -> int:

return n | (1 << i)

### Update bit

Update bit at `i`

position to a new value:

def update_bit(n: int, val: int, i: int) -> int:

mask = ~(1 << i)

return (n & mask) | (val << i)

The mask sets all bits to 1 except the `i`

'th bit is 0.

We first use the `mask`

to set bit at `i`

'th position to 0 (`n & mask`

) we then flip the `i`

'th bit to 1 if `val`

is 1.

#### In the graphic below we'll look at flipping a bit on (1.) and off (2.):

### Clear bit

Set bit at `i'`

th position to `0`

:

def clear_bit(n: int, i: int) -> int:

mask = ~(1 << i)

return n & mask

## Reverse Bits

Let's look out how we might reverse the bits in any given unsigned integer.

## Addition with binary numbers

You can add two integers together (e.g., `2 + 3`

) with bit operations as shown in the animation below:

#### Let's break this down with some simple examples:

**Note: We use 4-bit numbers in all examples below*

**Let's sum 1 + 1 in binary:**

If we sum `0001 + 0001`

the final result would be 2 or `0010`

, as you can see, the overlapping ones bits are carried up 1 place to return `0010`

.

**Let's look at summing 1 + 2 in binary:**

In binary `1 + 2`

looks like `0001 + 0010`

, we don't need to carry any ones bits as they don't overlap, so we can just merge the ones bits to return `0011`

(3_{10}).

**Now, let's look at larger numbers:**

*Where it gets a little bit more complicated is when we need to sum slightly larger binary numbers that may have overlapping bits that need to be carried over several iterations.*

**Let's sum 2 + 3 in binary:**

**(1).** So `0010 + 0011`

requires us to first, find and carry the overlapping bits, in this case `0010 & 0011`

would return `0010`

as the bits that need to be carried. After carrying up 1 place (e.g., left shifting 1) we get `b = 0100`

.

**(2).** Next, we find the uncarried bits at variable `a`

, to do this we can XOR the `tmp`

value (`b`

before our AND operation) with `a`

to get `0010 ^ 0011 = 0001`

.

**(3).** At this point, the carried bits `b`

are `0100`

and the uncarried bits `a`

are `0001`

.

**(4).** We loop through again this time with our `tmp`

value changing to `0100`

and once again check if any more bits need carrying with our AND operation, however, this time we get `0010 & 0001`

so `b`

will now equal `0000`

.

**(5).** We then run the final XOR check at variable `a`

= `0100 ^ 0001`

which returns our sum of `0101`

or `5`

.

#### See the interactive graphic below for a simple visualization of the above process (hover the highlighted numbers for tooltips):

## Binary real numbers

Previously we only looked at integer numbers, typically any binary manipulation you do in day-to-day modern programming languages will be with integers. However, the way computers handle numbers with a fractional part is fairly interesting and can have some real-world ramifications.

In the following sections, we'll briefly cover two ways of representing real numbers (numbers with a fractional part) in binary.

### Fixed-point number representation

Fixed-point arithmetic is significantly faster than floating-point arithmetic, however, it doesn't offer the precision and range of floating-point representation and is therefore not as common as floating-point representation.

We know all digits to the left of the binary point carry a weight of 2^{0}, 2^{1}, 2^{2}, and so forth. Bits to the right simply reverse, so they carry weights of 2^{-1}, 2^{-2}, 2^{-3}, and so on:

**Review the graphics below for example numbers represented in fixed-point binary:**

## Binary 4-bit fixed point number

Each bit place is raised by decreasing powers of 2, so we get (2^{-1} = .5) + (2^{-2} = .25) = .75

### Floating-point binary number representation

Using floating-point arithmetic, computers can display a large variety of numbers using a *sliding window* of precision (i.e., larger numbers are less precise: [**100000.0**]01, smaller numbers are more precise: [**0.000001**]). This is because we can design an algorithm that allows a set amount of available bits (commonly 32 or 64 bits) and uses these available bits to represent floating-point numbers.

Essentially we can have a single binary number array that tells us if a number is positive or negative, has a very high level of precision appropriate to the scale of the number, and gives us both the fractional and non-fractional parts.

#### The IEEE 754 floating-point format is how nearly all modern CPUs represent non-integer numbers.

The IEEE floating-point method was standardized in 1985 and has now been adopted by nearly all CPU manufacturers, before the IEEE standard, each microprocessor manufacturer designed their own proprietary floating-point representation method, thereby forcing expensive software rewrites just to target multiple computer brands or models.

The IEEE Standard 754 - 1985 for Binary Floating-Point Arithmetic took nearly a decade to solidify by 92 mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers, computer manufacturers, and microporocessor companies

The two most common IEEE standard floating-point binary storage formats are:

**IEEE Short Real (32-bits) / single precision**: 1 bit for the sign, 8 bits exponent, 23 bits mantissa**IEEE Long Real (64-bits) / double precision**: 1 bit for the sign, 11 bits exponent, 52 bits mantissa

As the two are identical other than bit length, we'll focus on the single-precision (32-bits) format for simplicity:

#### Convert from decimal number to IEEE standard floating-point representation:

**Let's convert 5.25 in the following example:**

- Convert to fixed-point binary:
**101.01** - Normalize by right shifting
**2**until the binary point is behind the first 1s digit, normalized number is**1.0101**, exponent is**2** - Add a bias of 127 to the exponent
: 127 + 2 =^{a1}**129** - Convert biased exponent (129) to 8-bit binary:
**10000001** - Get the mantissa which are the numbers on the right side of the point after normalizing:
**0101 (**the leading 1 is implicit so we don't need to store it) - Add the leading sign bit (positive is 0, negative is 1):
**0** - All together:
**0 10000001 01010000000000000000000**

^{a1}*A bias is used so that we can represent both negative and positive exponents as an unsigned 8-bit binary number*

#### Convert IEEE floating-point to decimal number:

**Let's convert 0 10000001 01010000000000000000000 in the following example:**

- Get the leading sign bit:
**0**- this is a positive number - Get the exponent bits:
**10000001** - Convert exponent bits to base-10 integer:
**129** - Subtract bias from exponent: 129 - 127 =
**2** - Raise 2 to the power of our exponent from step 4 (which is also 2 in this case): 2
^{2}=**4** - Get the mantissa bits:
**01010000000000000000000** - We can ignore all the trailing zeros and focus on the first part:
**0101** - Convert the mantissa to decimal
: 0101 = 0 * (2^{b1}^{-1}) + 1 * (2^{-2}) + 0 * (2^{-3}) + 1 * (2^{-4}) = 0 + .25 + 0 + 0.0625 =**.3125** - Use the implicit bit convention rule to add 1 to our mantissa: 1 + .3125 =
**1.3125** - Multiply exponent from step 5 with the mantissa from step 9: 4 * 1.3125 =
**5.25**

^{b1}*Each bit place in the mantissa is made up of 2 raised to decreasing powers of 2: 2*^{-1}*,2*^{-2}*,2*^{-3}*,2*^{-4}

## Convert float to binary string with python

Let's look at a simple method of converting a floating-point number to binary in Python.

*Note: This is a question you might see asked in a technical interview to gauge one's familiarity with binary numbers, we are using a high-level language (Python) to concatenate strings to represent a binary number - we aren't manipulating real binary numbers.*

#### Can you convert floats > 1?

Notice in our code we are returning `Error`

for any number >= 1. Once you fully understand the code below, try making modifications to convert any positive number to binary (e.g., `1.8`

, `1`

, `.5`

).

Converting a float number to a binary string is fairly straightforward.

#### Let's look at converting .75 to it's binary equivalent below

First we call our float_to_binary function:

## float_to_binary

```
def float_to_binary(n: float) -> str:
if n >= 1 or n <= 0:
return 'Error'
binary_str = '.'
place = 0.5
while n > 0:
if len(binary_str) >= 32:
# limit to 32 bits of precision
return binary_str
if n >= place:
binary_str += '1'
n -= place
else:
binary_str += "0"
place /= 2.0
return binary_str
float_to_binary(.75)
```

Next, we simply check that this is a valid float number less than 1.

## float_to_binary

```
def float_to_binary(n: float) -> str:
if n >= 1 or n <= 0:
return 'Error'
binary_str = '.'
place = 0.5
while n > 0:
if len(binary_str) >= 32:
# limit to 32 bits of precision
return binary_str
if n >= place:
binary_str += '1'
n -= place
else:
binary_str += "0"
place /= 2.0
return binary_str
float_to_binary(.75)
```

We initialize our binary string variable (`binary_str`

) and our bit place variable (`place`

), our binary string var will return the binary representation of our decimal number `n`

with a radix point as the first character.

The `place`

variable will be used to check the value of each bit place, we initialize at `.5`

since `.5`

is the highest value that our decimal bits can represent (remember: binary `.1`

is equal to decimal `.5`

, binary `.01`

is equal to decimal `.25`

, and so on).

## float_to_binary

```
def float_to_binary(n: float) -> str:
if n >= 1 or n <= 0:
return 'Error'
binary_str = '.'
place = 0.5
while n > 0:
if len(binary_str) >= 32:
# limit to 32 bits of precision
return binary_str
if n >= place:
binary_str += '1'
n -= place
else:
binary_str += "0"
place /= 2.0
return binary_str
float_to_binary(.75)
```

Loop through until all numbers in our float `n`

have been converted to bits.

We are limiting to 32 bits of precision, so if the binary number is longer than 32 bits we just return the current value:

## float_to_binary

```
def float_to_binary(n: float) -> str:
if n >= 1 or n <= 0:
return 'Error'
binary_str = '.'
place = 0.5
while n > 0:
if len(binary_str) >= 32:
# limit to 32 bits of precision
return binary_str
if n >= place:
binary_str += '1'
n -= place
else:
binary_str += "0"
place /= 2.0
return binary_str
float_to_binary(.75)
```

In each loop iteration, we check if the current `n`

value is `>=`

to the current `place`

value, and if so then we know that we need to add `1`

to our bit string.

Our initial floating-point value `n`

is `.75`

, which is greater than `place`

(`.5`

), so we know we need to add `'1'`

to our binary string and subtract `place`

(`.5`

) from `n`

(`.75`

), therefore the new value of `n`

is now `.25`

.

## float_to_binary

```
def float_to_binary(n: float) -> str:
if n >= 1 or n <= 0:
return 'Error'
binary_str = '.'
place = 0.5
while n > 0:
if len(binary_str) >= 32:
# limit to 32 bits of precision
return binary_str
if n >= place:
binary_str += '1'
n -= place
else:
binary_str += "0"
place /= 2.0
return binary_str
float_to_binary(.75)
```

Next, we divide `place`

in half, this means `.5`

becomes `.25`

in the second loop, which becomes `.125`

in the third loop, and so on:

## float_to_binary

```
def float_to_binary(n: float) -> str:
if n >= 1 or n <= 0:
return 'Error'
binary_str = '.'
place = 0.5
while n > 0:
if len(binary_str) >= 32:
# limit to 32 bits of precision
return binary_str
if n >= place:
binary_str += '1'
n -= place
else:
binary_str += "0"
place /= 2.0
return binary_str
float_to_binary(.75)
```

This wraps up our main loop, we simply continue repeating the above process until our binary string limit is exceeded or `n`

is equal to `0`

.

Once all calculations are done in our loop (and if our number doesn't exceed our 32-bit limit) we go ahead and return our binary string:

## float_to_binary

```
def float_to_binary(n: float) -> str:
if n >= 1 or n <= 0:
return 'Error'
binary_str = '.'
place = 0.5
while n > 0:
if len(binary_str) >= 32:
# limit to 32 bits of precision
return binary_str
if n >= place:
binary_str += '1'
n -= place
else:
binary_str += "0"
place /= 2.0
return binary_str
float_to_binary(.75)
```

## This wraps up our intro to bits article

This is a fairly long article, so congratulations on making it through the whole thing! For most purposes you should now have a good understanding of bitwise operations and how the binary number system works.